AFC Championship Recap: Here We Go, Steelers, Here We Go...

Pittsburgh’s goin’ to the Super Bowl!

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated a game but overmatched Baltimore Ravens squad 23-14 to earn a trip to Tampa and Super Bowl XLIII. It was another typical knock down-drag out affair between these two franchises. Injuries and hellacious collisions did abound. In the end, the bye week prior to the start of the playoffs may have been the key difference in the Steelers’ making their second Super Bowl appearance in four years and their seventh overall.

The victory wasn’t as impressive as last week’s destruction of the San Diego Chargers. The offense had an up and down game against a Baltimore defense which played well despite being crippled by injuries. The running game was non-existent as Fast Willie Parker continued his history of struggles against the Ravens carrying 27 times for only 47 yards. The offensive line surrendered 4 sacks and numerous other knockdowns/pressures although at times they did a very good job of providing a pocket for Ben Roethlisberger to step up.

Big Ben deserves a lion’s share of the credit for this victory. He put on another clutch performance in making incredibly tight throws when they mattered most. The passing game, working against a secondary which was down two starters and then saw two backups get injured during the course of the game, was firing right out the gate. WR Hines Ward looked to build on his reputation as a Big Game Player by catching a little slant and taking it 45 yards down the field. He also converted a nice first down on a play in which his leg was used for origami. The resulting sprained MCL made him miss the rest of the game, though he is expected to play in two weeks.

Without the heart of our offense, it was time for other receivers to step up. WR Santonio Holmes did just that by catching a short toss thrown by a running-for-his-life Big Ben and reenacting his punt return TD from last week by taking it 65 yards to paydirt. TE Heath Miller became the new safety outlet/3rd down converter, chipping in 3-62, including a backbreaking 3rd and 22 conversion early in the 4th quarter. The passing game was clicking so well and Ben was doing such a great job of sidestepping pressure and finding players downfield that if not for two miscues, the game could’ve been a blow out. FWP dropped an easy flare pass when he had nothing but grass ahead for 30 yards and rookie Limas Sweed cement-handed a sure TD bomb right before the half.

This was the second horrendous drop in two games but before I read 20 comments condemning Sweed, I want to say some things in his defense. First he’s a rookie, a rookie who was barely used during the regular season at that. I can name dozens of WRs who took 2-3 years to develop. Secondly, he did get open on those plays so it shows he has the speed and moves to play in the NFL. Teaching how to create separation is a lot harder than teaching guys to catch the ball. And lastly, he could’ve sulked and cried on the sidelines like T.O. a baby when things weren’t going his way. Instead, he manned up and went out to make plays. Later in the game he made a nice low catch on a crucial first down conversion, broke up an INT on a poorly thrown ball (maybe he should switch to DB?), and on Miller’s long catch you can see him doing his Hines impersonation by creaming a Baltimore DB.

Speaking of players getting wiped out, I’d like to extend a heartfelt “Get Well, Soon” to RB Willis McGhee. McGhee was the victim of a double knockout blow by S Ryan Clark where both players hit the turf motionless for several minutes. Clark walked to the bench thinking his name was Otis Sistrunk from Mars, PA but otherwise seemed okay. McGhee got the Roethlisberger treatment complete with neck brace and cart. I’m proud of Steeler Nation for showing class and respect as he was motored off the field. I’m equally disgusted by the Ratbird Fans who I see complaining about the hit being dirty. Replays clearly showed Clark turned his body and bent his knees in an attempt to lead with his shoulder. McGhee’s straight up running style and the angle of their heads lead to the helmet-to-helmet result. It’s pretty stupid to think any player is trying to smack heads with their opponent since anybody who ever headbutted their brother knows nobody wins in such a collision.

Beyond that, what more can be said about the Steeler Defense? Yet another magnificent effort in a season full of them. Not to go into Ref Bitch mode but if not for some really awful officiating, the D might not of surrendered a point. Baltimore’s first score came after G Chris Kemoteau earned a 15 yard personal foul, nevermind that the defender was giving him a headslap that would make Mean Joe proud and moments before Ben was cross-checked to the ground well after the ball was thrown. The ensuing kick was returned to the Steeler 15. QB Joe Flacco still needed a pass interference penalty to get the ball to the 1 where they pounded it home. The second score was set up by P Mitch Berger absolutely whiffing on a punt and the Ravens still needed another questionable pass interference penalty in the endzone which again put them at the 1. Otherwise, the Ratbirds only had 200 yards total offense, with a surprising 73 yards rushing but getting only 125 yards through the air by the overwhelmed Flacco. Rookie Joe will be a good quarterback some day but he was shaky all game, many of his passes narrowly missing defenders’ hands. The Steelers did pick him off three times and sacked him three more.

The defense was keyed by the guy who had one of those picks (and returned it for the game sealing TD), S Troy Polamalu. Troy looked off last week with the calf injury and didn’t look any better during the first quarter yesterday. Then between the first and second, he must’ve gotten one of those magic injections massages or something because he reverted back to vintage form. From that point on, he was the Tasmanian Devil, going 100 miles per hour in the direction of the ball carrier on every play. He caught players in the backfield on at least three occasions, defensed several passes, and launched himself into Flacco to stop a fourth and short plunge. LB LaMarr Woodley also had himself a nice game as they mugged keyed on James Harrison, freeing Mister Woodley to wreak havoc. His walling off of McGhee on a third and short play by using his ass was something I’ve never seen in a football game before.

Amazingly, the Steelers held on to a slim 16-14 lead going into the fourth quarter. A combination of the aforementioned miscues (in addition to Ben mismanaging a late first half drive which cost them a FG) combined with Baltimore’s good fortune kept the game closer than it had any right being. Luckily, the fourth quarter belongs to the Steelers. Two INTs topped off by Polamalu’s Pick Six sealed the deal as the defense rose up to send the Steelers on to Tampa. I will give Baltimore credit for giving us a game but you can only postpone destiny for so long.

And despite what you may hear in the media, the Steelers are a team of destiny this year. A destiny which will be fulfilled under the warm Florida sunshine on February 1st. The young Arizona Cardinals and their cadre of Pittsburgh refugees had better be prepared because the Black and Gold are coming. Here we go…

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Tags: Afc Champions Afc Championship Afc Championship Game Baltimore Baltimore Ravens Ben Roethlisberger Fast Willie Parker Fwp Hines Ward Joe Flacco Limas Sweed Mike Tomlin Pittsburgh Pittsburgh Defense Ravens Santonio Holmes Steeler Nation Super Bowl XLIII Troy Polamalu Willis Mcghee

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