PITTSBURGH -- The rookie finally played like one, at the worst possible time.
That's when Joe Cool became Joe Cold.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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