On his biggest stage, rookie quarterback acts his age

The Baltimore Sun

PITTSBURGH - With 4 1/2 minutes left in the first AFC championship game of his brief career, Joe Flacco was going to be either the hero for the Ravens or the goat.

Bring out the horns. Wear them well, youngster. You did the best you could, but you earned them.

It's not that it was Flacco's fault that the Ravens now have to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl - it isn't any single Raven's fault, because last night at snowy Heinz Field, the Steelers just straight-up beat them, in a 23-14 final that was closer than that.

It's just that at the moment the Ravens needed Flacco to be the commander, marching the Ravens toward the winning points (or, at minimum, the most critical third-down conversion of the game), he did the exact opposite.

Flacco threw the interception that had been on the verge of happening all night, after at least five close calls that fell harmlessly incomplete. Threw it to a guy, Troy Polamalu, he had done well to avoid all game, and also the one guy most likely to turn it into the back-breaking points. That's what Polamalu did. He made a great play to snatch the pass intended for Derrick Mason, then to make a runback Ed Reed would be proud of, crossing the goal line and, essentially, putting a fork in the Ravens' Super Bowl hopes.

It was Flacco's second interception, after a much more egregious throw on the Ravens' second possession, one that went straight to Deshea Townsend. That hurt.

This one - with 4:24 left, the Steelers leading 16-14, the home crowd getting restless and the Ravens facing third-and-13 on their 29 - killed.

Asking Flacco to be the hero, of course, was likely way too much at this point, but he had earned the wins in the Ravens' first two playoff games, an unprecedented feat for a rookie. He had done it by not turning the ball over. The few times this season the Ravens stumbled, Flacco added to it by throwing interceptions, but it had been a while since he had done that, and he certainly hadn't thrown one that hurt them.

Last night, he threw three, and that second one couldn't have hurt them worse. The Ravens weren't going to get a better chance than the one they had on that drive. It was as good a chance as they had a week earlier in Tennessee, when they finished it off and won, so why not still believe?

"It was 16-14, and we had the ball," tight end Todd Heap saidthrough a grimace, "and we all had a pretty good feeling about what we could do. That was the most frustrating part. We had it in our grasp."

Other teams' seasons have ended less nobly than the Ravens' did, and as gloomy as the visiting locker room was, there were rays of hope - cast by none other than the prime perpetrator. "Our future is fine," said Mason, the last player to leave, "as long as No. 5 is here."

Still, it was a rotten way for Flacco's carpet ride to stop. Then again, it became more and more obvious as the game wore on that only a fourth-quarter drive for the ages would bail him out and the Ravens.

They lived on the edge all night, but so did the Steelers, who managed somehow, in spite of themselves, to lead the entire game. The fact that the Ravens were a score away from taking the lead in the fourth quarter was amazing, the way players were limping on and off the field all night - and one, Willis McGahee, after a gallant all-around effort, left on a cart after Ryan Clark's hit that probably was heard back in Baltimore.

On the other side, Hines Ward was knocked out of action early, not to be seen again after halftime. It was bare-knuckle, bloody-lip, compound-fracture football. It was a game in which one explosive play at the right time would have won it. Chances were that it would be made by the more experienced player.

It was, by Polamalu - against one of the least experienced.

That will haunt the dreams of Ravens fans for a long time, too. For as long as he plays in the NFL, it will cost Flacco lots of sleep, too.

Listen to David Steele on Fridays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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