PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers know better than to make vacation plans for the latter part of January, because they fully expect to be playing football through the end of the month.
With their 31-24 comeback victory over Baltimore on Saturday, the Steelers earned a 15th trip to the AFC title game. Given what Pittsburgh had to overcome this season, this appearance will be more satisfying than most.
"We don't take this for granted," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We are extremely humbled and honored to move on to the AFC championship game, and to be recognized as the true champions of the AFC North. We respect the heck out of the Ravens."
The Steelers beat the heck out of the Ravens, too. After trailing 21-7 at halftime, Pittsburgh scored 17 straight points, then mounted a classic drive at the finish to move within a victory of a return trip to the Super Bowl.
The Steelers will face the Jets, who topped New England 28-21, in the AFC championship game next Sunday night.
Although the Ravens committed three turnovers in the third quarter, the Steelers (13-4) deserve credit for forcing those miscues and scoring 24 points in the second half — matching the total Baltimore had yielded in its previous three games.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for two touchdowns and orchestrated a 65-yard drive in the closing minutes that included a 58-yard pass to rookie Antonio Brown on third-and-19. That set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Rashard Mendenhall with 1:33 left for the winning points.
Soon thereafter, the Steelers and a delirious crowd at Heinz Field began gearing up for their fourth appearance in the AFC title game over the last seven years.
"That's great. To be down like that and come out at halftime, I know a lot of people probably were counting us out," linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "We came back and we fought. That shows what kind of team we are. When the offense is down, the defense is going to pick them up. And when the defense is down, the offense is going to pick up. That's the thing about being teammates."
For the first 30 minutes, both units could share the blame for the 14-point deficit. The defense gave up a 68-yard drive and permitted two third-down conversions during another touchdown march, and the offense committed two turnovers, including a fumble by Roethlisberger that Ravens defensive end Cory Redding turned into a score.
"It wasn't our best day today," said wide receiver Hines Ward, who scored a touchdown. "But anytime we have Ben on the field, he is a winner. He may not be (Tom) Brady or all the other guys, but you can't knock the guy for what he has done. History shows he is a proven winner against Baltimore. He is a proven winner in the playoffs."
Roethlisberger has won his last seven starts against the Ravens since 2006. He began the season serving a four-game suspension and expects to finish it hoisting high the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the Super Bowl.
To get there, he will have to beat a team that defeated Pittsburgh earlier. The New York Jets edged the Steelers 22-17 in December.
On Saturday night, Roethlisberger didn't care to think about a rematch.
"You like to play teams that you lose to. Right now that is not on my mind," he said. "I'm going to enjoy this win and see what happens."
Roethlisberger knows all about playing in the AFC championship game and Super Bowl, but there are others on this team preparing for their first such foray this deep into the postseason.
Safety Ryan Clark said: "What's funny is coach Tomlin, at the beginning of the playoffs, put names on the board of all the guys who were playing big roles for us right now who weren't here for the last Super Bowl run: Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Rashard Mendenhall, Ziggy Hood.
"He said what guys like James Farrior and Troy Polamalu would do. But the difference was going to be what those young guys do," Clark said. "You look at the contributions made by Ziggy (four tackles and a sack), the big catch made by Antonio. Those guys really came through for us, and, at this time, that's what you need. We know that Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are going to do their thing for Baltimore. But what are their young guys going to do? I believe we won that battle."
And now the Steelers are poised for another trip to the AFC championship.
"It starts with the top. It starts with the Rooneys — awesome people, awesome family, awesome owners," Roethlisberger said. "I think all the players really respect the coaches, from the head guy all the way down to our position guy. We are a family, we have since I've been here and we'll fight and do anything for each other."