AFC North: Ravens-Steelers playoffs

 
  Don Wright/US Presswire
  The Ravens' AFC Championship Game loss to the Steelers might be the last time that key members of the defensive unit play together, including linebacker Ray Lewis, who is an unrestricted free agent.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

PITTSBURGH -- Rex Ryan's eyes were red and glassy. He smiled at the question, and although he uttered only three words, a melancholy tone was evident.

The Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator probably won't be back next year. As the team's airplane rolled on the tarmac after Sunday's night's 23-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game, rumors were circling that Ryan might already have agreed to become the New York Jets head coach.

For Ryan, the defeat was an emotional one.

"It always is," Ryan said in the locker room, his voice trailing off at the thought of leaving some great players behind.

Asked to elaborate, he smiled again.

"I'd rather not think about it, to be honest with you," Ryan said.

Not only did Sunday conclude a fabulous season, leaving the Ravens just short of the Super Bowl, but Ryan almost certainly will be saying goodbye.

So, too, will some players from an elite defense that was ranked No. 2 in the NFL.

Linebackers Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott are all unrestricted free agents. So are defensive backs Jim Leonhard and Corey Ivy. Defensive tackle Brandon McKinney and defensive backs Dawan Landry and Evan Oglesby are restricted free agents.

The team's longest-tenured player, kicker Matt Stover, is also unrestricted. His career could be over. The Ravens brought in rookie Steven Hauschka for kickoffs and long field goals.

Ravens pro personnel director George Kokinis has been linked to the Cleveland Browns' general-manager vacancy. Ryan could lure some assistants to the Jets.

"We don't know our future," Scott said. "It's just the way the business goes. If it's the last time, it's the last time. You just hold onto the memories that you have."

Sports seasons turn rosters into mini families, but they never stay the same. Free agency, the salary cap, injuries and retirements cause teams and players to part ways. Sunday may have marked the end of the road for this gang. Their chance to win it together might be over.

"These are all your brothers and your cousins no matter who they are," said Ravens defensive tackle Trevor Pryce, "because when you spend as much time as a professional football team spends together, you get know each other as much more than just teammates. We become friends, family."

Familiar faces will be missing from next year's team photo. They will be replaced by rookies, free agents and practice squad graduates.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome will have several difficult decisions to make over the offseason.

"That's the business of the NFL," Pryce said. "If you know that, then you're mentally prepared for it. If you don't know that, then it becomes a problem. My first few years, I didn't understand that. I want the same guys on the team, and every year there were five or 10 new ones."

These are the processes that prevent us from accurately projecting next year's winners and losers. The variables begin to accumulate, the question marks mount.

Without Ryan, the defensive patriarch, the Ravens will lose a significant part of their soul. He has been with the Ravens for a decade.

"Ten years," Ryan said. "That's an eternity. It's special people."

In that time, he has helped the Ravens become the standard by which all defenses are measured. From the time Ryan joined the Ravens in 1999 as defensive line coach, through this season, they rank second in total defense, first in run defense, first in points per game allowed, first in takeaways, first in third-down conversions and fourth in sacks.

  Ravens-Steelers highlights
  NFL.com Video
  The Steelers defeat the Ravens 23-14 in the AFC Championship Game.

This year's defense was one of Baltimore's best despite losing a slew of contributors.

"This group of guys overcame so much this year," Ryan said. "I know we had more injuries on defense than any team in the NFL. Yet we kept competing. We used everybody we had.

"It's the unit. It's the strength of the unit that keeps us going, not the individual. That's how this team played."

Much of the credit, of course, goes to Lewis, the perennial Pro Bowler and first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer.

"He's a once-in-a-lifetimer," Ryan said, "not just as a player, but as a person, as a leader. He's just tremendous."

Lewis brushed off reporters in Baltimore's locker room. He didn't want to talk.

The face of the franchise indicated Friday he wants to come back for a 14th season, but he hasn't said much more than that, stating it would be selfish to talk about his contract rather than focus on the Super Bowl.

Lewis performed Sunday like a man with plenty left to give. He finished with a game-high nine tackles (unofficially) and forced a Willie Parker fumble.

Scott said Sunday night the loss was too fresh to even consider next season.

"Nothing you can say," Scott said. "We lost. Just go on vacation. Forget about it."

 
  Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
  Ben Roethlisberger finished with 255 passing yards and a touchdown toss as he improved to 7-2 in the postseason.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- Experts say he holds the football too long.

Some say he doesn't post the gaudy statistics needed to be considered an elite passer.

He was the third quarterback taken in his draft class behind Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, and it seems he rarely receives the same credit.

Yet, only two starting quarterbacks remain in this postseason, and one of them answers to the name Ben Roethlisberger.

It is time to appreciate the Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback for being a consummate winner, and quit bashing Roethlisberger for not being a conventional quarterback.

Roethlisberger, playing in his third AFC Championship Game in five years, led the Steelers to a 23-14 victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday to earn a trip to Super Bowl XLIII. He did it his way -- unconventionally -- buying time with his feet and making the most of broken plays to throw for 255 yards and one touchdown.

On a frozen Heinz Field, Roethlisberger went toe-to-toe with the NFL's second-rated defense and never blinked. He was sacked four times and hit many more. He played the second half without his prime target Hines Ward, the wide receiver who sat out the final 30 minutes because of a right knee injury.

But in the end, Roethlisberger beat Baltimore's defense three times in a season -- a feat few quarterbacks could accomplish.

  Ravens-Steelers highlights
  NFL.com Video
  The Steelers defeat the Ravens 23-14 in the AFC Championship Game.

"Ben is a special guy," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "He's at his best in the midst of the most difficult adversity. Such was the case today. He recognized the magnitude of the game and he was what his team needed him to be."

Tomlin is correct: Roethlisberger is perfect for the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh.

Roethlisberger. a team captain, is gritty, not glitzy. He's tough without grabbing attention. His innate playmaking ability is not something that can be coached or molded.

At times his plays appear sloppy, but Roethlisberger won all three games against the Ravens with clutch conversions late that were also eccentric. The wildest play on Sunday was his 65-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes in the second quarter.

Roethlisberger doesn't remember the call. All he could recall was scrambling left, then rumbling right and thinking about throwing the football away.

Instead, Roethlisberger bought a little more time and gave Holmes a chance to make a play on his risky throw. Holmes did the rest, catching the ball and scurrying through traffic for the score.

It was vintage Roethlisberger and one of the biggest plays of this postseason for Pittsburgh, which took a 13-0 lead at that point and never trailed.

"You know what," Roethlisberger said smiling. "We play backyard football sometimes."

Roethlisberger Passing By Down
-- Comp. Att. Yds. Y/A TD Int. Sack Rate
First 3 8 27 3.4 0 0 1 47.4
Second 6 11 47 4.3 0 0 0 65.3
Third 7 14 181 12.9 1 0 3 119.6
Total 16 33 255 7.7 1 0 4 84.8

First downs were hard to come by in this AFC North slugfest. Pittsburgh had 11 total, and nine came from the arm of Roethlisberger.

Tomlin, who has coached Roethlisberger for two seasons, has run out of ways to describe his quarterback.

"Ben was Ben," Tomlin said.

Roethlisberger's style will never be similar to Peyton Manning's, but Roethlisberger has a chance to surpass him with a second Super Bowl ring in two weeks. The same applies for Eli Manning, who also has one Super Bowl ring.

This year Roethlisberger is going to the big game as the leader of the Steelers and not the inexperienced caretaker of the offense -- another label that has stuck with him way too long.

"He's taken control and this is his team," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "He takes pride in his huddle. Nothing seems to rattle him."

Roethlisberger is proving that statistics aren't everything -- even for signal-callers. He was the 24th-rated quarterback in the NFL this season and ranked 14th in yards.

This will be his second Super Bowl appearance in five years and his 7-2 career playoff record often goes ignored.

But Ben will just continue to be Ben. And as 30 other starting quarterbacks watch Roethlisberger play in Tampa, it's time that everyone appreciates that.

Rapid Reaction: Steelers 23, Ravens 14

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
10:26
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are joining the Arizona Cardinals in Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII.

In another hard-fought battle against an AFC North rival, Pittsburgh completed the three-game season sweep over the Baltimore Ravens with a 23-14 victory at Heinz Field. Steelers Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu provided the biggest play with a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter that sealed the final result.

  Ravens-Steelers highlights
  NFL.com Video
  The Steelers defeat the Ravens 23-14 in the AFC Championship Game.

In the battle of quarterbacks, Steelers veteran Ben Roethlisberger was once again clutch in a big game, throwing for 255 yards and a touchdown, while rookie quarterback Joe Flacco struggled. The Ravens signal caller completed just 13 of 30 passes for 141 yards and three interceptions. Flacco finished with a passer rating of just 18.2.

The Super Bowl matchup against Arizona should be an interesting one. The surprising Cardinals (12-7) are coached by Ken Whisenhunt, who was the offensive coordinator of the Steelers during their most recent title run in 2005.

Now Whisenhunt and Pittsburgh (14-4) will be on opposing sides competing for this year's Super Bowl title.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

PITTSBURGH -- The officials missed an ugly penalty.

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark should have been penalized for an obvious helmet-to-helmet hit on Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee with 3:29 left in the AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field.

  AFC Championship: McGahee injury
  NFL.com Video
  Baltimore's Willis McGahee takes a scary hit from from Ryan Clark in the AFC Championship Game.

McGahee caught a Joe Flacco pass 11 yards down field and was summarily walloped by Clark, who turned himself into missile and struck McGahee. The ball popped out, and was recovered by Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons at the Baltimore 27-yard line.

Both players flopped to the turf and grabbed their heads, even more evidence to the officials Clark had led with his helmet.

Clark eventually left the field under his own power.

McGahee's facemask was removed from his helmet before he was strapped to a backboard and driven off the field on a cart. He was moving his arms and legs.

Stone's penalty hurts Ravens

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
9:57
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

PITTSBURGH -- The Baltimore Ravens had momentum. They had scored a touchdown on their previous drive to cut the Pittsburgh Steelers' lead to 16-14 in the AFC Championship Game. The Ravens' defense then held the Steelers to a three-and-out.

Ravens returner Jim Leonhard took Mitch Berger's punt to the Baltimore 39-yard line, a nice starting point with seven minutes left.

But Ravens safety Daren Stone was flagged 15 yards for mugging Steelers gunner Anthony Madison out of bounds when the ball was in the air. The penalty was assessed from the spot Leonhard fielded the punt, pushing the Ravens back to their own 14.

The Terrible Towels responded accordingly.

Instead of having comfy field position and plenty of time to remain conservative, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu eventually intercepted a desperation third-down pass by Joe Flacco and returned it for a touchdown.

A nail-biter in Pittsburgh

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
9:44
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- As expected, the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are going to go right down to the wire for the third time this season.

Ravens tailback Willis McGahee scored his second touchdown of the game to close the gap against Pittsburgh to 16-14. McGahee capped a 6-play, 58-yard drive with the score.

The first two meetings were won by Pittsburgh by a combined total of seven points. Whichever team makes the most plays in the final minutes will pull this one out.

Ravens' McClain gets few touches

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
9:14
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

PITTSBURGH -- Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain is playing, but it's hard to tell.

Two series into the second half of the AFC Championship Game, McClain touched the ball for the first -- and, as of yet, only -- time. He has one carry for 3 yards.

Willis McGahee has carried 15 times for 44 yards and a touchdown. Two other attempts belong to quarterback Joe Flacco.

McClain was Baltimore's leading rusher with 902 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also had 19 catches for 123 yards and a score.

He injured his ankle in last week's victory over the Tennessee Titans. He had 12 attempts for 12 yards in that game, but he ran for 75 yards and a touchdown in a first-round win over the Miami Dolphins.

Also of note for the Ravens, cornerback Frank Walker is back in the game.

Ravens-Steelers halftime notes

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
8:37
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are leading the Baltimore Ravens, 13-7, in Sunday's AFC Championship Game. The winner will advance to Super Bowl XLIII to play the Arizona Cardinals in two weeks.

Here are some first half observations:

  • Ward hurt. On the topic of Ward, he injured his right knee in the first quarter. He returned in the second quarter then was taken back out of the game. His return in the second half is doubtful, which could hurt Pittsburgh's passing game.
  • Parker under wraps. The Ravens are continuing their mastery of Pittsburgh tailback Willie Parker, who has just 22 yards on 12 carries and a fumble. The Steelers surprisingly are not trying to get to the outside and running directly at the Ravens has proven not to be a good strategy.
  • No tackles for Suggs. Baltimore outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is doing what he can but hasn't made much of an impact. Suggs began the contest playing all three downs, then later in the second half switched to just playing on pass-rushing downs. He has yet to register a tackle in this game.

Ravens CB Walker out of the game

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
8:20
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

PITTSBURGH -- Baltimore Ravens cornerback Frank Walker was escorted off the field with an unknown injury in the second quarter of Sunday's AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Walker moved slowly from the sideline, flanked by two members of the Ravens' training staff.

Walker started at right cornerback for the injures Samari Rolle. Walker started four games at right corner in October and November and started at left corner in the regular-season finale.

He had 33 tackles, one interception, two forced fumbles and 14 passes defensed.

Flacco having a rough first half

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
8:01
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

PITTSBURGH -- Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco looks like a rookie.

He's having next to no success against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game.

Flacco's stat line after five drives: 3-of-11 for 39 yards, no touchdowns, one interception. He has been sacked once. The Steelers lead 13-0.

Before a dump pass to Ray Rice that turned into a 22-yard gain, Flacco had completed 1-of-8 passes for 2 yards and an interception. He also had a nice 15-yard completion to Mark Clayton on a third-and-9 play.

Flacco had passer ratings of 81.7 and 22.2 the first two times he faced the Steelers. In the second game he was 11 of 28 for 115 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.

Holmes scored this time

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
7:47
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- After getting one catch called back that could have potentially been a touchdown, Pittsburgh receiver Santonio Holmes made sure he got into the end zone with his next opportunity.

Holmes scored on a 65-yard reception during a broken play that led to the Steelers taking a 13-0 lead. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger scrambled for extra time so Holmes could get open. Holmes then made a tremendous run after the catch.

Baltimore needs to stop the bleeding in this game. The Ravens are getting outplayed in every facet early and are falling behind against the NFL's No. 1-rated defense. Baltimore could use some momentum before the end of the first half.

Did Holmes score again?

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
7:24
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes cannot avoid controversial catches.

But this time, the call didn't go his way.

About a month after scoring arguably the most debated touchdown of the regular season in the Steelers' second victory over the Baltimore Ravens, Holmes had yet another close call in the end zone during the first quarter of the AFC Championship Game.

Holmes made what the referees originally ruled a catch but bobbled the football coming down at the 1-yard line. It was also possible that Holmes scored a touchdown. But after viewing the replay, officials overturned the call and ruled it an incomplete pass.

The sequence resulted in kicker Jeff Reed making his second field goal, for 42 yards, to give Pittsburgh a 6-0 lead.

Here is another injury note: Steelers receiver Hines Ward has a right knee injury, and his return is questionable.

Steelers get on the board

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
6:56
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- Thanks to a clutch third-down reception by receiver Hines Ward, the Steelers struck first in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Pittsburgh kicker Jeff Reed connected on a 34-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead following the opening drive. Ward made a key 45-yard reception over the middle on third down to keep the drive alive and get the Steelers into scoring position.

Ward now has at least one catch in 13 straight postseason games, which is tied for the second-longest streak in team history. He also has 1,011 career postseason yards.

One play, one man down

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
6:52
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

PITTSBURGH -- They weren't kidding when they said Sunday's blockbuster showdown between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers would be a bone-jarring affair.

Ravens reserve safety Daren Stone was slobberknocked by running back Carey Davis while attempting to cover the opening kickoff. Stone staggered to his feet and needed defensive backs Evan Oglesby and Tom Zbikowski to escort him to the sideline.

An announcement was made in the Heinz Field press box that Stone has a concussion. His return is doubtful.

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