The Steelers put the heat on Joe Cool last night and, when it mattered most, at the very end, he melted.
Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, to a sizable degree the talk of the league's signal callers into the 19th week of the season, and the undeniable toast of Charm City the past month, had it right in front of him. He had the kind of opportunity all quarterbacks think about when they are out in the backyard as kids tossing a football at a swinging tire tied to a weathered oak tree.
The script went like this:
Eighty-six yards to go, down by two points, 6:50 remaining with a trip to the Super Bowl in the balance. And, oh yeah, he was on live television being beamed to the vast expanse of the world, on enemy turf, hostility pervading throughout Heinz Field in the form of those more than 60,000 fans vigorously waving yellow towels.
Flacco had proven himself again and again this season after entering the league out of Delaware after heading there when things didn't work out at Pitt.
But on this day, the chances of the Ravens going to the Super Bowl disappeared when, on third-and-13 from the Baltimore 29, Flacco tried to string out a play as long as he could.
The 6-foot-6, 230-pounder with the right arm that can seemingly toss a football through a steel girder, never saw the Steelers' Troy Polamalu bleeding over from his safety position to jump an out-route by Ravens receiver Derrick Mason.
And, just like that, with the opportunity of his life in front of him, with a chance to provide the NFL with another chapter in a rookie story that seemingly was all feel-good, Flacco's pass was pulled in by Polamalu at the 40.
With hair flowing and head swiveling, Polamalu was bent on nothing short of scoring -- which he did when he zig-zagged through the Ravens offensive unit which quickly turned into pursuers.
So, what happened?
"We were trying to get to the [first down] sticks and I think Troy was probably able to read my eyes," Flacco said of the throw he'll undoubtedly spend a chunk of the offseason thinking about. "He does a great job of doing that and you have to influence him as much as you can away from where you are going to throw the ball. But, he was able to jump over there and read it a little bit and made a good play ... I never saw him until I was lying down."
It was the moment that defined Flacco's 13 for 30 day more than any other as the Steelers earned a 23-14 victory and a trip to Tampa, Fla.
Sure, there was another interception thrown just a few minutes later by Flacco to Tyrone Carter that put an exclamation point on the night, and there was an early pick pulled down by Deshea Townsend that led to a Steelers field goal, but the errant toss to Polamalu was the deepest knife.
Many had compared Flacco's rookie season to that of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The form held.
In 2004, Roethlisberger's initial foray into the league, he won his first 14 starts after taking over for an injured Tommy Maddox, only to falter in the AFC championship game.
Flacco -- the starter out of the Ravens camp this year -- was 13-5 overall heading into Heinz Field last night.
Just like Roethlisberger in 2004, Flacco experienced the biting reality of precisely what it feels like to walk off of Heinz Field one game shy of the Super Bowl.
In the post-game press conference, Flacco was asked if he had hit a mental wall playing in his 19th game of the season.
He quickly dismissed the question.
"I don't blame it on any rookie wall or anything like that. I have been saying that all year," Flacco said. "The Steelers are a good defense. ... Obviously things didn't happen the way we wanted them to happen, but you have to credit the Steelers for the way they played."
"I had the opportunity to play 19 games this year. And I feel very fortunate for that."
But, to a large degree, because Flacco made a mistake that Polamalu took 40 yards the other way, the Ravens won't have a chance to play 20.
Colin Dunlap can be reached at cdunlap@post-gazette or 412-263-1459.