Black and Gold Bloodbath

Where to start?  How about with #43?  Troy Polamalu padded the Steelers’ slim lead on their way to Super Bowl XLIII with his interception return for a touchdown.  It was a clutch play that they had to have.  Following a timely sack by Lamar Woodley, The Wig’s play seemingly sealed the fate of the Ravens just when momentum was going their way.  The Ravens scored a touchdown on their previous possession and they had just hit a big play to Todd Heap for a first down out to the 30 yard line.  With only 4:30 remaining, all they needed was a field goal and a defensive stand to get a win. While a field goal would have been unlikely, the defensive stand would have been status quo.

But there was Polamalu.  Injured calf or not, #43 came to play.

It all started in typical fashion with a player injured on the opening kickoff. After the bodies were cleared the Steelers scored on their first possession for a 3-0 lead.  The teams traded punts before Deshea Townsend caught his only interception, the first of three for Flacco and this one deep in Baltimore territory.  Pittsburgh gained a first down before settling for another field goal to make it 6-0 in the first quarter.

The Ravens’ offensive ineptitude continued before Willie Parker fumbled the ball, setting them up across midfield at the 41 yard line.  But the Steelers’ defense stood strong.  After getting to third and one, the Ravens were stuffed twice and turned the ball over on downs. The stand featured Polamalu going airborne to push back Flacco on his 4th down sneak.

On third and nine on the following possession a scrambling Roethlisberger hit Santonio Holmes 20 yards down field. Holmes turned the broken play into a 65 yard catch and run to the endzone.  It was 13-0 Steelers and starting to look like a game they could put away early.

But the Ravens would not allow it.  Late in the first half safety man Jim Leonard returned a punt to the Steelers 17. A pass interference on 3rd and 9 setup the eventual one yard touchdown run by Willis McGahee.

Again the teams swapped punts before Pittsburgh regained the ball at midfield with 60 seconds to go in quarter two. On first down Limus Sweed ran past the defense deep down the left sideline. Roethlisberger put a deep pass in his hands only to watch the rookie juggle and drop the ball then feign injury laying in the endzone. The act cost the Steelers a valuable time out and with Ben’s clock mismanagement eventually squandered an opportunity for a last second short field goal attempt.

After being soundly drubbed for 30 minutes, the Ravens went to half time only trailing 13-7, having seized the momentum.

Throughout the regular season the Steelers’ third quarters bested the NFL for scoring allowed in a frame.  This one was no different and Jeff Reed’s 46 yard kick nudged them to a 16-7 lead heading to the final 15 minutes.

That’s when things got ugly.  Punting from the Steelers 37 Mitch Berger netted 21 yards to the Baltimore 42.  The Ravens quickly marched for another McGahee 1 yard TD run.  The drive was aided largely by an endzone pass interference call against Ike Taylor.  The Ravens, with barely more than 125 yards of total offense had closed to 16-14.  Momentum now appeared to favor the Ravens.  Their offense had recent success and their defense allowed only a field goal to that point in the second half.

Desperately needing to eat some clock, the Steelers offense was pushed back and forced to punt after three plays.  But a personal foul penalty after the return changed field position from the Steelers 39 back to the 14 yard line.  A quick 20 yard pass to Todd Heap put some pep in his step.  But on Flacco’s next drop-back Lamar Woodley tallied his second sack of the evening.

And that brings us back to Troy Polamalu’s clutch play that propelled the Steelers to Super Bowl XLIII.

Even after Polamalu’s forty yard touchdown return there was 4:24 remaining.  Still, the 9 point lead seemed insurmountable.  The Ravens offense got back to work, but on their second play Willis McGahee fumbled after a violent hit by Ryan Clark.  It was the worst of the dozens of bone-crunching hits delivered that evening.

The Steelers recovered the ball as McGahee lay prone.  After several minutes he was placed on a back board and carted to the locker room.  Reports stated later that McGahee would recover.

If Polamalu’s return sealed the Ravens’ fate, Clark’s hit punctuated the Steelers’ victory.

Their previous meeting has been described as a slug-fest.  But their third matchup of the season in the AFC Championship Game was not for the faint of heart.  It was a bloodbath.

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