Victory exorcises Heinz Field demons

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More was vanquished here yesterday than the ever-worthy Baltimore Ravens.

So very much more.

The Steelers beat back every big-game ghost Heinz Field could spring at them in an historic 23-14 victory that launched them not so much to Super Bowl 43, but from the standpoint of their own royal tradition, to Super Bowl 7.

The seventh Super Bowl in Pittsburgh history came hard, or just about exactly as prescribed. Would you have it any other way?

Having demonstrably dominated a first half in which Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco looked very much like the rookie he is for the first time since, well yeah, the last time he had to deal with Dick LeBeau's defense, the Steelers entered last night's third quarter of the AFC championship game with all manner of historical trepidation.

All the dark forces habitually at work during Heinz Field championship Sundays had burst from their closets still again, making a six-point Steelers lead feel like the precipice of a black and gold hole.

Hines Ward, as much a part of this team's soul as any of its decorated stars, had played his last play an hour previous, and the resultant wound in the Steelers' game plan was hemorrhaging every bit as you'd expect.

"It wasn't a worry so much as a kind of panic," wide receiver Nate Washington said. "You don't like to say something like that, but Hines' position is Hines' position, the rest of us don't even get to practice it that much because only he plays it that way. So it wasn't so much that he was out, it was more like, 'How are we going to learn everything fast enough to play the game?' "

Ward was the difference in the game until he rolled awkwardly on his knee in the first quarter. His 45-yard catch and run down the middle to the Ravens' 23 set up the first of three Jeff Reed field goals, his 11-yard catch on the Steelers' second possession set up the second, and the Steelers led 6-0 by the time Ward couldn't continue.

It was on that 11-yard catch, a simple out toward the left sideline that converted a third-and-10, on which Ward fell awkwardly to the snowy lawn and hobbled to the bench. He took treatment for just a few minutes, limped to the locker room, and was no longer a factor. He appeared in the huddle just once more, on a third-and-5 near the end of the first quarter, and left the fate of his teammates in the alleged hands of Limas Sweed.

Even as Santonio Holmes took a desperate Roethlisberger pass 65 yards to a touchdown behind a police escort by Heath Miller, even as the Steelers thus posted a 13-0 lead, the stadium's January ghouls were howling.

None of those are quite so familiar as the blown kick coverage, and it was exactly that the Ravens used to spring off the canvas. Jim Leonhard returned Mitch Berger's punt 45 yards and a cheap pass interference call against Bryant McFadden set Baltimore up at the Steelers' 3, and it was 13-7 a moment later.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary.

But Roethlisberger, still availed of enough weaponry to try and stretch the lead, went deep.

To Sweed.

To Sweed!

Flying alone down the left sideline, inside the 10, Sweed reached for it just slightly, even comfortably, because Big Ben had thrown it just perfectly.

And he dropped it.

"That would have been me," Washington said, "but I'd rotated into Hines' position."

As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

Thus the Steelers' 13-7 halftime lead felt like a deficit, and even when Miller fueled a third field-goal drive for the only scoring of the third quarter, 16-7 felt squishy at best, particularly in the face of some foreboding Baltimore arithmetic.

Coming into this AFC title game, Baltimore had outscored opponents in the fourth quarter 115-60, 108-27 in its past nine wins.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.

Yeah Poe's words shrieked across the backdrop. They don't call 'em Ravens for nothin'.

It didn't appear, given Baltimore's legendary resourcefulness, that the Steelers would be able to buy a ticket to Tampa on the offense's line of credit alone. The Steelers would need a monster play from their defensive soul, the Ward counterpart if you will, and they got one with 4:40 left on the game clock, with Flacco having just gotten off the deck from a LaMarr Woodley sack.

Flacco faced third-and-13 from his 29, sent Derrick Mason on a medium route to his right, and whipped his pass with a lot more hope than aplomb, which is what happens when James Harrison hits you as you throw. It would take a great catch, and Troy Polamalu made one at the 40, from where he tacked on a great run across the field, turned left at the 10 and didn't stop until the Steelers were halfway to Florida.

Presently my soul grew stronger, hesitating there no longer.

This team's soul apparently has no limits.

"These guys can really bring it," said offensive tackle Willie Colon of the Ravens. "For us it was like, 'OK, Hines is out, but we've gotta keep going. And I think we earned their respect. In fact, they said it at the end. They said we hate you guys, but we respect you. To hear that felt good."

Gene Collier can be reached at .


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