Mike Tomlin did not pull a Knute Rockne at halftime, no fiery speech or uplifting words. Little occurred out of the ordinary as the Steelers left the field trailing by two touchdowns at the half Saturday against Baltimore in their playoff game at Heinz Field.
The instructions from a few veterans came quickly and decisively after an error-filled first half. “Get your heads up,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “There’s a lot of football left to play.”
“We had to execute better and not beat ourselves,” tight end Heath Miller said. The Steelers turned everything around when they scored three times off three third-quarter Baltimore turnovers to reclaim the lead and then snapped a tie when Rashard Mendenhall scored his second touchdown, a 2-yard run with 1:33 left. The final was 31-24 and not secured until T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped a pass that would have given the Ravens a first down at the Steelers 36 with 1:03 left.
The winning touchdown came after a 58-yard catch on third down by rookie Antonio Brown put the ball on the Ravens 4.
“Styles make fights,” said Tomlin. “Those two teams are Hagler-Hearns right there. It was great for the game of football.”
Especially for the Steelers, who move on to their fifth AFC championship game in the past decade next Sunday. The New York Jets will play at New England today to determine their opponent. If the Jets win, the game will be played at Heinz Field. If it is the Patriots, they will play at New England.
Both teams beat the Steelers in Heinz Field this season.
“We’re not afraid of anybody,” said linebacker James Farrior, but indicated he would like to play at home, so “I’m rooting for the Jets.”
The Steelers pulled out a game that was atypical of the past seven close games with the Ravens, mostly low-scoring affairs decided by 3 or 4 points.
Turnovers changed all that with Baltimore jumping to a 21-7 lead after scoring on two short touchdown drives, then the Steelers scoring 17 points off three Ravens turnovers in the second half.
Hines Ward, whose 8-yard touchdown reception from Ben Roethlisberger in the third quarter tied the score, 21-21, said: “When you turn the ball over the way we did, a lot of teams usually give up, and it ends up being a blowout. But we stayed the course and we found a way to win.
“And what a better way to win and put Baltimore out of the tournament. They asked for us and they kept asking for us. Sometimes, like my momma always said, be careful what you ask for.”
Safety Ryan Clark, who had two tackles for losses in the first half, pulled off two Troy Polamalu-like plays in the third quarter to help put his team back in it.
Clark stripped Ray Rice of the ball, and LaMarr Woodley recovered at the Ravens 23. Two plays later, Roethlisberger found Heath Miller wide open in the back of the end zone for a touchdown to cut the lead to 21-14.
Clark intercepted a Joe Flacco pass on Baltimore’s next series and returned it 17 yards to the 25. Three plays later, Roethlisberger rifled a pass to Ward for an 8-yard touchdown.
The two kickers traded field goals with Shaun Suisham’s 35-yarder giving the Steelers a 24-21 lead with 12:15 to go and then Billy Cundiff knotting it back up for the Ravens with a 24-yarder and 3:54 left.
That set up the final dramatics. The Steelers had a third down and 19 to go at their 38 with 2:07 left with a punt looming to give the Ravens one last shot. Roethlisberger, however, uncorked a deep pass that Brown caught and maintained control of by holding it against his helmet before his momentum took him out of bounds at the Baltimore 4 with 1:58 to go.
“Let’s just chuck it deep,” Roethlisberger said of that play. “If they pick it, it will be a pick way down there, just as good as a punt. … [Brown] usually gets short routes, and he’s only in for a handful of them. He stepped up big when his number was called and he made a play.”
It took four plays and a penalty, but Mendenhall finally scored from the 2 for a 7-point Steelers lead. It did not end, however, until Houshmandzadeh — who famously stomped on a Terrible Towel in a 2005 Cincinnati Bengals victory at Heinz Field and who beat the Steelers with a touchdown catch in October — dropped the final pass.
“It’s unbelievable,” a distraught Houshmandzadeh said. “I can’t believe that happened. I can’t recall ever dropping the ball when the team needed the play.”
The turnovers led to the high score because otherwise it was typical Steelers-Ravens defense. The Ravens managed just 126 total yards, the second fewest in Pittsburgh postseason history only to the 123 Minnesota managed in Super Bowl IX. The Steelers more than doubled that with 263.
Roethlisberger came under heavy pressure all day — he was sacked six times (three by linebacker Terrell Suggs) and he ran six more, most of them scrambles. Yet he completed 19 of 32 passes for 226 yards, two touchdowns — again, no interceptions — and a 101.8 passer rating.
His counterpart, Flacco, did not play as well. He was 16 of 30 for 125 yards and one 4-yard touchdown pass to Todd Heap and Clark’s interception. The Steelers sacked him five times, three by James Harrison.
“To be honest, he must have gotten a little shook up,” Harrison said. “He had guys hitting him.”
After the Steelers scored twice to tie it, Flacco fumbled the second snap from scrimmage on the next series, and Keisel recovered for the Steelers at the Ravens’ 23. That set up Suisham’s field goal to put the Steelers ahead, 24-21.
“We got after him good,” Keisel said of Flacco.
It was a turnaround from what happened in the first half.
Baltimore scored two touchdowns on two short drives after Steelers turnovers in the first half — a fumble by Roethlisberger that all but one player thought was an incomplete pass, and a Mendenhall fumble.
The half ended, appropriately enough, with a missed 43-yard field goal by Suisham. It also ended without coach Tomlin having a challenge left via instant replay and with cornerback Bryant McFadden out of the game with an injury to his hip.
The Steelers saw their 7-0 lead — a 1-yard Mendenhall run to cap their first series — quickly wiped out.
The Steelers fell behind, 14-7, by the end of the first quarter as Rice ran 14 yards to cap one drive and Baltimore scored on a strange play and mental lapse by the Steelers.
On second down from his 10, Roethlisberger dropped back with no one else in the backfield and, as he set to throw, he was hit from behind by Suggs and the ball popped forward.
The players reacted as if it were an incomplete pass, even though no official blew a whistle. Defensive end Cory Redding scooped up the ball at the 13 and ran into the end zone for a touchdown and a 14-7 Baltimore lead.
But it did not stop there. Mendenhall fumbled at his 16 and, six plays later, Flacco threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Heap, who was wide open in the right corner.
With 5:43 left in the first half, Baltimore had more points than they had in any full game against the Steelers since 2007 and a 21-7 lead.
A little later, the Steelers got their chins off the ground.
“Guys were kind of hanging their head,” Keisel said. “You never want to go down at the half by 14 points.”
The Ravens did not hang their heads. Instead, they spent the third quarter dropping the ball, and the Steelers are heading to another title game because of it.