Ravens at Steelers AFC Championship Game Recap

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Faced with a win-or-die situation in Sunday's AFC Championship tilt with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens simply refused to quit.

In the end, however, that never-say-die mentality wasn't enough to get the victory, as Pittsburgh will represent the conference in Super Bowl XLIII after their 23-14 victory.

It was a hotly-anticipated third grudge match between the NFL's two best defenses, one that promised a smashmouth slug fest at Heinz Field. Both teams delivered, as multiple players were sidelined because of injuries.

Baltimore (13-6) kept on coming back.

On the night's very first play, safety Daren Stone suffered a concussion while covering the kickoff.

He returned in the second half.

Midway through the second quarter, cornerback Frank Walker, who started in place of the inactive Samari Rolle (groin), went to the locker room with a shoulder injury. Walker had the shoulder wrapped and returned after halftime.

Defensive tackle Trevor Pryce limped off the field in the first half, but later returned.

Cornerback Corey Ivy was helped to the bench after he was blindsided with a devastating downfield block from wideout Limas Sweed. He was also back out there after taking a short break.

"I want to say how proud I am of our football team," said head coach John Harbaugh. "I thought our guys, throughout the course of this season and the course of this game, demonstrated who they are as men and what they're all about.

"I couldn't be more proud to stand with them in victory and today in defeat."

"When you're one game away from the Super Bowl," offensive tackle Adam Terry affirmed.  "I don't think anyone would have not played if they could at least walk. That's how this organization is. We are tough and will battle for each other."

The biggest shot the Ravens took occurred when running back Willis McGahee, who had totaled 60 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries, was knocked out after suffering a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit from safety Ryan Clark in the fourth quarter. Clark got up woozy, but McGahee earned a trip to Pittsburgh's Presbyterian Hospital even though he was "neurologically intact."

"We're praying he's all right, he was talking and moving and that's a good sign," said linebacker Terrell Suggs, who recorded two sacks despite the pain of a partially dislocated right shoulder. "They're one of the only teams that matches us physically."

The fighting Ravens just didn't have the scoring punch they needed in critical moments. As such, the Steelers swept Baltimore in three meetings this season

Baltimore was actually in the game for much of the night.

Pittsburgh kicker Jeff Reed opened the scoring on Pittsburgh's initial drive with the first of his three field goals. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who finished 16-of-33 for 255 yards, found receiver Hines Ward on a 45-yard bomb. The series stalled on Baltimore's 16-yard line, though, and Reed split the uprights from 34 yards.

The Ravens posted two consecutive three-and-outs before Reed hit another field goal, this time from 42 yards.

That second one could easily have been a touchdown, however, if it weren't for a savvy decision from Harbaugh.

When Roethlisberger found wideout Santonio Holmes at the 1-yard line during the drive, it seemed that Holmes actually lost possession as he was brought down. Harbaugh successfully challenged the ruling that it was a catch, moving the ball back to the 23. The Ravens' defense then held strong to force the three-pointer, which spotted Pittsburgh a 6-0 lead.

The Steelers pushed that lead to 13-0 with an electrifying catch-and-run from Holmes. Three plays after the Ravens were unsuccessful on fourth-and-1 with a sneak up the middle by rookie quarterback Joe Flacco that was snuffed by mountainous nose tackle Casey Hampton and playmaking safety Troy Polamalu, Roethlisberger hit Holmes at Baltimore's 49-yard line as cornerback Fabian Washington slipped.

Holmes then zig-zagged through the Ravens' second-ranked defense for a 65-yard score.

The Steelers were strong defensively, as well.

Entering the game with a unit that allowed the least amount of yards in the league, Pittsburgh was stingy as ever.

The Ravens only managed 73 rushing yards and did not convert their first third down until 12:06 in the second quarter. Perhaps even more important were the five turnovers - three of them coming on interceptions from rookie quarterback Joe Flacco.

Flacco, who became the first rookie signal-caller to win two postseason games, had the worst performance of his short career, completing 13 of 30 attempts for 141 yards, absorbing three sacks and posting an 18.2 passer rating.

Still, Harbaugh disagreed with those who would pin the loss on the first-round draft pick.

"Joe went out and competed, battled and fought," the coach noted. "He tried to win a football game, so I have no complaints."

With the offense sputtering, special teams played a key role in keeping the Ravens competitive.

It took favorable field position from a Jim Leonhard punt return and subsequent 45-yard runback to the Steelers' 17, followed by a pass interference call in the end zone, to set up McGahee's 3-yard touchdown run.

McGahee pulled the Ravens to within two points (16-14) with his second touchdown. A botched punt from Pittsburgh's Mitch Berger gave Baltimore possession at midfield, and another pass interference call in the end zone led to McGahee's 1-yard run.

Curiously, it was McGahee receiving the majority of carries, not leading rusher Le'Ron McClain. McClain was hobbled last week against the Tennessee Titans with an ankle injury, but said after Sunday's contest that he was fully healthy.

"The dude had a great game," McClain said of his backfield mate. "I could see it in his eyes in practice all week, that he was going to come out and have a great game like he did.

"I hated the end, with him getting carted off, but he had a great game to build on for the future."

All comeback bids were squashed when Polamalu robbed the typically poised quarterback and raced 40 yards to paydirt with just over four minutes remaining.

Looking back, the Ravens were happy about how far they've come to rebound from 2007's disappointing campaign. But that doesn't mean a lost chance to play for a the second Vince Lombardi trophy in franchise history stings any less.

"It hasn't set in yet," said Suggs. "We're still in shock. I think we're all disappointed still. We came here to win, but we didn't. They won three times. I look at it as they did what they had to do to go to the Super Bowl."

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