Since I’ve annointed myself both the Doc Brown and Marty McFly of BTSC, I’ve ripped off some of my cranial-manufactured Lybians and am setting the Delorean’s time circuits for a time when the nation had witnessed a pilot named Sully landed his US Airways plane in the Hudson River after losing both engines saving all 155 passengers and crew, Circuit City announced their closing of all stores, for some inexplicable reason Paul Blart: Mall Cop was tops among movie goers and the U.S. was two days away from the historical inauguration of Barack Obama as their 44th President. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers were going for a three-game sweep of the Baltimore Ravens as they got set to host the AFC Championship.
Welcome to January 18, 2009.
Going into the game, there was concern surrounding the NFL’s top-ranked defense, as Troy Polamalu’s right calf injury forced the Steeler star safety to miss most of the week of practice and was walking very gingerly in warm-ups. DC Dick LeBeau stated that an absent Troy would hamper their defense and disallow them to employ a number of schemes they typically ran. This worry would finally turn to pure exhilaration a few hours later.
On the opening drive, Mike Tomlin’s team started from their own 34. On third and 13, Roethlisberger threw a bullet over the middle to Hines Ward right between ball hawking safeties Jim Leonhard and Ed Reed. Because it was thrown with a lot of zest on the ball, Hines Ward was able to grab the pigskin between the two defenders and scamper all the way down for a 45-yard gain. The play put No. 86 over 1000 career receiving yards in his postseason career. The Ravens were number one in the league in takeaways, but it wasn’t evident there on that play. They buckled down enough to stall the drive, but Jeff Reed came in to deliver a 32-yard field goal. 3-0 Steelers.
Later on in the quarter, veteran CB Deshea Townsend stepped in front of Joe Flacco’s offering to Derrick Mason for an interception at the Baltimore 35. It was the first interception thrown by the Delaware rookie in his third playoff game.
On the ensuing drive following the pick, Hines Ward would pick up a first down in front of Frank Walker, but Ward emerged with a twisted knee and had to limp to the sideline to get medical attention. No. 86 tried to re-enter the game twice, but had to hang-it-up for the remainder near the half’s end. On the same drive, Ben would throw a long pass to Santonio Holmes who seemingly caught it at the one and tried to crawl into the end zone for a score. Tomlin would grab his red flag to challenge, but Raven HC John Harbaugh beat him to it as he saw it as a non-catch. Harbaugh was correct and the call was overturned. The Steelers settled for another field goal from the suddenly bleach blonde that was Jeff Reed. 6-0 Steelers.
On the next drive, the Ravens lived up to their turnover ranking as Ray Lewis punched the ball out of Willie Parker’s (usually secure) mitts and Leonhard recovered. Meanwhile Big Ben was seen near the tunnel grimacing and holding his back. Byron Leftwich began warming up. Injuries seemed to be decimating the home team.
The Ravens were trying to get on the board and attain their initial first down in the drive to follow. However, on third down LaMarr Woodley made a huge stop and on fourth and 1, the Flacco quarterback sneak did not work when Polamalu executed his patented and timed jumping-over-the-line to thwart the threat. Baltimore still did not have a first down as their fourth drive of the game died.
The threat of losing Ben was merely just worry, as Roethlisberger returned to the field on the next series. No. 7 would lace a short pass to an open Santonio Holmes, who snagged the ball and raced 65-yards to extend the score to 13-0.
Baltimore finally got a first down next after 16 snaps, but Aaron Smith sacked Flacco on third down to force another punt.
With 3:37 remaining in the half, Jim Leonhard’s 45-yard return started Baltimore off at the Steeler 17. Leonhard had a clear path to the end zone, but punter Mitch Berger caught him to save the score. On third and 3, the Ravens picked up the blitz and Flacco fired a strike to Mason that was broken up by Bryant McFadden. However, McFadden was called for a PI. With first down at the three and Haoli Ngata in as a blocker, Willis McGahee walked into the end zone. It was now 13-7 with only 2:35 left in the half.
After a great return by Santonio Holmes to the 50, Big Ben threw a perfect bomb to the 6’4” rookie Sweed who dropped it like it was a real bomb. The Texas Longhorn made a beautiful double-move on the play to emerge all alone, but his eyes left the ball and he fell to the turf acting as if he was hurt. The drive stalled. But on the punt, Berger’s Oscar-winning fall drew a roughing penalty on Edgar Jones, to set the Steelers up at the 35. But Sweed’s fake injury cost Pittsburgh a timeout and poor clock management cost a field goal, as Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t get the spike off in time as the clock struck triple zero. The Steelers squandered a valuable three points. It was 13-7 at the half.
The third quarter featured stout defense from both teams, and only a field goal from Reed occurred offensively. It was 16-7 at the end of three. With 12:41 remaining, Berger shanked a punt and Baltimore had great field position and drove the remaining length of the field. The Heinz Field faithful became nervous as Flacco completed four straight passes and drew a PI call on Ike Taylor. Willis McGahee converted from the one. With 9:29 left, the Steeler lead was a mere two at 16-14.
When the Steelers’ next drive failed after Terrell Suggs sacked Ben after the Steelers started at their own 40, the Ravens took to the turf with a chance to take the lead with 6:50 remaining on the clock. What seemed to be a starting point at the 40, Darren Stone whipped Anthony Madison down miles out of bounds by the B-More bench. Instead of starting off only 60-yards away, Flacco and the offense started way back at their own 14.
The Ravens were trying to move the ball, but the Steeler defense came up big on back-to-back plays. On second down, James Farrior forced Flacco into LaMarr Woddley and No. 56 got his second sack. But fortunes really changed when Flacco threw a pass to Derrick Mason on third and 13 with hopes to move the chains. Troy Polamalu, who had been dominant all game, undercut the route and thieved the ball. No. 43 zigged and zagged and ran from sideline to sideline before he made a beeline to the end zone. In what was one of the most majestic plays in Steeler lore from a player with a wrapped calf, the pick-six basically iced the game for Pittsburgh.
The following four minutes and change were basically a celebration for Pittsburgh and their fans and a futile attempt for Baltimore to rebound from the death blow that was Troy taking it to the house. However, the celebration turned dark and worrisome. In that sequence, Ryan Clark rocked McGahee with a hit that would result in Armageddon today. Both Ryan and Willis lay on the grass for minutes. Clark was helped off, while McGahee was carted off, but showing movement. The hit was deemed a clean and legal hit as Clark led with his shoulders. The collision caused a fumble in which Pittsburgh recovered.
The Ravens had one last gasp, but a tipped pass landed in the hands of Tyrone Carter, officially earning the Lamar Hunt trophy for the Steel City and the Rooney Family.
The rest was history as we all know what legendary occurrences happened a mere two weeks later in Tampa. When Troy Polamalu intercepted that ball and raced joyfully into the end zone, my gang of six dudes jumped up and improvised a dancing huddle reminiscent of a mound celebration to win the World Series. In all of our arm-flailing glee, somebody caught me with a fist or an elbow to the face. It’s like somebody invited Clubber Lang Maryland Steeler Central. As my face started to puff up immediately, I dismissed it as collateral damage. Although I had no alcoholic libations that evening, I felt no pain. The Steelers were in the Super Bowl at the expense of their bitter rival. Never in my life, to quote 1982 John Cougar, did a blow to the face “hurt so good”.