Steelers Notebook: Ward's catches set up field goals

A knee injury soon after took him out of the game.

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It would take a lot to keep Hines Ward out of a championship game, and that occurred in the first quarter last night.

Ward's right knee was injured in the first quarter after he caught an 11-yard pass that helped the Steelers get in position for Jeff Reed's second field goal and a 6-0 lead.

Ward returned later and caught a pass for minus-1 yard early in the second quarter, then left the game for good.

The Steelers later said he had a slightly sprained MCL in his right knee and is expected to be ready to play in the Super Bowl. Ward was bouncing around slapping hands with fans along the Heinz Field interior wall after the game, in uniform.

Ward's injury came on his second catch of the game. He also caught a 45-yard pass on the first drive to set up Reed's first field goal.

With Ward out, Limas Sweed moved up when the Steelers used three wide receivers. He flashed wide open late in the second quarter but dropped Ben Roethlisberger's perfectly thrown deep pass from the 50 at the Baltimore 10.

Sweed, though, did break up what would have been an interception in the end zone, which preceded Reed's third field goal and a 16-7 lead. He also made a big third-down catch for 14 yards to the 28 early in the fourth quarter.

Ward's three passes for 55 yards gives him 74 receptions in the postseason for 1,021 yards, second behind only John Stallworth in team history. He also stretched his team-record streak in the postseason for catching a pass to 13.

A familiar scene

Baltimore running back Willis McGahee was carted off the field with 3:29 left in the game, much the way Roethlisberger was taken off in the final regular-season game. He was latched to a board with his helmet on after his facemask was unscrewed.

The Ravens reported that McGahee had movement in his arms and legs but had considerable neck pain.

A team spokesman said McGahee was taken to UPMC Presbyterian and he was expected to stay there overnight, with Ravens doctor Leigh Ann Curl remaining in Pittsburgh with him. The spokesman said Curl reported that McGahee was "neurologically intact" when he left Heinz Field for the hospital.

McGahee was injured when he caught a pass from quarterback Joe Flacco and was decked by free safety Ryan Clark. Both players stayed on the ground, but Clark finally got up and walked to the sideline.

Clark lowered his shoulder and hit McGahee in his shoulder area and drove up through. McGahee's head snapped back and he then flopped straight back onto the ground and did not move.

McGahee fumbled on the play and Lawrence Timmons recovered at Baltimore's 38.

McGahee ran 20 times for 60 yards in the game and caught two passes for 13 yards.

Rookie highs and lows

Perhaps no one had more of a love-hate relationship with fans during last night's AFC championship game at Heinz Field than Sweed.

Sweed has played little this year after being drafted in the second round out of Texas, catching six passes for 64 yards Yesterday, he drew the ire of fans and then their approval.

First the ire. With a first-and-10 at the 50 with a minute left in the first half, Roethlisberger found Sweed streaking wide open down the left sideline. The pass landed perfectly in Sweed's hands and then fell to the turf near the goal line.

After a roughing the kicker penalty gave the Steelers a break three plays later, giving them the ball on the Ravens' 35, Roethlisberger hit tight end Heath Miller over the middle with a pass.

Miller headed down the left sideline and Sweed delivered a crushing block to Ravens' safety Corey Ivy, springing Miller for more yards and putting Ivy out of the game temporarily.

The Steelers wound up not scoring on that possession, running out of time deep in Ravens territory.

"This was my first time to really get in and play," Sweed, said. "You're going to make mistakes. Everyone has done that. Ben told me not to worry, he'd come back to me."

Then late in the third quarter, Sweed caught a bullet from Roethlisberger on a third-and-8 play for 14 yards to the Steelers' 28, getting them out of a deep hole.

"I'm going to make mistakes, I'm a rookie," Sweed said. "But we're going to the Super Bowl. I don't know if I'll be able to sleep tonight."

Sack man

Linebacker LaMarr Woodley had two big sacks last night and continued his great postseason play. The second-year player from Michigan now has four sacks in two postseason games.

"As far as getting sacks, it all starts up front," Woodley said. "Those guys force him into me."

The Steelers have lived on big defensive plays all season and sealed last night's victory with a 40-yard interception return by Troy Polamalu.

"We [the defense] definitely want to make big plays," Woodley said. "When we score, we get to go out and play defense again. If we get turnovers, it gives our offense a short field."

Cardinal challenge

The Arizona Cardinals, the Steelers' opponent in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla., Feb. 1, use a high-powered passing game to move the ball. They rung up 32 points yesterday on the Philadelphia Eagles' vaunted defense to win the NFC title game in Phoenix.

Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner has a big target in former Pitt great Larry Fitzgerald and an equally top-flight receiver in Anquan Boldin.

"The Cardinals' offense will be a big challenge," said Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden, who will be playing in his second Super Bowl in his fourth season with the Steelers. "I'll be thinking about the Cardinals offense tomorrow [Monday]. I'm going to enjoy this game tonight."

Quick hits

• Starting Ravens CB Samari Rolle did not dress because of a thigh injury. Frank Walker replaced him.

• Baltimore's John Harbaugh made a rookie coaching mistake when he used up both of his challenges in the first half. He was right on the first, but wrong on the second -- an 8-yard catch by Nate Washington.

• The attendance of 65,350 set a record for Heinz Field. The previous record of 65,242 was set in the AFC championship game against New England after the 2004 season.

• Steelers RB Mewelde Moore injured his right ankle in the third quarter and did not return.

• Three Steelers intercepted Flacco yesterday: Deshea Townsend,Polamalu and Tyrone Carter.

• Punter Mitch Berger had a tough night. He got off a 21-yard punt in the fourth quarter that helped Baltimore to one score, and a 45-yard return by Jim Leonard of a low Berger punt set up another. In all, Berger averaged 37.7 yards on seven punts, only 28.4 net.

Inactives

Steelers: No. 3 QB Dennis Dixon, S Anthony Smith, CB Fernando Bryant, LB Bruce Davis, OT Tony Hills, OT Jason Capizzi, NT Scott Paxson, DE Orpheus Roye.

Ravens: No. 3 QB Todd Bauman, WR Terrance Cooper, CB Samari Rolle, RB Jalen Parmele, LB Antwan Barnes, LB Robert McCune, OT Oneil Cousins, OL David Hale.


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com . Jerry Micco and Colin Dunlap of the Post-Gazette contributed to this report.


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