PITTSBURGH (AP) – Jeff Reed’s third field goal, a 36-yarder, gave Pittsburgh a 16-7 lead after three quarters and the Steelers put a possible Super Bowl trip in the hands of their awesome defense in Sunday’s AFC championship game against the Baltimore Ravens.
Reed’s kick with 3:38 left in the third quarter moved the Steelers within 15 minutes of a spot in the Super Bowl against the Arizona Cardinals in two weeks in Tampa.
Protecting a six-point halftime lead, the Steelers’ No. 1-ranked defense kept the Ravens bottled up throughout the third quarter, limiting them to two first downs and keeping them on their own side of the field.
Santonio Holmes scored on a 65-yard reception in the second quarter and Reed kicked two field goals in the first half.
Holmes caught a pass from Ben Roethlisberger on the right side, cut across the middle to pick up a couple blocks and dived into the left corner of the end zone, giving the Steelers a 13-0 lead. The electrifying play put the Steelers in control, allowing their defense to pin back its ears and go after Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, who was just 6-of-20 for 64 yards after three quarters.
The Steelers looked as if they might run away and hide in the first half, but just as Baltimore appeared doomed, the Ravens got a big play on special teams.
Jim Leonhard returned a punt 45 yards to Pittsburgh’s 17, and three plays later, Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden was called for interference for grabbing wide receiver Derrick Mason’s arm, giving the Ravens first-and-goal at the 3.
On the next play, Willis McGahee blasted in for a TD, pulling the Ravens within six.
The Steelers blew two scoring opportunities that allowed the Ravens to stay close.
In the final minute of the half, Pittsburgh rookie wide receiver Limas Sweed, only playing because Hines Ward was out with a knee injury, dropped a sure TD pass from Roethlisberger. The Steelers also botched a late drive, which was set up on a roughing-the-punter call against Baltimore.
Pittsburgh held Baltimore to 17 yards in the first quarter and didn’t permit the Ravens to pick up their initial first down until Baltimore’s fifth possession.
Flacco, unflappable in the Ravens’ first two postseason wins, was intercepted by nickel back Deshea Townsend in the first quarter – setting up Reed’s second field goal – and spent much of the opening half picking himself up off the Heinz Field turf.
A matchup of the NFL’s top two defenses lived up to its hard-hitting hype.
On the opening kickoff, Pittsburgh fullback Casey Davis laid a shoulder into Baltimore’s Daren Stone, who wasn’t sure where he was when he finally got up and had to be helped to the sideline by two teammates. Stone sustained a concussion and wasn’t expected to return.
Moments after dropping the long pass, Sweed peeled back and leveled Baltimore’s Corey Ivey, who laid motionless for a few seconds before getting his wits.
Ward injured his right knee in the first quarter and his return was questionable.
The Ravens (13-5) couldn’t do anything with the ball in the first 15 minutes, and their best chance at getting their initial first down got snuffed when Flacco was stacked up at the line by nose tackle Casey Hampton and Troy Polamalu on fourth-and-1 at Pittsburgh’s 34.
Reed kicked field goals of 34 and 42 yards as Pittsburgh took the early lead in a game where points figured to be at a premium.
The last time the teams met, Holmes caught a 4-yard TD pass in the final minute at the goal line in the Steelers’ 13-9 win on Dec. 14.
Bundled in scarves and Terrible Towels to ward off a game-time temperature of 26 degrees, Steelers fans were witnessing their 10th AFC championship game at home since 1972. Pittsburgh, though, has struggled with the season’s biggest game in their backyard and came in having lost three straight and four of five on the banks of the three rivers.
Sworn division enemies who live just a four-hour drive apart, the Steelers (13-4) and Ravens were meeting for the third time since September, but this time with a Super Bowl trip riding on the outcome.
Pittsburgh won both regular-season matchups: 23-20 in overtime on Sept. 29 at home and by four on Dec. 14 on the road.
The Ravens were missing one key piece on defense as cornerback Samari Rolle didn’t dress because of a groin injury and was replaced by Frank Walker. Earlier this season, Walker was accused of spitting at Pittsburgh punter Mitch Berger – another of those unpleasant moments that have helped make Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries.