The local train was leaving for the conference championship game on a cold, sleety Saturday night, and Roethlisberger, the Steelers’ quarterback, wanted to know if all his offensive teammates were aboard.
â€œI’m going down to score,â€ Roethlisberger said, according to Steelers receiver Michael Wallace. â€œWho’s coming down with me?â€
The veteran receiver Hines Ward was on board. He made a 12-yard catch on a third-and-10. So was the rookie receiver Antonio Brown, who streaked down the sideline and caught a 58-yard rope from Roethlisberger on a third-and-19.
In the Steelers’ 31-24 victory, the horn sounding the Steelers’ arrival in their fourth A.F.C. title game in seven seasons was pulled by Rashard Mendenhall, who scored on a 2-yard run. It was the 11th play of the drive.
â€œI don’t ever second-guess when I drop back to throw because these guys make plays,â€ said Roethlisberger, who passed for 226 yards and 2 touchdowns. â€œThe stage isn’t too big for them.â€
Baltimore got the ball at the Pittsburgh 48, but it was all over for the Ravens, whose offense had 28 net yards in the second half against the Steelers’ swarming defense.
Joe Flacco, the Ravens’ quarterback, could be forgiven if he did not express the same confidence in his receivers that Roethlisberger did in his. One of his veterans, Anquan Boldin, missed a catchable ball in the end zone, and another, T. J. Houshmandzadeh, let a fourth-down pass that would have kept alive the Ravens’ last drive â€” and perhaps their season â€” slip through his hands.
â€œI wanted my number called and it was, and I didn’t catch it,â€ Houshmandzadeh said. â€œThat’s basically the moral of the story.â€
Flacco completed 16 of 30 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown and an interception. He was sacked three times by James Harrison.
â€œI thought he fought like crazy, just like the rest of the guys on the team,â€ John Harbaugh, the Ravens’ coach, said of Flacco.
It was another thrilling finish in the A.F.C. divisional rivalry that the microphones forgot. Saturday’s game barely moved the sound needle in this week’s playoff discourse, with the airwaves clogged by the ramblings of Jets Coach Rex Ryan and the retorts from New England, home of the Jets’ A.F.C. East nemesis and opponent Sunday.
The lack of pregame noise suited the A.F.C. North opponents, who do not have to talk because their brand of football is so loud and concussive.
What words were exchanged between the Steelers and the Ravens in the lead-up to their rubber match were relatively tame. In the case of Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, it was nonverbal: he met reporters one day this week wearing a T-shirt featuring an image of a raven making a vulgar gesture.
â€œIt’s humorous,â€ Roethlisberger said. â€œIt’s fun to watch.â€
In the end, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who speaks softly and delivers a big hit, provided the words that proved prophetic, saying the game between the teams that have combined for three Super Bowl titles since 1999 would be more like a chess match than a trench war.
It was going to be a battle of field position and turnovers, he predicted, adding that it was â€œthe truest essence of what football is about.â€
Field position and turnovers told the story of the Steelers’ victory. The Ravens jumped to a 21-7 lead in the first half, silencing the Heinz Field crowd of 64,879 by forcing two Pittsburgh turnovers that they converted into 14 points.
The first Steelers mistake occurred when Suggs stripped the ball from Roethlisberger.
The football came to rest at the Pittsburgh 13, where it sat for a few seconds before Ravens defensive end Cory Redding scooped it up and ambled into the end zone. Suggs was credited with a sack, one of three he recorded.
The Steelers roared back in the second half by scoring 17 points off three Ravens turnovers to take a 24-21 lead.
The previous six games between the teams were decided by a total of 19 points, so it surprised nobody when Baltimore came back to tie the score with 3 minutes 54 seconds left in the fourth on a 24-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff.
Then it was Roethlisberger’s turn. These were the moments he pined for when he sat out the first four games after being suspended by the league for violating its personal-conduct code.
The Steelers were 3-1 in his absence â€” their lone loss was to the Ravens â€” but they recognized they were a better team with Roethlisberger.
â€œHe’s probably the best quarterback in the league when the game’s on the line,â€ Wallace said.
Roethlisberger’s faith in throwing to Brown, who usually gets the call, if at all, only on short passes, made Brown determined to rise to the occasion.
â€œI just concentrated on making the catch,â€ he said. â€œBen made a great throw, and it was a great moment for me and for my team.â€
Roethlisberger laughed self-consciously in explaining the Steelers’ success in clutch situations.
â€œI guess guys sense the urgency,â€ he said, adding, â€œIt comes down to the last Play, and everyone digs a little deeper.â€