Steelers Defeat Ravens 31-24 to Advance to AFC Championship Game: First Half Recap

PITTSBURGH PA - JANUARY 15: Tight end Todd Heap #86 of the Baltimore Ravens catches the ball for a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second quarter of the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Heinz Field on January 15 2011 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Where do you begin writing about a game like last night's? Over the span of 60 minutes, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked both sloppy -- almost overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment -- as well as like champions who refused to be denied. The game was riddled with turnovers -- two by Pittsburgh in the first half, and three by Baltimore in the second -- and there was very little flow as a result of frequent penalties (6-74 by Baltimore, 9-95 by Pittsburgh). Yet by game's end, I don't think anybody would disagree that one of the better and most exciting games had just been played between these two fierce rivals.

The game was a statistical oddity. The two teams combined for a mere 389 yards of offense (126, 263), yet the scoreboard got lit up for 55 total points. The Ravens scored a defensive touchdown on a play that Ramon Foster and the rest of the Steelers offensive line will definitely be reminded of in the film room this week. Ben Roethlisberger pump-faked one too many times inside his own 5-yard line, and had his arm hacked from behind by Terrell Suggs, much like Troy Polamalu did to Joe Flacco in the second regular season meeting. Except this time, the ball didn't go backwards when it left Roethlisberger's hand, which caused the Steelers to wrongly assume that his arm was going forward and that it was an incomplete pass. Cory Redding scooped up the ball at the 13-yard line and scampered easily into the endzone. Huge mental mistake there by the Steelers. Ramon Foster had the most obvious opportunity to jump on the ball or heck, even run with it for a big gain. But really it's every last guy on the field's fault for not playing to the whistle.

That play was the first huge turning point in the game. After jumping out to an early 7-0 lead and looking outstanding in the process, the Steelers suddenly trailed 14-7 as the first quarter was winding down. The Ravens felt even better about themselves after stuffing Pittsburgh on its next series. The offensive line now looked frighteningly shaky after their strong start.

Thankfully, recently acquired punter Jason Kapinos turned the field with a booming 55 yard punt that was returned only 1 yard. Add in a penalty on the Ravens on the punt return and Baltimore finds itself backed up inside their own 10-yard line. The Steelers then forced a punt and it seemed as if the Steelers had halted the momentum Baltimore had quickly established. Not so fast, Rashard Mendenhall fumbled at the Steelers 12-yard line and Baltimore was again in business. They capitalize thanks to a poorly timed blitz on 3rd down, and Baltimore has a 21-7 lead with just under 6 minutes to go in the first half.

The first half action ends with Shaun Suisham missing from 43 yards out, but at least the Steelers had stopped the bleeding protection wise on that final drive before the half. That series gave me reason to believe that Pittsburgh could mount a second half comeback, but make no mistake about it, ample doubt had creeped into my mind as to whether the Steelers would be able to overcome a two-touchdown deficit in 30 minutes against a Ravens team that had looked scary defensively and opportunistic on offense.

Basically, down 14 points at half, the Steelers had to play a perfect second half in order to emerge victorious. Turns out they did just that.

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