PITTSBURGH — PITTSBURGH - The NFL's two best safeties were on display last night, and it was the Pittsburgh Steelers' Troy Polamalu who made the game's biggest play.
Polamalu intercepted a pass by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown with 4:24 left in the AFC championship game.
That play gave the Steelers a 23-14 lead and pretty much sealed the game.
It was the kind of play Ravens safety Ed Reed has been making all season. Flacco stared down his best receiver, Derrick Mason, on a third-and-13 from the Ravens' 29. As Mason started to come back, Polamalu jumped the route, reversed his field on the interception and scored the biggest touchdown of the game.
Could have been worse
The Ravens made it close until late in the game, but they didn't deserve to win this one. In fact, they should have been blown out.
The Steelers shut down the Ravens' running game, and Flacco didn't have a good game. When he was on target, his receivers dropped numerous passes.
The game was similar to the Tennessee Titans game Jan. 10, in which the Ravens were dominated on the field but forced enough turnovers to win.
The bottom line, though, is that coach John Harbaugh and his staff got as much as possible out of this team. Most teams that rely on a starting rookie quarterback and first-year head coach finish around 6-10.
The best hit of the game was Steelers safety Ryan Clark on Ravens running back Willis McGahee late in the fourth quarter. McGahee was taken off on a cart, and Clark was wobbly as he was helped to the sideline.
Among other big hits in this physical contest: Pittsburgh receiver Limas Sweed cracking back on Ravens cornerback Corey Ivy with 23 seconds left in the first half. That was nasty.
Another good shot was Pittsburgh's Carey Davis running over the Ravens' Daren Stone on the opening kickoff as Stone sprinted downfield. Stone got rocked (pun intended).
The Steelers led 13-7 at the half but should have been ahead 24-7.
Pittsburgh running back Willie Parker dropped a possible touchdown pass down the right sideline in the first quarter, and Sweed dropped a possible 50-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline late in the second quarter.
The Ravens were low on cornerbacks, but they didn't really need any.
The Steelers couldn't catch.
Hands of stone
Ravens running back Le'Ron McClain might have a bad ankle, but that shouldn't affect his catching the ball. McClain seems to drop a pass every week, and he dropped one again last night.
McClain, the usual starter at running back, started at fullback last night with McGahee the starting halfback. McClain might be still struggling with the ankle injury. As a fullback, he does a lot more blocking than running and doesn't have to cut as much.
Suggs guts it out
The Ravens started injured outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (shoulder), but he played sparingly. By midway through the second quarter, Suggs was spending more time on the sideline than on the field. Edgar Jones took many repetitions for Suggs.
Suggs, though, returned and played well in the second half. He had two sacks, which is remarkable considering he played with one good arm. Many players have trouble taking quarterback Ben Roethlisberger down with two arms.
The Ravens got stopped on a fourth-and-one at the Pittsburgh 34 with 43 seconds left in the first quarter because Steelers defensive linemen Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton were able to get under guards Chris Chester and Ben Grubbs and center Jason Brown and push them backward.
The Ravens failed to get a yard on two straight plays, one a run by McGahee and the other a sneak by Flacco.
Not respecting Reed
Other teams had stopped throwing over the middle against the Ravens because of Reed, but the Steelers didn't. In the first two minutes, Roethlisberger threw a 45-yard pass over the middle in front of Reed to Hines Ward.
So much for respect.
Pittsburgh really deserved to lose the game. Not only couldn't Pittsburgh catch, but the Steelers' clock management at the end of the half was horrendous.
How could Roethlisberger throw a 9-yard pass over the middle from the Ravens' 21 with 16 seconds left in the second quarter and no timeouts?
The Steelers couldn't stop the clock and failed to get their field-goal unit on the field.
Dumb, dumb and dumb.
Holding? What holding?
The Ravens' offensive line did a great job of holding the Steelers. Some of it was pretty blatant stuff. But if there is no penalty, then there is no holding.