PITTSBURGH -- There is not much that separates the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. Both teams have elite defenses, Pro Bowl players, future Hall of Famers and two of the best coaching staffs in the NFL.
Game, set and match in favor of the Steelers.
Roethlisberger was masterful against Baltimore once again during Pittsburgh's 31-24 divisional-round playoff victory Saturday. He threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns. Roethlisberger's biggest play was a key, 58-yard bomb to rookie receiver Antonio Brown on third-and-19 that led to Pittsburgh's go-ahead score with less than two minutes remaining.
The game marked Roethlisberger's seventh consecutive win over Baltimore -- Pittsburgh's biggest rival -- and improved his career record to 9-2 against the Ravens. It's painfully obvious that the Ravens will not climb "Mt. Roethlisberger" until Flacco closes ground on Pittsburgh's two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.
As Roethlisberger kept making big play after big play, Flacco floundered with another poor playoff outing, throwing for only 125 yards and one touchdown and committing two huge turnovers (one interception and one fumble). In a very close game that came down to the final possession, Roethlisberger's passer rating was 101.8 compared with Flacco's 61.1.
"He's better. Right now Ben's better," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said bluntly. "He's more experienced, he's been through it more times and seen more things. It's not a slight on Flacco at all; it's a compliment to our guy. We have total confidence in Ben that when we need a play he's going to make it."
The look on Roethlisberger's face Saturday night was matter-of-fact. There was no big smile or special show of emotion in the locker room or during his news conference after one of the best wins of his career. Roethlisberger expects to step up in key postseason moments, so much so that he barely wanted to indulge in his clutch play.
"I have confidence in our guys," Roethlisberger shrugged. "It's not just me by any means, all I have to do is throw it."
Baltimore needed big plays from Flacco against Pittsburgh but didn't get them.
The Ravens' defense was tremendous in the first half. They forced two Pittsburgh turnovers early that led to 14 points, including a forced fumble of Roethlisberger that was picked up by Ravens defensive lineman Cory Redding and returned for a 13-yard touchdown.
The Ravens led 21-7 in the first half before Pittsburgh's defense got to Flacco in the second half and things fell apart. Flacco was only 4-of-12 passing for 43 yards and had both of his turnovers in the second half. Flacco also didn’t get much help as Baltimore receivers dropped some passes. Four of Pittsburgh's five sacks also came after intermission, as Pittsburgh outscored Baltimore 24-3 in the second half.
"I think you kind of saw Joe get a little rattled. He was getting hit a couple of times," Clark said as he continued to compare the two quarterbacks. "We put some pressure on him and Ben never [gets rattled]. I think he likes it."
Flacco dropped to 2-6 against the Steelers and 0-6 in games that Roethlisberger has played. Flacco's two wins against Pittsburgh came in 2009 when Roethlisberger sat out with a concussion and this season when Roethlisberger was serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
"We're both good football teams and the bottom line is they're better at winning right now than we are," Flacco said. "We have to improve. We're just not there yet."
And neither is Flacco. But afterward, Roethlisberger offered Flacco some words of encouragement.
"I'd just tell him to keep his head up," Roethlisberger said. "He's a really, really good player. He's going to be one of the best in this league."
But for now Roethlisberger continues to rack up wins against Flacco in this great rivalry.
This is the fourth time Pittsburgh has made it to the AFC title game in Roethlisberger's seven seasons. The Steelers will try to advance to the Super Bowl for the third time since the 2005 season when they play next weekend against the New England Patriots or New York Jets.
Meanwhile, another great season ends for the Ravens as Flacco continues his maturation process. Flacco has led Baltimore to the playoffs in three straight seasons, which is quite an accomplishment. But for the Ravens to win a Super Bowl, their third-year quarterback needs to put together more Roethlisberger-like performances in the postseason.