The Steelers hadn't been able to celebrate an AFC championship at home in 13 years, and a record crowd at Heinz Field stayed into the night to savor the 23-14 victory against the Baltimore Ravens that punched the team's ticket to the Super Bowl for a seventh time.
"This is for you," owner Dan Rooney said to the fans at a mid-field ceremony punctuated by Zambelli fireworks lighting up the wintry sky last night.
The Lamar Hunt Trophy presented to the AFC champions was handed over by Rod Woodson, who with Dermontti Dawson served as honorary co-captains for the game.
Had it not been for a super play by super safety Troy Polamalu, the outcome could have been an Edgar Allan Poe-like horror.
With the Steelers nursing a two-point lead in a game that was way too close for comfort, Polamalu intercepted a pass and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown with 4 minutes, 24 seconds remaining. It was the final score against the rival Ravens, who lost three times to the Steelers this season.
"That's Troy," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who dedicated the victory to the troops serving overseas. "He comes out of nowhere. I was just so happy that he scored."
Roethlisberger, who has played for the AFC title three times in his five seasons, is returning to the Super Bowl for the second time in four years. He became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl even though he had the lowest quarterback rating in that victory over the Seattle Seahawks in 2006.
Asked what makes this team special, the quarterback said: "We're one. We've been saying it for a couple of weeks now. We're a band of brothers. We fight for each other."
The Steelers could become the first team to win the Super Bowl six times if they can defeat the surprising Arizona Cardinals in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 1. San Francisco and Dallas also have won five Super Bowls.
The Steelers had to overcome some sloppy play -- dropped passes, special teams breakdowns, poor punting -- to avoid a super letdown last night.
As it is, coach Mike Tomlin will be taking the Steelers to the big game in his second season at the helm.
"I just told the group we have miles to go before we sleep," the coach said. "We are excited about being in the Super Bowl. We look forward to getting down there and pursuing our ultimate goals."
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had not been sacked and had not been picked off in two playoff wins. But he was intercepted three times yesterday, including the dagger to the heart by Polamalu, and was sacked three times in the loss. He finished with a quarterback rating of 18.2 against the league's No. 1 defense.
The touchdown produced a towel-waving froth by the 65,350 in attendance. The number of fans was 108 more than the number attending the AFC championship loss to the Patriots four years ago. The temperature at game time was 26 degrees, but the wind made it feel 10 degrees colder.
Terrible Towels fluttered in force, but the twirling began in Pittsburgh well before kickoff, starting with a hockey game between the New York Rangers and Penguins at Mellon Arena, where a banner proclaimed "You're In Steeler Country." After posting a 3-0 shutout, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury acknowledged his status as that game's No. 1 star by wearing a gold throwback Steelers helmet and waving a towel in his brief appearance on the ice.
Later, at Heinz Field, video clips were shown of Sidney Crosby and the Penguins cheering on the Steelers.
And Hank Williams Jr., who provided the pre-game entertainment, wore a Steelers shirt underneath his western garb.
Like sportscaster Howard Cosell said on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the franchise, "When you play Pittsburgh, you play the entire city."
The possibility of a Turnpike Bowl evaporated earlier in the day in the Arizona desert when the Philadelphia Eagles lost, 32-25. But that game set up a contest with a bird of a different feather in the Cardinals, who also once merged with the Steelers to survive during World War II.
Then, at the behest of the National Football League, the Cardinals -- then based in Chicago -- merged with the Steelers in the 1944 season because the military needed men to serve. Officially known as the Card-Pitts, the winless team was so awful that the informal name was Car-Pets because opposing teams walked all over them. That was the only season the Steelers competed in the West Division, and with an 0-10 record, the only season in their history that they failed to win a game.
Bill Bidwell, the current owner of the Cardinals franchise, told a story at the NFL owners meeting in December about how that team operated on a shoestring.
"The league required us to dress 25 players, but we didn't have that many. So when we went to Pittsburgh, we rounded up a couple of big bruisers in the bars the night before the game. We put them in uniform and sat them on the bench during our games, so they got to see the game for free," he laughed.
The Super Bowl will be a renewal of acquaintances on a number of levels. Arizona coach Ken Whisenhut and assistant coach Russ Grimm were on Bill Cowher's staff when the Steelers won the Super Bowl in Detroit. The Cardinals have not won an NFL title since 1947, well before the concept of a Super Bowl had been thought of.
Last night's was a game of attrition as players from both sides limped off. Ravens running back Willis McGahee was carted off in the closing moments with severe neck pain following a crushing hit by Ryan Clark. He was taken to Presbyterian Hospital for overnight observation.
The Steelers jumped to a 13-0 lead on two Jeff Reed field goals and a 65-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes.
While the Ravens failed to pick up a first down until several minutes were gone in the second quarter, they got their first touchdown following a 45-yard punt return by Jim Leonhard and refused to wilt.
"Turnovers were the difference," Polamalu said.
The difference between donning championship caps and T-shirts and going home for a long, long winter.
Bob Dvorchak can be reached at email@example.com .