For just the fifth time since the NFL last changed the playoff format in 1990, division rivals will meet in a conference championship game.
Among the four that preceded the 49ers-Seahawks game tonight in Seattle was the Ravens-Steelers meeting five years ago at an electric Heinz Field. It marked the third game that season between the fierce AFC North rivals with nothing less than a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Here is a look back at that game:
The difference: One of the great defenses in Steelers history intercepted rookie quarterback Joe Flacco three times and also sacked him three times in a 23-14 win. Flacco had played well -- and within himself -- in leading the Ravens to a pair of playoff wins. He played like a rookie against the Steelers, though a defense that had imposed its will on many quarterbacks and a raucous home crowd had plenty to do with Flacco’s performance.
It was over when: Troy Polamalu made the biggest play in a Hall of Fame-worthy career that has been built on them. With the Steelers clinging to 16-14 lead with just under five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Polamalu read Flacco’s eyes and made a leaping, twisting interception after jumping a passing line. The perennial Pro Bowler didn’t stop there. Polamalu weaved his way 40 yards for the touchdown that all but punched Pittsburgh’s ticket to Super Bowl XLIII.
The exclamation point: Ryan Clark provided it after the Polamalu touchdown with a brutal hit on Willis McGahee that resulted in a lost fumble. Clark absolutely leveled McGahee after the Ravens running back had caught a pass over the middle. McGahee left the field on a stretcher, and Clark’s helmet-to-helmet hit did not even draw a flag as it came before the NFL’s crackdown on such plays.
Money quote: “I told that group we have miles to go before we sleep,” coach Mike Tomlin said after the Steelers’ 23-14 win. “A little Robert Frost.”
My take: I have heard Heinz Field get loud plenty of times in my seven seasons covering the Steelers. I will never forget the roar from the crowd when Polamalu picked off Flacco -- and how it built to a crescendo as he returned the interception for a touchdown. The Steelers took control of the game early, and I never got the sense they were in trouble even though they let the Ravens hang around. There was no way that one-for-the-ages defense was going to let a rookie quarterback beat the Steelers at home.