Steelers defense steps up to sink Ravens

A throw for the ages set up the winning score, which came amid a violent collision and pileup at the goal line.

That’s just the way you’d both want and expect Ravens-Steelers Part III to end, right?

But neither calm nor convention was part of the equation in this AFC divisional playoff game Saturday afternoon, a game that featured bad blood, questionable calls, big plays and a familiar ending: Pittsburgh somehow finding enough magic to advance, and Baltimore lamenting offensive miscues and coming up short despite a monstrous defensive effort.

Believe it or not, a 31-24 game was basically dictated by the defenses. The Ravens scored a defensive touchdown in the first quarter and set up another with a second-quarter fumble recovery deep in Pittsburgh territory. The Steelers rallied from a 21-7 halftime deficit by returning the favor, forcing a pair of turnovers to set up relatively easy scores and holding the Ravens to minus-four yards in the third quarter.

The second of Rashard Mendenhall’s two short touchdown runs goes in the books as the game-winner, but a third-and-20 pass from Ben Roethlisberger to rookie Antonio Brown for 58 yards at the two-minute warning set it up. The Steelers’ defense didn’t get a dramatic stop at the end — T.J. Houshmandzadeh just flat dropped a fourth-down pass that ended the Ravens’ final drive — but did swing the momentum of the game in the third quarter when Ryan Clark forced a fumble and then intercepted a Joe Flacco pass, both in Ravens territory.

“It was one heck of a football game and one heck of a comeback by the Steelers,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “They earned it.”

A typically violent Steelers-Ravens game started with Hines Ward getting flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on the first play from scrimmage. Terrell Suggs, who got two of his three sacks in the first half, led a Ravens front that seemed to be battering Roethlisberger on his every pass attempt. The Ravens took a 14-7 lead when Suggs hit Roethlisberger before he could throw late in the first quarter, and almost every player on the field froze, thinking the loose ball was a result of an incomplete pass.

Cory Redding alertly picked it up and basically jogged 13 yards into the end zone. Five minutes into the second quarter, Ed Reed recovered a Mendenhall fumble at the Pittsburgh 16 and set up a Joe-Flacco-to-Todd-Heap touchdown pass.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he told his team at halftime that “we had kicked our own butts enough.”

“Even in the midst of some adversity that we created for ourselves, and really Baltimore created, we didn’t blink,” Tomlin said. “We turned the ball over in the first half, and that’s why it was 21-7.”

Flacco was next seen on his back under a pile of black jerseys, and he spent much of the third quarter there. James Harrison sacked Flacco on the Ravens’ first play from scrimmage, the first of three sacks he had in the second half. In a game that was bully on bully from the start, the Steelers started gang-tackling and swarming the way the visitors had early, and the Heinz Field crowd responded.

With momentum on their side, the Steelers needed all of six offensive plays to tie it — two for 23 yards after Ray Rice’s first fumble of the season and four for 25 yards after the interception. Both were capped by Roethlisberger touchdown passes, a nine-yard lob to Heath Miller after a play fake that froze the defense, and an eight-yard dart to Ward to tie the game with 1:21 left in the third.

"Putting Baltimore out, having them thinking about us all offseason, it doesn’t get any better than that,” Ward said. “They asked for us, and they kept asking for us.”

How good were the defenses? The teams combined for 11 sacks. The Steelers averaged 2.3 yards per rush; the Ravens averaged 1.9. But for as unblockable as Suggs was in the first half — and he left the Steelers’ offensive line looking as dumbfounded as referee Jeff Triplette did for most of the day — Harrison was even better in the second half. And he had help.

With lynchpin end Aaron Smith out, young Ziggy Hood pitched in with five tackles and a sack. Clark broke up two passes and had two tackles for loss in addition to the turnovers. Harrison finished with seven tackles, three sacks, three tackles for loss and two pass breakups.

A third Baltimore turnover, a Flacco fumble recovered by Brett Keisel just two plays after Ward’s touchdown, set up a 35-yard Shaun Suisham field goal with 12:15 left. Billy Cundiff tied the game at 24 with 3:54 to go on a 24-yarder as the Steelers’ defense held despite the Ravens having first-and-goal at the 8.

The Ravens thought they’d scored the go-ahead touchdown at the six-minute mark on a punt return by Lardarius Webb, but a holding call on Marcus Smith as Webb got to the sideline brought it back to the Pittsburgh 29. Only getting three points gave the ball back to Roethlisberger and set the stage for the late, improbable heroics.

“We knew on offense that we put the defense in bad positions (early),” Roethlisberger said. “We can’t do that. We didn’t play good football.

“(Later) we got lucky, I guess. Guys sense the urgency. We dig a little deeper.”

Two shaky holding calls left the Ravens steaming mad — one on the punt return, one a defensive hold at the goal line on the Steelers’ final possession — but it was the third quarter that changed the game and, ultimately, the Steelers defense that won it and put Pittsburgh in its fourth AFC Championship Game in the past seven years.

“That third quarter was the football game,” Tomlin said. “It’s signature Steeler football.”

Zac Jackson is a frequent contributor for FOX Sports Ohio.