Steelers put the hammer down

PITTSBURGH -- Joe Cool? More like Joe Schooled.

But at least Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco left Heinz Field with all of his limbs and ligaments intact. After what happened here in Sunday evening's brutally physical AFC Championship Game, Flacco should consider himself lucky.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are going to their second Super Bowl in the past four years because they asphyxiated the Ravens' offense, beginning with the previously unflappable Flacco. The Ravens gasped for air and points. Now they'll have the rest of the offseason to catch their breath.

Flacco completed only 13 of 30 passes for 141 yards, three interceptions and zero touchdowns. And it could have been worse. His first-half numbers suffered from anemia. Flacco had fewer completions (three) than his jersey number (five) during those first two quarters.

Flacco isn't the first quarterback to be brain-cramped by a Dick LeBeau-conceived defensive game plan. And there's absolutely no dishonor in losing to a Steelers team that was playing in front of a nutty, snow-dusted Heinz Field crowd of 65,350, or to a Steelers defense that is ranked No. 1 in the league for a reason.

"He was getting hit all day," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior. "He was running for his life."

The Steelers dared Flacco to beat them and he couldn't do it. He tried, but LeBeau, said Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu, "was a step ahead." That's why Flacco will wake up Monday morning with Steel Curtain bruise marks.

"We attacked them too and they did a good job of playing it," said Flacco.

This wasn't a game, it was a cage match. It should have been sponsored by Blue Cross. You couldn't swing a first-down marker without hitting an injured Raven or Steeler.

Flacco got knocked around (he was sacked three times), but he didn't get knocked out. But hardly a series went by in which somebody wasn't staggering or limping off the field. Or worse yet, strapped to a stretcher and driven off the cold turf.

That's what happened to Ravens running back Willis McGahee. McGahee, who earlier had limped to the sidelines, was the victim of a vicious hit by Steelers safety Ryan Clark late in the fourth quarter. The collision could be heard in Latrobe.

"That by far has got to be the most deadliest hit I've ever seen," said Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward. "When Ryan Clark hit him like that, I thought he was dead."

"Hardest hit I ever heard," Farrior said. "I didn't see it, but I heard it. I hope he's all right. We're praying for him."

Ravens officials said McGahee had movement in his arms and legs, but suffered from significant neck pain.

"It was a brutal game, man," Farrior said. "We knew it was going to be this way. Everybody knows the type of games we played [against the Ravens] previously. So we knew this was going to be the same thing."

Ravens backup safety Daren Stone suffered a concussion on the first play of the game.

Ward -- Baltimore's Public Enemy No. 1 -- sprained his knee midway through the first quarter, returned briefly, and then left for good five minutes later. He'll undergo an MRI on Monday -- not that it matters. "I don't plan on missing this [Super Bowl], trust me," he said.

Ravens defensive tackle Trevor Pryce limped to the sidelines. Steelers linebacker Larry Foote missed time. Ravens cornerback Frank Walker was escorted to the locker room. Clark was woozy after his hit on McGahee. Steelers running back Mewelde Moore and linebacker Patrick Bailey injured their ankles. Steelers tackle Willie Colon was hurting too.

"I got dinged up," he said. "A lot of guys got dinged up."

This was the super-collider of games. It was so "Saw V" hyper-intense, so utterly savage that you wanted to look away. It was the kind of game in which mothers instantly decided they'll never sign their kids' football permission slips.

This was the third time this season the Ravens and Steelers had faced each other. It is a rivalry filled with animosity, chirping and hatred. But there also exists a grudging respect for one another.

"As you can see, [the Ravens] hit you hard as well," said Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks.

But make no mistake: The Steelers love to beat the Ravens.

"They asked for us," Ward said, "they got us."

The Steelers finished 3-0 against the Ravens because they held Baltimore to a combined 43 points. They're going to Super Bowl XLIII because their defense forced those three Flacco interceptions (he hadn't thrown any during the previous two Ravens playoff games) and one fumble.

One interception ended up as a Steelers field goal. Another interception ended up as a Steelers touchdown, thanks to Polamalu's 40-yard scoring return. A fourth-down stop by the Steelers later became a Pittsburgh touchdown drive. That's 17 of the 23 points generated by something the Steelers' defense did.

"I think without a doubt this is the best defense I've ever played on," said Polamalu, who was part of the 2005 Steelers team that won a Super Bowl.

"Their defense is like watching us," said the Ravens' Pryce, offering the compliment. "They are a good bunch."

Now the Steelers travel to Tampa, Fla., to face the NFC champion Arizona Cardinals. But first they get a week to do something else.


Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.