Flacco continues struggles against Steelers in season-ending loss

PITTSBURGH -- The rookie finally played like one, at the worst possible time.

Since his first NFL start in September, Joe Flacco's poise and wisdom in the pocket belied his inexperience. Even though he wasn't spectacular, the kid was plenty good enough to get the Baltimore Ravens to the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That's when Joe Cool became Joe Cold.

Flacco didn't throw an interception or lose a fumble in Baltimore's first two playoff games, and the Ravens won because of an 8-1 turnover differential. Against the Steelers on Sunday, Flacco threw three interceptions.

The first set up a field goal by Pittsburgh, the second was returned by Troy Polamalu 40 yards for a touchdown, and the final one sealed Baltimore's 23-14 loss.

"We're disappointed we're not going to the Super Bowl," Flacco said.

Flacco had difficulty completing short passes, medium-length throws and long ones. Of his first seven passes, five were incomplete, one went to Willis McGahee for 2 yards and the other was intercepted by Deshea Townsend.

At halftime, Flacco was 3-of-14 passing for 39 yards with a rating of 9.8.

Flacco finished 13-of-30 passing for 141 yards, and the Ravens' bid to reach the Super Bowl with their rookie quarterback ended with a stinging defeat against their hated rivals.

"You've got to tip your hat to those guys," Flacco said. "They played tough all year."

To his credit, Flacco directed a 59-yard touchdown drive that pulled Baltimore within 16-14 with 9:29 left. But the big play was a pass-interference call that set up Willis McGahee's second TD run of the game.

Baltimore got the ball back, and it was up to Flacco to bring the Ravens a victory against the NFL's top-ranked defense.

Under pressure, Flacco threw the ball up for grabs before being hit. Polamalu made the interception and weaved his way into the end zone with 4:24 left, virtually assuring the Ravens a trip home without the AFC title.

"I think Troy was probably just able to read my eyes," Flacco said. "I think he was just able to jump over there, read a little bit and he made a nice play."

The final interception, which came on a deflection, sent Flacco to the sideline for the final time this season.

"I don't think he struggled," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said of Flacco. "They just made plays. When you got a defense that can make plays like that, I don't think he was placing the ball where he wanted to, but this was just their night."

Flacco became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to win two playoff games by being protective of the ball, but he couldn't do so in this one. He ended up being accountable for three of his team's five turnovers.

In three games against Pittsburgh -- all losses -- Flacco threw five interceptions and had one touchdown pass.

After riding Flacco's conservative approach to victories over the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans, the Ravens (13-6) realized this game would be different after Townsend's interception. Baltimore's defense kept it close, but Flacco couldn't deliver.

"I've learned a lot from the veterans in our locker room about heart," Flacco said, "and what it takes to step foot on the football field every day."

Flacco's performance conjured memories of another rookie quarterback who took his team to the AFC title game before coming unglued at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger finished his first NFL season by going 14-of-24 passing with three interceptions in a loss to the New England Patriots in the 2004 AFC Championship Game.

Roethlisberger won the Super Bowl the following season.

The Ravens can only hope one year of experience will work similar wonders for their young quarterback, who only 13 months ago was flinging passes for the University of Delaware.

"This is where we start," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. "This is not an end by any means for the players in that locker room."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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