Ravens' curtain call

PITTSBURGH — Trudging down the hallway to the visitors' locker room with tearful eyes minutes after running back Willis McGahee was carted off the field following a devastating hit, the Baltimore Ravens were still in shock after their improbably resurgent season was halted by the Pittsburgh Steelers one step away from reaching the Super Bowl.

Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco tied a career-high by tossing three interceptions, including an errant fourth-quarter throw returned 40 yards for a touchdown by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu that stamped out the Ravens for good. It was a brutally violent game that left McGahee overnight in the hospital for tests even though he is neurologically intact.

The turnovers were the first committed by the uncommonly poised Flacco during the entire postseason, and they proved costly to the Ravens' cause.

The Steelers' 23-14 victory in the AFC title game Sunday night at Heinz Field over the sixth-seeded Ravens (13-6) was characterized by an opportunistic defense and the elusiveness of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as well as Flacco's uncharacteristic miscues. He completed just 13 of 30 passes for 141 yards with a career-low 18.2 quarterback rating.

"We're just disappointed we're not going to the Super Bowl," Flacco said. "We'll move on, but we're a little disappointed at this point."

The Ravens were left reeling in the aftermath of a devastating loss. Baltimore was swept by the Steelers with three consecutive losses to their AFC North rivals, who will play the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl.

"It hasn't set in yet," said linebacker Terrell Suggs, who recorded two sacks despite the pain of a partially dislocated right shoulder. "We're still in shock. I think we're all disappointed still. We came here to win, but we didn't. They won three times. I look at it as they did what they had to do to go to the Super Bowl."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh refused to pin blame for the loss on Flacco, who hadn't thrown an interception since tossing two last month in a loss to the Steelers.

"I'm not going to sit here and say Joe played a certain way," Harbaugh said. "Joe went out there and competed and battled and fought hard and tried to find a way to win the football game, so I certainly have no complaints."

The Ravens' only touchdowns were scored by McGahee before he left the game on a crushing helmet-to-helmet hit from safety Ryan Clark late in the fourth quarter.

"No matter what you've achieved, no matter how hard you play, you're going to be disappointed to lose this game," Flacco said. "This was the last game before the Super Bowl. You have to give it up to the Steelers. We've lost to them all three times, and I have to give them credit."

Trailing 16-14 late in the fourth quarter, Flacco committed a rare rookie mistake by making it obvious that he wanted to throw to his primary read: wide receiver Derrick Mason. Polamalu capitalized by swooping in for the interception and resembled Raves free safety Ed Reed in how he bolted upfield for a touchdown.

"I think Troy was able to read my eyes," Flacco said. "He was able to jump over there and make a play. I didn't see him over there until I was on the ground. You have influence as much as you can away from where you want to throw the ball. I think he was able to beat me there. He read me a little bit."

Added Mason: "Joe has to keep his head up because the guy is only going to get better. Joe's going to lead this team to many more AFC championship games."

At his improvisational best, Roethlisberger bought himself time by dodging pass rushers before stepping up in the pocket and lobbed a 65-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes earlier in the game.

Fabian Washington fell down on the play, and Holmes reversed field and cut back to reach the end zone. His score boosted the Steelers' lead to 13-0.

Using the no-huddle offense, the Ravens went on a long drive that marched them 13 plays and got them down to the Steelers' 39-yard line. However, Flacco was sacked by defensive end Aaron Smith to halt the drive that began at the Ravens' 12-yard line.

On their next possession, the Ravens finally issued a rebuttal to the Steelers' convincing first-half argument about who should represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

Strong safety Jim Leonhard ripped off a 45-yard punt return down to the Steelers' 17-yard line before being tackled by punter Mitch Berger, actually fumbling for the second time. It rolled out of bounds, though.

The Steelers were up in arms when cornerback Bryant McFadden was flagged for pass interference when he tangled with wide receiver Derrick Mason in the end zone for an automatic first down.

On the next play, McGahee busted into the end zone untouched for a three-yard touchdown run to get the Ravens on th e scoreboard and cut the Steelers lead down to 13-7.

Outside linebacker Edgar Jones drew a roughing the kicker penalty when he landed in the vicinity of punter Mitch Berger's plant leg, giving the Steelers a first down at the Ravens' 35-yad line with 47 seconds remaining in the first half. It was a nice job of acting by Berger to overemphasize the fall to get the officials' attention for the penalty.

Toward the end of the first half, Steelers rookie wide receiver Limas Sweed badly beat cornerback Evan Oglesby as he bit on Roethlisberger's pump fake. However, Sweed committed a huge gaffe when he allowed a perfectly thrown spiral to glance off his outstretched hands.

He left the field with an undisclosed injury, perhaps a bruised ego. Sweed would return, though, and he delivered the biggest hit of an uncommonly brutal game by cracking back on Ravens cornerback Corey Ivy to spring tight end Heath Miller for a 14-yard reception down to the Ravens' 35-yard line.

However, the Steelers' drive stalled as Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians curiously opted to have Roethlisberger throw over the middle to running back Mewelde Moore with 16 seconds remaining. Inside linebacker Bart Scott tackled Moore at the Ravens' 12-yard line. The Steelers frantically tried to spike the football, but the clock ran out to end the first half.

In the first half, Flacco completed just 3 of 14 passes for 39 yards, no touchdowns a nd one interception for a putrid 9.8 quarterback rating. Conversely, Roethlisberger effectively completed 11 of 24 passes for 188 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for an 86.8 rating.

The Ravens converted just 2 of 8 third downs, mustering only 74 yards of total offense to the Steelers' 208 yards. The primary bright spot offensively was McGahee's 60 rushing yards.

Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain didn't have a carry in the first half due to a sprained ankle and finished with one rush for three yards while the Ravens stuffed Steelers running back Willie Parker, who lost a fumble on a big hit by middle linebacker Ray Lewis. However, the Ravens didn't produce a first down until the second quarter. Bad omens started cropping up immediately for the Ravens in the first quarter.

Roethlisberger connected with Hines Ward over the middle for a 45-yard gain, the majority of it gained after the catch when Reed missed a tackle after he seemed to bunch up with Leonhard. He was finally dragged down by middle linebacker Ray Lewis The Steelers took advantage of the coverage lapse, getting on the scoreboard four plays later when kicker Jeff Reed nailed a 32-yard field goal.

Then, Flacco did something out of character. He threw his first interception in a month when he stared at Mason and was picked off by cornerback Deshea Townsend at the Ravens' 35-yard line. It was a bad decision on Flacco's part, a mistake that he normally doesn't commit.

An uncanny scenario of déjà vu unfolded on the Steelers' ensuing drive when Holmes dove for an apparent 23-yard completion down to the Ravens' 1-yard line. Unlike the controversial game-winning touchdown Holmes scored in the Ravens' 13-9 loss to the Steelers in Baltimore last month when it was debatable if the football broke the plane of the end zone and referee Walt Coleman overruled the initial call, the Ravens got their way this time.

The Ravens called for an instant-replay challenge, and referee Bill Carollo determined that Holmes lost possession of the ball when he went to the ground. Roethlisberger threw incomplete on 3rd-and-10, and the Steelers had to settle for a 42-yard Reed field goal that staked them to a 6-0 lead.

The Ravens were unable to capitalize when Lewis ripped the football out of the hands of a timid-running Parker and Leonhard pounced on the fumble. In a questionable piece of strategy on 4th-and-1 at the Steelers' 34-yard line, the Ravens opted to have Flacco execute a quarterback sneak up the middle out of an empty backfield.

Hefty nose guard Casey Hampton got a tremendous charge up the middle against center Jason Brown, and Polamalu made an acrobatic dive over the top to corral Flacco. The referees called for the measuring sticks, but it wasn't even close Nonetheless, the Ravens' dramatic turnaround from a 5-11 season to engineer a run deep into the playoffs offers encouragement for the future.

"I think we started something good here," Suggs said. "We got to the AFC championship. That's a good start."

Harbaugh's message to the players in the locker room centered on the future, not dwelling on another bitter setback to the Steelers.

"It was basically how proud I was to stand with them in both victory and defeat," Harbaugh said. "This is our beginning. This is not an ending by any stretch for the players in that room. We look forward so we can't wait to take the next step."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

McGahee 'neurologically intact' after scary hit

By Aaron Wilson

PITTSBURGH -- Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee suffered a devastating hit from Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark in the final minutes of the Ravens' AFC title game loss. He's "neurologically intact," according to Ravens team officials.

Although McGahee remained down on the ground for several minutes with "significant neck pain" while players from both sides prayed for him in a highly emotional moment, the Ravens said he has movement in his arms and legs. He20was carted off the field with his upper body immobilized.

Team spokesman Kevin Byrne said that McGaheee was transported to a local hospital in Pittsburgh and was scheduled to remain overnight to undergo a battery of tests with Ravens team Dr. Leigh Ann Curl staying with him to observe his condition. There's concern that McGahee may have bruised his spine.

"This is football," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We're just praying he's all right. He's talking and moving, so that's good. We just hope he'll be all right."

McGahee caught a pass and took a pair of steps before Clark unloaded on him with a helmet-to-helmet hit. McGahee's neck snapped backwards. He immediately fell to the ground and didn't seem to be moving initially.

While McGahee was being lifted onto a stretcher and carted off the field, he was able to move his hands and talk, joining hands with free safety Ed Reed before being taken to the locker room. McGahee scored both of the Ravens' touchdowns and finished with a game-high 60 rushing yards.

"It was a heckuva hit," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Willis made a really nice play leading up to that. Your first thought obviously is concern for Willis, for any player.

"As we heard the doctor talk and saw him moving around, we thought he's going to be okay. Both sides obviously had concerns, but we were happy it was not immediately serious at that point.

Added running back Ray Rice: "It was just a freak hit. I've learned a lot from Willis this year. I just wish the best for him; he's been like a brother to me. It was a hard hit, head-on collision. It was good to see him moving. it was good to see him talking. I think he's going to be fine. My prayers are with him."

The hit also left Clark noticeably groggy. He struggled to make his way off the field with the assistance of Steelers trainers and appeared dazed. The Steelers were also worried about McGahee.

"We hope that Willis is okay," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "We're keeping him in our prayers. I know how scary that is. I started getting a little emotional when I saw him down there and the cart was coming out. That's the nature of this rivalry."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

Notebook: Suggs plays through the pain All signs point to Ryan being named Jets' new head coach, could be announced as soon as today

By Aaron Wilson

PITTSBURGH -- All week long, the talk around the Baltimore Ravens' camp was about Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs' status.

Would his damaged right shoulder allow him to play in Sunday's AFC title game against the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Prior to kickoff, Suggs played the injury card to the max for gamesmanship purposes. When it came time for the game, Suggs answered the bell with two sacks in a 23-14 loss at Heinz Field.

He sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for a 14-yard loss in the third quarter and a three-yard sack midway through the fourth quarter.

It wasn't enough, though, and Suggs' first AFC championship game ended with a painful defeat.

"It feels like s--t," Suggs said of his shoulder injury that prevented him from practicing all last week.

The pain would have been forgotten had he been celebrating with his teammates instead of watching the Steelers.

"If I was out there on the stage, it wouldn't hurt so much," Suggs said. I didn't feel limited at all. I wanted to be there for my team. I wanted to be there for my brothers."

Suggs was aware of the pain, though.

"I knew it was there," he said. "I knew it wasn't 100 percent."

Nonetheless, he gutted it out.

"I don't know how he graded out or anything like that," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I thought he competed and fought through it really well, and that's what he's about.

"That's what our guys have been about throughout the course of the year. We had a lot of guys who played through stuff. Terrell Suggs is a courageous guy."

Suggs will be a free agent as will fellow linebackers Ray Lewis and Bart Scott. It's highly questionable that all three will be return, but Suggs definitely prefers to remain in Baltimore.

"I think we started something good here," Suggs said. "We got to the AFC championship. That's a good start. Hopefully, they want to keep me around for a couple of years."

RYAN UPDATE: Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is expected to be named the New York Jets' head coach today, barring any snags in final negotiations.

Ryan wowed Jets owner Woody Johnson and general manager Mike Tannenbaum during a five-hour interview in Baltimore last Sunday, impressing them enough that he became the frontrunner over Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Arizona Cardinals assistant head coach Russ Grimm.

Ryan is expected to accept the position, but won't be introduced at a press conference until Wednesday because of the presidential inauguration on Tuesday.

"If I get that opportunity, that would be fantastic," Ryan said. "But, right now, this is tough. We just lost the AFC championship game."

Ryan emphasized that he didn't know when his next meeting will be with Johnson, but it's exp ected to be soon.

"I'm not sure when that will be," Ryan said. "Hopefully, I'll get that opportunity, but, as of now, I'm not sure what the plan is. I was blessed to be in this situation."

Outside linebackers coach Mike Pettine is expected to join Ryan in New York, and quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson is a potential offensive coordinator candidate.

"Rex Ryan is going to be a great head coach in the National Football League," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "If somebody is wise enough to make that decision here shortly, they will have a great head football coach. I just support him completely in that."

The Ravens could promote from within to replace Ryan with linebackers coach Greg Mattison, special assistant Vic Fangio and secondary coach Chuck Pagano considered the leading candidates.

There have also been rumors floated around the league about Baltimore being interested in Oakland Raiders linebackers coach Don Martindale, who's also a candidate for the Raiders' head coaching job and other openings around the league.

WHERE WAS MCCLAIN?: Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain hardly played at all.

The Ravens leading rusher had a sprained ankle, and he didn't carry the ball until early in the second half. His only carry went for three yards. Baltimore's running attack suffered. Willis McGahee and Ray Rice saw more action, but Rice didn't get a carry until late in the fourth quarter. McGahee was the game's leading rusher with 60 yards and two touchdowns before being hurt in the game's final minutes on a huge hit.

The Ravens rushed for just 73 yards with a 2.9 average per carry.

Rice was Baltimore's leading receiver with three catches for 43 yards.

KOKINIS UPDATE: Ravens director of pro personnel George Kokinis is scheduled to talk with Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner again today regarding the Browns' general manager vacancy.

Kokinis is believed to be extremely interested in the position and is still regarded as the frontrunner for the job.

Kokinis is close friends with Browns coach Eric Mangini, and Lerner is looking to build chemistry in the front office after former coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Phil Savage didn't mesh well or see eye to eye.

TRAINING ROOM: Reserve safety and special-teams player Daren Stone absorbed a crushing hit on the opening kickoff, suffering a concussion. He had to be helped off the field, but did return.

Defensive end Trevor Pryce briefly left the game in the first half, limping off the field, but returned. Cornerback Frank Walker left the game for a large portion of the first half with a dislocated shoulder, but gamely returned in the second half.

Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward left the game with a right knee injury and returned to the game, but then it was announced that it was doubtful he would continue to play.

Pittsburgh running back Mewelde Moore left the game with a right ankle injury.

LEONHARD A STANDOUT: One of the more overlooked Ravens this season was strong safety and punt returner Jim Leonhard.

Leonhard's 45-yard second quarter return set up Baltimore's first touchdown. He also had a 29-yard return in the Ravens' 13-10 win over the Tennessee Titans.

BRING ON THE CARDINALS: Ravens fans with long memories might rem ember Ken Whisenhunt. The Arizona Cardinals' coach worked under Ted Marchibroda in 1997 and 1998 as tight ends coach. He also spent many years with the Steelers under Bill Cowher.

A few may recall that Cardinals owner Bill Bidwell flirted with Baltimore before moving the Cardinals from St. Louis to Phoenix in 1988.

SITTING OUT: Cornerback Samari Rolle (groin) was inactive and was replaced by Walker. The other inactives were wide receiver Terrance Copper, running back Jalen Parmele, linebackers Antwan Barnes and Robert McCune and offensive linemen Oniel Cousins and David Hale. Todd Bouman was designated as the third quarterback.

CONSOLATION PRIZE: Instead of coaching in the Super Bowl in two weeks, the Ravens coaching staff gets a consolation prize. They'll go to Honolulu to coach the AFC team in the Pro Bowl on Feb. 8.

Harbaugh will face Andy Reid, his former boss with the Philadelphia Eagles, who'll coach the NFC.

It will be the last team for the foreseeable future that the game will be played after the Super Bowl in Hawaii . The 2010 game will be played a week before the Super Bowl in Miami.

WAIT UNTIL NEXT YEAR: Besides their highly anticipated rematches with the Steelers next year, the Ravens play their other division rivals, Cincinnati and Cleveland, twice each. They'll also host Denver, New England, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Detroit and Chicago. Baltimore will visit Oakland, San Diego, Green Bay and Minnesota.

QUICK HITS: Santonio Holmes' 65-yard touchdown catch was the third longest play against Baltimore this season. … Two veterans from the 2000 Super Bowl Ravens participated in the coin toss. Tony Siragusa and the ailing O.J. Brigance watched them win the toss. Brigance is fighting a battle with ALS. Former Ravens safety Rod Woodson was an honorary captain for the Steelers, hugging Brigance after the coin toss. ... The Ravens' game captains were Ray Lewis, Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton, Pryce, Leonhard and Brendon Ayanbadejo… Travelers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike were greeted by a flashing sign that read, "Go Eagles, Go Steelers." … The crowd of 65,350 was a Heinz Field record.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

BALTIMORE RAVENS' REPORT CARD By Aaron Wilson Quarterback: D Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco struggled with his accuracy and threw three interceptions for his first turnovers of the postseason. He seemed to be out of sync throughout the game, completing just 3 of his first 14 passes and finished 13 of 30 for 141 yards and no touchdowns for a putrid 18.2 quarterback rating. In the fourth quarter, he forced an errant pass into heavy coverage and Steelers safety Troy Polamalu capitalized by returning it 40 yards for the game-sealing touchdown. Running back: C-minus Willis McGahee rushed for two touchdowns and gained 60 yards on 20 carries, picking up the slack for ailing fullback Le'Ron McClain, before being carted off the field late in the fourth quarter following a scary hit that left him in a Pittsburgh hospital despite being "neurologically sound." Dealing with an ankle injury, McClain was limited to one carry for three yards. Rookie runner Ray Rice caught three passes, but rushed for just two yards on one carry. Receiver: C-minus The Ravens' passing game struggled, and the receivers didn't create much separation against the Steelers' sound coverage. Derrick Mason led them with three catches for 41 yards. There was little assistance of note from Mark Clayton and Todd Heap as complementary targets. Offensive line: C-minus There wasn't much room for the running backs to operate against the Steelers' aggressive top-ranked defense. Plus, rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was under much more duress than usual. After not being sacked in the first two rounds of the playoffs, he was sacked three times. Defensive line: B-plus They did a solid job of walling off the Steelers' running game, and registered four sacks of Ben Roethlisberger. Haloti Ngata had a huge game inside, as did Justin Bannan. Trevor Pryce had a big game, collapsing the pocket. Linebacker: B-plus Playing with a painful right shoulder injury, Terrell Suggs racked up two sacks. They intimidated and shut down Steelers running back Willie Parker as middle linebacker Ray Lewis made him fumble as Parker was held to just 48 yards on 22 carries. Lewis doled out some punishing hits. Secondary: C A banged-up secondary missing three-fourths of their original starting alignment to begin the season was extremely vulnerable against Ben Roethlisberger. If not for dropped passes by Limas Sweed and Santonio Holmes, this game might not have even been close. Holmes notched a 65-yard touchdown catch when Fabian Washington fell down in coverage. Special teams: B-minus Strong safety Jim Leonhard bolted for a 45-yard punt return, averaging 11 yards on five returns. The kick coverage was solid. And punter Sam Koch, even on a bad night by his high standards, outkicked Steelers punter Mitch Berger. However, there were some costly penalties on special teams. Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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