Game 18: Bitter defeat -- Ravens fall to Steelers again

Joe Flacco watches as the Steelers go ahead 31-24 in the fourth quarter.
Joe Flacco watches as the Steelers go ahead 31-24 in the fourth quarter. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.)

PITTSBURGH — In a rivalry defined by the big hits, it was the Ravens who knocked themselves out of their Super Bowl run.

A crushing third-down play in the fourth quarter and three third-quarter turnovers in their territory led to the Ravens' 31-24 self-destructing loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC divisional playoff game at a boisterous Heinz Field.

"We don't feel good about this one," said quarterback Joe Flacco, who finished 16-for-30 for 125 yards. "When you look at those turnovers … and then you could look at it and say we beat ourselves."

The second-seeded Steelers advance to the AFC championship game against the winner of Sunday's game between the New England Patriots and New York Jets. The No. 5 Ravens are headed home after letting a 14-point halftime lead slip through their grasp like another critical pass to a Ravens wide receiver.

The seventh straight defeat to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger seemed more frustrating than the rest. On third-and-19 at the Pittsburgh 38, Roethlisberger heaved a 58-yard pass down the right sideline to rarely used Antonio Brown, the Steelers' eighth-leading receiver who got a couple of steps behind cornerback Lardarius Webb and the Ravens' prevent defense.

The devastating drive was capped by Rashard Mendenhall's 2-yard touchdown to put Pittsburgh ahead, 31-24, with 1:33 left in the game.

On the Ravens' final possession, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw two incompletions and was sacked. Their last play -- on fourth-and-18 -- was an incomplete pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who just dropped the ball.

"We didn't put them away. We didn't put them away," linebacker Terrell Suggs, repeating the line in disbelief. "We have nobody to blame but ourselves. We have to take a long look at ourselves."

Most of the blame has to be shouldered by the Ravens offense, which gained a paltry 126 yards -- 28 in the entire second half.

The Ravens turned the ball over three times on seven offensive snaps in the third quarter, which led to 17 points for the Steelers.

Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was signed to be the top playmaker in the passing game, let a pass bounce off his chest while in the end zone with four minutes left in the fourth quarter. "It was just a low throw," he said. "I tried to come up with it."

On the Ravens' final offensive play of the season, Houshmandzadeh dropped a fourth-down pass that would have given the Ravens a first down in Steelers' territory while trailing by a touchdown. "It's unbelievable," Houshmandzadeh said. "I can't believe that happened. I would bet every dollar I have that I make that."

In a season where the Ravens have lived dangerously in the fourth quarter (nine times they've lost leads), their meltdown came in the third quarter this time. The Ravens, who hadn't allowed a touchdown in the third quarter all season, gave up two at Pittsburgh because of turnovers.

The first fumble of the season by Ray Rice (who was playing with an illness), an interception by Flacco and a fumble by Flacco (center Matt Birk snapped the ball too early) -- all in Ravens' territory -- turned 14-point lead (21-7) into three-point deficit (24-21) in a matter of 12 minutes.

The Ravens had chances to take the lead in the fourth quarter, but mistakes again doomed them. Lardarius Webb's touchdown on a punt return was negated by a holding penalty on Marcus Smith. Moments later, Boldin couldn't catch a pass in the end zone to put the finishing touches on a forgettable performance (one catch for minus-2 yards).

After the Ravens failed to take control of the game, Roethlisberger made them pay for it at the end.

"What better way to put the Ravens out of the tournament," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "They keep asking for us and we keep putting them out of the tournament. They're going to be ticked about this for a long time."

The Ravens' fifth game at Heinz in three seasons had a nightmarish first 10 minutes. The Ravens, who had given up one touchdown in each of their previous two games, gave up one on the opening drive.

Helped by a questionable 37-yard pass interference penalty on the Ravens' Josh Wilson, Mendenhall punched in a 1-yard touchdown to put the Ravens in an early hole.

But the resilient Ravens proved again why they have the best road winning percentage in the playoffs since 1960, responding with 21 straight points.

The first quarter closed with two touchdowns by the Ravens in 27 seconds. Ray Rice scored on a bullish, 14-yard run, bouncing off Troy Polamalu to reach the end zone. But that was trumped by one of the strangest plays in Ravens' history -- and perhaps NFL playoff history.

After Terrell Suggs hit the ball out of Roethlisberger's cocked arm, it flew forward and laid at the 13-yard line for 5 seconds with four players standing around it. Noticing no whistle had blown, defensive end Cory Redding picked it up and went uncontested into the end zone. Still, it seemed like no one believed what had happened until the official signaled touchdown and Redding hopped high in the air.

The 13-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Redding – who is in the playoffs for the first time in his eight-year career – put the Ravens ahead, 14-7, with 53 seconds left in the first quarter.

Pittsburgh, which had turned the ball over 18 times in 16 games this season (which was tied for the third-fewest in the AFC), fumbled again in the second quarter. In a pile, the Ravens' Dannell Ellberbe knocked the ball from Mendenhall and Ed Reed recovered it at the Steelers' 16.

The Ravens converted another turnover into a touchdown on a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Todd Heap from Joe Flacco. Getting a pick from T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Heap was wide open in the end zone to increase the Ravens' lead to 21-7.

If there was any doubt about the Ravens' fortune in the first half, it ended with Pittsburgh kicker Shaun Suisham was wide left on a 43-yard field goal.

All that momentum was halted in one of the most gut-wrenching, second-half collapses in team history.

"We're both good football teams," Flacco said. "But the bottom line is they're better at winning the game right now than we are. We need to improve. But we're just not there yet."