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Flacco's road to Super Bowl must go through city that shunned him

PITTSBURGH -- This is why Joe Flacco wanted to play in Pittsburgh.

The chance to be the quarterback in big games, in a supportive city passionate about football, in a stadium with a significant home-field advantage.

Only he didn't expect it would be for this team, the Baltimore Ravens, in this AFC Championship Game against the Steelers, the team he spent several years watching from up close while practicing daily in the training complex it shares with Pitt.

No, Flacco came to the city six years ago to play for Pittsburgh, not oppose it, except his major college career didn't work out as planned. Banished to Pitt's bench, possibly overlooked during a coaching staff change, his path to Sunday's AFC title game took a detour through college football's back-channels to Delaware, making him a Blue Hen rather than a Panther.

"I never got a shot," said Flacco, who transferred after throwing just four passes in two seasons at Pitt. "I still carry it with me that I'm a I-AA guy and I had to go down to the minor leagues of college football and prove who I was."

That circuitous route didn't keep him out of the big leagues. Now, his first championship game as an NFL quarterback will be in the stadium, Heinz Field, he planned to play his college career. That's only a subplot to his primary goal of becoming the first rookie quarterback to take his team to the Super Bowl.

If it happens to take place in the city that effectively shunned him, well, only the better.

"I understand that the scale is a little bit bigger, but it's still a football game," said Flacco, only 13 months removed from playing in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) title game. "But it's still a football game. We're going against the Pittsburgh Steelers, yes. I'm just going to look at my teammates, and we'll all have confidence in each other."

Flacco's Pittsburgh counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger, knows all about the pressures -- and, perhaps, the nervous anxiety -- the rookie is going through this weekend.

Roethlisberger went through the same experience as a rookie in 2004, when the Steelers were 16-1 going into their AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots but lost 41-27, partly because he was outplayed by Tom Brady.

Roethlisberger, whose college career was played at Miami of Ohio rather than one of the big-time schools, led the Steelers to the Super Bowl and won it one year later, but that followed another full NFL season.

"I just hope it (this AFC Championship Game) isn't as bad as the first I had here," Roethlisberger said, referring to the three interceptions he threw against New England as a rookie. "That's been the key to everyone's success or failure in the postseason, if you take care of the ball."

Roethlisberger understands the challenge Flacco faces, trying to disprove the theory that it's simply too much to ask a rookie to win a game this big. Already, Flacco is the only rookie quarterback to win two playoff games in a season.

"He does remind me quite a bit of Ben when he was in his first year," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "He has a tremendously strong arm, he has the size factor Ben had (Flacco is 6-6, Roethlisberger 6-5), and he has the ability to create pressure with his legs Ben has."

LeBeau has backed off some of the Steelers' blitzing this season, based on the opponent, but he conceivably could crank it up against the rookie. Several Steelers players said the game speed and intensity will be unlike anything Flacco has seen -- and, no doubt, they want to exploit his lack of experience.

Flacco's biggest strength is his ability to dodge big mistakes; he didn't throw an interception in playoff victories over the Miami Dolphins or Tennessee Titans. He was less effective during two regular-season losses to the Steelers, throwing for just 115 yards while being intercepted twice in a 13-9 loss in Baltimore last month.

The Ravens also might be a weary team -- this is the 18th consecutive week they have played -- and the Steelers have a health advantage. Baltimore linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs (shoulder) might be out for the first time in his career, and wide receiver Derrick Mason (knee, shoulder) and cornerback Samari Rolle (groin) are hurting.

Another hurdle: The Ravens are trying to become only the second No. 6-seeded team to make the Super Bowl. Only the Steelers three years ago accomplished it.

So it might come down to this for the Ravens in the first matchup of No. 1 and No. 2 defenses in an NFL conference game in 30 years: Can Flacco do the previously unimaginable by leaping so many hurdles, including very cold weather, and taking a team to the Super Bowl as a rookie? Something John Elway, Dan Marino, the Mannings (Peyton and Eli), Brady and Roethlisberger couldn't do?

"We hate to compare guys to other guys," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We just think Joe's ability stands on its own. He's Joe Flacco, and that's going to be the comparison, maybe down the road, for every quarterback."

That's down the road. This game is now, and, based on NFL history, this might be too tough to pull off.

"I know it's different (in the postseason), but you can't let yourself think that," Flacco said. "You can't go out there on the field and say, 'Wow, what am I doing out here?' You've got to act like you're supposed to be here, and that's part of what being a quarterback is. You go out there and act like you're supposed to be here."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press.

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