Steelers finally take advantage of home-field edge

PITTSBURGH -- Ryan Clark wasn't certain if he had been knocked unconscious from his vicious hit on Willis McGahee -- which probably was a pretty good indication that he was -- but he did have a vivid recollection of what he and his Steelers teammates discussed before the AFC Championship Game.

"All we talked about all week was the worst feeling we could have had was watching Baltimore -- given how heated the rivalry is, given the personalities they have on their team -- celebrate on our field," the Steelers' free safety said. "We used that as a driving force. We didn't want to see that."

No, the Steelers weren't subjected to witnessing the Ravens gather in the center of Heinz Field for the ceremonial presentation of the AFC trophy.

That moment belonged to the men in black and gold -- and the 65,000 people in the stands -- after their 23-14 victory over Baltimore.

The fact the Steelers would be facing the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII was the real prize of the outcome, of course. And the Vince Lombardi Trophy is the only piece of hardware they truly covet, of course.

But in the immediate aftermath in the AFC title game, the focus was on the satisfaction of beating their divisional nemesis for a third consecutive time and putting an end to the Ravens' magical ride as a No. 6 playoff seed.

The Steelers were tired of hearing about Baltimore's feel-good story, with rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and first-year coach John Harbaugh. They were especially tired of hearing about how great and creative the Ravens' defense was.

The Steelers were the team with the top-rated defense in the league. The Ravens' defense ranked second. Yet, there was a perception -- largely because Baltimore led the NFL with 34 turnovers and had players such as Ed Reed make those highlight-reel returns for touchdowns -- that the Ravens' defense was actually better.

"We were one, they were two, but it always seemed like everybody felt they were better because they created so many turnovers and they scored," Clark said. "So it meant a lot to come out here and win this game and to win it in the fashion that we did."

That fashion was ugly and nasty, with brutal contact from the opening seconds.

That fashion was old, the kind commonly associated with the Steelers teams of the 1970s ... and in NFL outposts such as Green Bay and Minnesota. The essence of this game could be found in the snowflakes floating in the air, in the white puffs of breath coming out of facemasks, in the black and yellow parkas and ski caps everywhere you looked.

But the cold (the temperature was 26 degrees with a 15-degree wind chill) didn't stop with the weather. It also captured the mindset of both teams. It described the way the players approached the game. If you weren't doing the hitting, you were being hit. And if you got hit and were still able to get up and keep playing, that was a bonus.

That wasn't the case with McGahee, after he caught a pass late in the game and then caught a shoulder from Clark square to the helmet. The hit, which caused a fumble that the Steelers recovered, caused both players to go down. McGahee stayed on his back for several minutes, while Clark walked, with help, to the sideline. McGahee was placed on a stretcher and carted off the field. He moved his arms and legs, but had severe pain in his neck.

"My biggest thing is I pray he's alright," Clark said. "I guess (the hit knocked out both players). I'm not sure. The first thing I remember is they were telling me words to remember: Maroon, bell, and car, and Maroon's the doctor's name. I still remember them, so that means I'm alright. But what you saw today, there were more black jerseys delivering those hits than there were the guys in the white."

Besides the big hits, there were big plays, such as the three times the Steelers intercepted Flacco. Troy Polamalu returned the second interception 40 yards for the game's final points late in the fourth quarter, a play that seemingly sealed the Ravens' fate.

Those were the types of plays the Steelers were prepared to make to prevent an AFC Championship victory celebration on their field. It happened four other times in the franchise's history, most recently by the New England Patriots after the 2001 and 2004 seasons.

Cornerback Deshea Townsend, an 11-year veteran, has been with the Steelers long enough to remember what it was like to watch those Patriots celebrations. He also has been with the Steelers long enough to remember being part of the AFC title the Steelers won at Denver on their way to winning Super Bowl XL.

But that isn't what he was thinking about when the stage was being set up at midfield on Sunday.

"I was thinking about the ones we lost here and that New England was celebrating on our field," Townsend said. "And to see how nobody left tonight, how they were all cheering for the celebration, that's a feeling that you want. You want to win for the fans that come cheer you on week in and week out."

And the Steelers would like to give them something else to cheer about by becoming the first franchise to win six Super Bowls.

"It's one of those things that you don't realize the magnitude of it until you look back on it," offensive tackle Max Starks said. "We're proud to be tied for the most (Super Bowl victories) with two other teams (Dallas and San Francisco), but it's time to separate ourselves from the rest of the pack."

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