PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin stood outside the Steeler locker room shortly after 8 Saturday night. Cheerleading.
He may have been happier after one of his other 46 wins in his four-year Steelers coaching career -- Super Bowl XLIII comes to mind -- but it sure didn't seem like it. This 31-24 breath-robber over the mirror-image Ravens was one Tomlin and the 64,879 Terrible Towel-wavers at Heinz Field wouldn't soon forget. And as his troops skipped up the southwest tunnel to the locker room, he had a word for them all.
To James Farrior: "That's what we do! That's what we do!''
To Brett Keisel, and others: "AFC North Champs! AFC North Champs!''
To fumbler-turned-scorer Rashard Mendenhall: "You took that slash in [for a touchdown]! That's when I forgave you!''
To no one in particular: "Man, I do not want to coach that Pro Bowl! I can go to Hawaii on my own dime!''
We'll find out soon enough if Tomlin gets his wish. The Steelers, helped by a vital third-and-19 rainbow pass from Ben Roethlisberger to the 195th pick in the 2010 draft, advanced to their fifth AFC Championship Game since 2001 in unforgettable style, rebounding from a 21-7 halftime deficit to stun the heartbroken Ravens.
The losing coaching staffs in the two conference title games man the sidelines in the Jan. 30 Pro Bowl. For Tomlin not to board a plane to Honolulu in nine days to coach an orphan of an all-star game (we all know players love to get named to the Pro Bowl, not actually
"These two teams are [Marvin} Hagler and [Thomas] Hearns right there,'' an exhilarated Tomlin said when he had time to settle down. "This game was great for the game of football. A lot of people put their hand in the pile and contributed. It was vintage Steeler football.''
That it was. In a cruel twist that will hurt coach John Harbaugh and GM Ozzie Newsome even more when they realize it, the nobody rookies for the Steelers beat the rich free-agents for the Ravens. Anquan Boldin, the $8 million receiver acquired from Arizona last spring, caught one ball for minus-two yards. Veteran T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped what would have been a fourth-down conversion pass from Joe Flacco with 63 seconds to go and Baltimore trailing 31-24. "I can't believe it happened,'' a stunned Houshmandzadeh said later. "I can't ever recall dropping the ball when the team needed me. It's almost like it's not real.''
Inexcusable on both counts, those two guys coming up so small ... and Flacco (an underwhelming 16 of 30 with two turnovers) and Ray Rice (a crucial fumble) helping the collapse.
There's a reason why the Steelers have been so good for so long. The system gets the coaches the players, the players get coached, and the players fit into the roles the old Steelers like Jack Lambert and Terry Bradshaw and Mike Webster defined; and before you know it, James Harrison (three sacks against Baltimore), Roethlisberger (two touchdowns, 101.8 rating, seventh straight win over the hated Ravens) and Maurkice Pouncey (a brute force in the middle of the line, though a rookie) take their place, and play big in big games the way their predecessors did.
It wasn't just the stars, though, who came up big: Third-round rookie Emmanuel Sanders finished with four catches for 58 yards. And with the score tied at 24 and two minutes left, Roethlisberger, on third-and-19 from the Steelers' 38, got time to loft a long pass down the right side. Speedy sixth-round pick Antonio Brown, from Central Michigan -- mostly inactive through the season's first half -- sprinted past Baltimore cornerback Lardarius Webb to make the biggest catch of his life: 58 yards, down to the Raven 4.
It was that play, from that no-name, out of a four-wide set where the presumptive fourth target was Brown, that keyed this game.
"Crazy,'' said Roethlisberger. "I told [offensive coordinator] Bruce Arians, 'Let's send him.' All the receivers were supposed to do 15-yard stop routes. I said, 'Let's just chuck it deep. If they pick it, it's a pick way down there, and it's just as good as a punt. Ed Reed lined up to the left.''
And Brown to the right. Once Roethlisberger saw that, it was go time. Brown was told to beat his man -- and he did.
For a long time, this looked like the day that was to end Roethlisberger's six-game winning streak in the series. On the opening kick, Tomlin burned a replay challenge to gain 14 yards; he won the challenge, but that allowed him to challenge but one more play -- and on that challenge, the weird Cory Redding fumble return for touchdown, Tomlin lost, and he wouldn't be able to challenge anything for the final 46 minutes of the game. On the Steelers' first offensive snap, Hines Ward wrestled Ed Reed to the ground and got called for unnecessary roughness. But they turned it around. And the Ravens were left to navel-gaze.
"Losing to your rivals when you're up 21-7 at halftime, and you're behind enemy lines, and you can't get them off the field,'' said Terrell Suggs. "You can't say the refs took one. We have to take a long look at ourselves.''
It's not going to be a pretty look, because any honest look at the Ravens will show the Steelers with a very long shadow over them.