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mesaSteeler
01-17-2011, 12:14 AM
Comeback versus Ravens among most satisfying
Monday, January 17, 2011
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11017/1118600-66.stm

Hines Ward gets in the face of Ravens Ed Reed in the third quarter Saturday at Heinz Field.

What happened Saturday night at Heinz Field wasn't the greatest playoff comeback in which Hines Ward has been involved. But, make no mistake, it might have been the most satisfying.

Nine years ago, Ward was one of seven current Steelers in uniform for a 2002 AFC wild-card playoff game against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field in which the Steelers overcame a 24-7 deficit in the third quarter to post a 36-33 victory, thanks to three touchdown passes in the final 19 minutes from Tommy Maddox.

But, much more was at stake when the Steelers came back from a 21-7 halftime deficit to beat the Baltimore Ravens, 31-24, because it allowed them to advance to their fourth AFC championship game in seven years and fifth in the past 10. The Steelers will play the No. 6 seed New York Jets at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Field.

Still, there were some curious similarities between the comebacks.

In 2002, the Steelers got a big play from a rookie wide receiver when Antwaan Randle El returned a punt 66 yards for a touchdown. They got a 5-yard touchdown catch from Ward in the fourth quarter that cut the deficit to five points. And the winning touchdown came from a running back when Chris Fuamatu Ma'afala scored on a 3-yard run with 54 seconds remaining. Sound familiar?

The 17-point comeback against the Browns was the biggest in the Steelers' proud postseason history, and Saturday night was right behind it -- at least in terms of point differential. But the comeback against the Ravens was more significant because it put them just a step away from an eighth Super Bowl appearance.

"Being down 21-7 and the comeback that we had against a great team, against a team that knows us, they are in our division, it just showed a bunch of resilient guys that stayed together and never gave up," Ward said after the Steelers scored 24 points in the final 24 minutes against a Ravens defense that had allowed the second-fewest points during the regular season (270) behind the Steelers. "A lot of times in that situation, especially in the playoffs, when you turn the ball over the way we did, a lot of teams usually give up and it ends up being a blowout. But we stayed the course and found a way to win."

Not surprising. The Steelers have found such resiliency all season, pulling out victories in Miami, Buffalo and even Baltimore with bizarre rulings, fortuitous drops and timely fumbles. And they were able to draw on some of that this time against Baltimore, as well, thanks to fumbles by two of the Ravens' most productive players -- quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice, who hadn't fumbled in 404 touches all season; and costly drops by two veteran receivers who were signed this season to help them beat the Steelers, Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

The victory kept alive the Steelers' streak of never losing to a division opponent in the playoffs since 1970 (9-0), with three of those victories coming against the Ravens. More important, it puts them in the AFC title game against the Jets, the final team to beat them in the regular season.

The game also will be an opportunity for Ben Roethlisberger to move on and possibly become only the third quarterback in history to win at least three Super Bowl rings, joining Troy Aikman Tom Brady. Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana have won four.

Roethlisberger took advantage of the Ravens' turnovers to throw two touchdowns and set up the winning touchdown with a 58-yard pass to rookie Antonio Brown on a play called "77 F Double Seam Go." For the fifth game in a row, he did not have an interception.

"Anytime we have Ben on the field, he is a winner," Ward said. "He may not be Brady or all the other guys, but you can't knock the guy for what he does. History shows he is a proven winner against Baltimore and he is a proven winner in the playoffs. And, me as a player, I'm just glad to be a part of that.

"When I see him in the huddle, I know I've always got a chance to win a ballgame with him in the huddle. Regardless of how we do it, it may be unpredictable how we do things, but when situation football comes around, we find a way to pull it out and we did [Saturday night]."

It was the second playoff game in a row in which Roethlisberger has led his team to a dramatic comeback victory. The previous one came in Super Bowl XLIII when he beat the Arizona Cardinals with his pulsating touchdown to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds remaining.

It only adds to the intrigue that Holmes, who made a Super Bowl-like touchdown catch in the Jets' 28-21 victory Sunday against the New England Patriots, will be facing his former teammates.

"I have confidence in our guys," Roethlisberger said. "It's not just me by any means. All I have to do is throw it."

Smith still out

Defensive Aaron Smith (torn triceps) did not play against the Ravens and he is not expected to play against the Jets, even though he was listed only as doubtful Friday on the injury report.

Smith has not practiced in team drills since he returned to light workouts during the bye week, and players returning from a long-term injury typically won't dress for a game until they have had two weeks of practice.

The Steelers are holding a roster spot for Smith because he is one of their most beloved players and they want to give him every opportunity to possibly play, even in a limited role, in the Super Bowl. But, the way defensive end Ziggy Hood has been playing in his absence, it wouldn't make sense to use a less-than-healthy Smith in favor of the No. 1 draft choice from a year ago.

Hood has had a sack in each of the past three games and is part of a run defense that has allowed an average of 50.6 yards the past three games -- 12 yards lower than their NFL-leading average of 62.8.

"I think they just let me go," Hood said of his sack, which came on third down on the Ravens' final possession. "I think they were more worried about the blitz coming from the right side. When I saw the hole open, I just took it."

Injury update

Outside linebacker James Harrison, who had three sacks for the first time in his postseason career, injured his right shoulder on the final sack when he dived to knock Flacco out of bounds.

Harrison returned to finish the game and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he would be in some discomfort this week, but Harrison is expected to play against the Jets.

The news might not be as good for backup safety Will Allen, who injured his knee in the second half and did not return. Allen is one of the team's top special-teams players and said he might not be able to play against the Jets.

Gerry Dulac: gdula@post-gazette.com.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11017/1118600-66.stm#ixzz1BGpCeE5x