PITTSBURGH - The Baltimore Ravens made big news in the offseason when they upgraded their receiving corps with the additions of free agents Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
The Steelers, instead, traded away arguably their best receiver and filled in the open spots at wideout with rookie draft picks.
On Saturday at Heinz Field, those rookies outplayed the high-priced free agents and helped put the Steelers back in the AFC Championship Game for the fifth time in the last 10 seasons and the 15th time overall.
Mirror photos by J.D.?Cavrich
James Farrior and the Steelers’ defense celebrate after the Ravens failed to convert on fourth down during the final minute of Saturday’s divisional game.
Antonio Brown is congratulated by Hines Ward after the rookie’s big catch on third down late in the game.
Rookie Antonio Brown's 58-yard pass reception set up the game-winning score to help the Steelers overcome a 14-point halftime deficit their largest comeback since a 2002 playoff win over the Cleveland Browns - and defeat their AFC North Division rivals, 31-24, in the AFC divisional playoffs.
"We've got a lot of big-play guys on this team,'' said Brown, surrounded by a large group of media in the Steelers' locker room. "I just try to stay humble, keep working and play my role whatever the coaches ask of me.''
Coach Mike Tomlin asked Brown to deliver in a key spot a few plays after Boldin dropped his chance to be a hero. The Ravens, who saw their 21-7 halftime lead evaporate in the third quarter and trailed by three points in the fourth, had to settle for a field goal to tie the game at 24 when Boldin failed to come up with Joe Flacco's third-down pass in the end zone with 4:02 left in the game.
The Steelers then faced a third-and-19 from their own 38-yard line with 2:07 remaining. That's when Tomlin asked Brown to run a "go route,'' and Roethlisberger delivered the ball perfectly to the speedy wideout.
"It was crazy,'' Roethlisberger said. "I told [offensive coordinator] Bruce Arians, 'let's send him.' All the receivers were supposed to do 15-yard stop routes. 'Let's chuck it deep - if [the Ravens] pick it, it will be a pick way down there, just as good as a punt.'''
Roethlisberger said he watched Baltimore free safety Ed Reed line up to the left, and he threw it long to Brown on the right. Brown was able to get behind Baltimore's Lardarius Webb and make the catch before his momentum took him out of bounds at the 4-yard line.
"It was a read,'' Roethlisberger said. "Ed [Reed] lined up to the left. [Brown] got even with the guy, and like we said, if [Brown's] even, he's leavin.'''
The Steelers then were helped by a defensive holding penalty on the Ravens' Terrence Cody that gave them a first-and-goal chance at the Baltimore 1-yard line. Rashard Mendenhall scored from 2 yards out a few plays later, and the Steelers' defense, which allowed the Ravens just 126 total yards in the game, forced the Ravens to give up the ball after four downs. Ziggy Hood's sack and Flacco's incompletion on fourth down sent the Heinz field crowd of 64, 879 into a Terrible Towel waving celebration.
The Steelers now await the winner of today's other AFC divisional game between the New York Jets and New England Patriots. The Steelers will play at 6:30 p.m. next Sunday either at home against the Jets or on the road against the Patriots with a trip to Super Bowl XLV on the line.
"We knew the rookies had to step up,'' said another Pittsburgh rookie receiver, Emmanuel Sanders. "Me and Antonio, we worked hard all this week because we knew what was at stake. And to see [Brown] catch the [pass that set up the] game-winning touchdown was a blessing. I'm so proud of that [guy]. It feels good to win.''
It didn't look good for the Steelers in the first half. Even though Roethlisberger held an 8-2 record all-time against Baltimore and the Steelers were 8-0 against divisional opponents in the postseason, they looked like a team that was heading toward a one-and-down postseason.
Each team scored touchdowns with the help of questionable interference calls, but then the Steelers self-destructed with two fumbles that led directly to Baltimore touchdowns. On the first, Roethlisberger was hit from behind by Terrell Suggs, and because the ball went forward, several players thought it was an incompletion. But defensive end Cory Redding alertly picked up the ball at the 13-yard line and ran untouched into the end zone.
Two possessions later in the second quarter, Mendenhall fumbled at his own 12-yard line when it appeared as though his own teammate, Chris Kemoeatu, knocked the ball loose as he was being tackled. Reed recovered for the Ravens, and Flacco threw a 4-yard touchdown to Todd Heap.
To further dampen the Steelers' spirits, kicker Shaun Suisham was wide left on a 43-yard field goal right before halftime to keep the Steelers down, 21-7.
"The biggest thing we wanted to do at halftime was to come out and play and give it our all,'' Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said. "We needed to get something in the third quarter, and we got a little more than we expected, but we had to close the gap and make it a game. We just kept fighting and kept playing.''
Clark made a game-changing play when he forced the Ravens' Ray Rice to fumble the ball for the first time all season on a short pass near the beginning of the third quarter. Two plays later, Roethlisberger connected with tight end Heath Miller from 9 yards out to shrink the deficit to seven points.
Clark did it again later in the third when he intercepted a Flacco pass that was up for grabs, and the Steelers tied the game four plays later on an 8-yard Roethlisberger-to-Hines Ward touchdown pass.
"Ryan [Clark] doesn't get a lot of notoriety outside of our locker room because he plays with some great players, like Troy Polamalu and others,'' Tomlin said. "If you ask anybody in our locker room and you watch us work at practice at our facility, this guy is a leader.''
Flacco then fumbled a snap at his own 23 two plays after Ward's touchdown, and the Steelers regained the lead, 24-21, on a Suisham field goal with 12:21 left in the game.
From there, the Steelers made the key plays, while the Ravens, as usual against the Steelers when the games matter the most, did not. Brown, Sanders and second-year receiver Mike Wallace combined for 10 catches for 149 yards, while the Ravens' veteran trio of Boldin, Houshmandzadeh and Derrick Mason combined for four catches for 36 yards.
"Words can't even describe how it feels,'' Sanders said. "We were down 14 points, and we got two turnovers that really changed the dynamic of the game. It shows what kind of character that the guys have got on this team.''