PITTSBURGH, Pa. - The Baltimore Ravens survived the tumultuous dismissal of Ray Rice, a sometimes spotty fall and a critical month without their suspended, all-everything nose tackle.
Winning in Pittsburgh in January hardly seemed too much to ask.
Allowed to hit the reset button in the playoffs, Joe Flacco and the NFL's post-season road warriors are heading to New England with their swagger fully intact.
Rarely flustered in the face of a pass rush that barely laid a hand on him, Flacco tossed two second-half touchdowns as the Ravens pulled away from the Steelers 30-17 in the AFC wild-card game.
"That's playoff football," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. "That's Joe Flacco. The best quarterback in football. I'll take him every day of the week and twice on Sunday or Saturday night."
Once was more than enough.
Flacco hit Torrey Smith for an 11-yard score in the third quarter and found Crockett Gillmore with a 21-yard pass in the fourth one play after Terrell Suggs picked off Ben Roethlisberger. The Ravens won a playoff game in Pittsburgh for the first time in franchise history, avenging post-season losses in 2008 and 2010 by quieting the NFL's second-ranked offence.
Baltimore (11-6) sacked Roethlisberger five times and kept All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown largely in check. Roethlisberger passed for 334 yards, but the Steelers (11-6) settled for field goals while the Ravens kept scoring touchdowns.
"I didn't play well enough," Roethlisberger said. "I didn't play well enough to win and guys look at me as the leader and the quarterback to make plays and do what it takes to win the football game, and I don't believe I did that today."
Flacco had no such problems. Baltimore heads to top-seeded New England next Saturday, a place where it upset Tom Brady and company two years ago on the way to the franchise's second Super Bowl title.
The Ravens turned it over just once, scored on six of nine possessions and had an answer every time it seemed the Steelers were ready to grab momentum.
"The big thing is we have a good team and we didn't hurt ourselves tonight," Flacco said. "We didn't have a lot of possessions early. We made the most of them by getting some kind of points.
"We played a clean football game and kept at it."
The Ravens won their third wild-card game as the sixth seed. It provided another twist in a season that began with Rice's suspension and eventual release following a domestic dispute with his fiancee (now his wife). When the chaos died down, the Ravens emerged galvanized.
Flacco did what he always seems to do when the calendar flips to January. His seven road playoff wins are the most by a quarterback since the 1970 merger. He completed 18 of 29 passes for 259 yards and the two scores. The Ravens gained a measure of revenge after the archrival Steelers knocked them out of the post-season in 2008 and 2010 at Heinz Field.
Yet Flacco has come of age in the interim. And while Pittsburgh's bounce-back season included its first AFC North title in four years, the Steelers' revamped roster could do little when it mattered.
Pittsburgh played without All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell, out with a hyperextended right knee. Fill-ins Ben Tate, Josh Harris and Dri Archer managed just 43 yards on 15 carries as the Steelers' four-game winning streak came to an abrupt and decisive end.
Pittsburgh fell to 9-1 when facing a team for the third time in the same season, and it was not close. Baltimore's 13-point victory was the fourth-biggest win by a road team in Steelers post-season history.
Flacco escaped pressure from James Harrison to find Smith in the back of the end zone to make it 20-9 in the third quarter. Pittsburgh drew within 20-15 on a 6-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Martavis Bryant with 11:01 to go. But there would be no 2.0-version of the Steelers' rally from 14 points down to Baltimore in the divisional round four years ago.
Justin Tucker drilled a 52-yard field goal to push the lead to 23-15 and Suggs made a juggling interception from his knees on Pittsburgh's ensuing possession. The Ravens did not hesitate to put the Steelers away. Flacco rolled right and flipped to Gillmore. The tight end outraced two defenders to the end zone.
In the end it was Ravens coach John Harbaugh enjoying a rare celebratory moment in a place that has long been a stumbling block. No more. With his brother Jim — the newly minted head coach at Michigan — watching in a Wolverines winter jacket, the elder sibling sprinted off the turf and on to the divisional round for the sixth time since 2008.
NOTES: Roethlisberger surpassed Terry Bradshaw for most playoff completions in franchise history (279). ... Ravens are 10-5 on road in post-season. ... Brown had nine receptions for 117 yards, while Baltimore's Steve Smith had five for 101. ... All-Pro LB Elvis Dumervil had two sacks for the Ravens. ... Pittsburgh had eight penalties for 114 yards.
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