The Baltimore Ravens had just knocked off their despised rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it was time to distribute game balls.
One of the stars of the 30-17 wild-card victory Saturday night was linebacker Terrell Suggs, whose zany, between-the-legs interception virtually sealed a trip to New England for Round 2 of the AFC playoffs.
“We just gave him the game ball for the greatest catch in the history of football,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I toss it to him. What happened, do you think? He dropped it. He caught the one that mattered. Clutch.”
Clutch, indeed. Just like the Ravens, who sputtered into the postseason as the No. 6 seed before playing their best game of the year at a time when it counted most.
“We were on top of our game,” quarterback Joe Flacco said.
It didn’t matter that the Ravens lost 43-23 in Pittsburgh in November, or that they needed a 17-point fourth quarter in the finale against Cleveland — along with a San Diego loss in Kansas City — just to qualify for the postseason.
Facing the AFC North champions on the road as underdogs, Baltimore opened the playoffs with a victory for the sixth time in six tries under Harbaugh. The Ravens are 7-4 on the road in the postseason since Harbaugh took over in 2008.
“We’ve been on the road a lot in the playoffs,” Harbaugh said. “Maybe that’s it.”
Playing in Pittsburgh was a mere inconvenience compared to what the Ravens have endured this year. The suspension and subsequent release of running back Ray Rice, the four-game suspension of Haloti Ngata, and injuries to a slew of cornerbacks merely primed the team for a postseason run.
“You don’t let adversity get you down. When things go the wrong way, you stick together and come out and keep fighting,” Harbaugh said. “Our guys have done that all year. You know over time that pays off.”
Flacco, the revamped secondary and a shuffled offensive line all came up big against the Steelers. So did Suggs, a 12-year veteran of this rivalry who had never before experienced the thrill of beating Pittsburgh in January.
With the Ravens clinging to a 23-15 lead in the fourth quarter, Suggs was tumbling to the ground when he got his hands on a deflected pass thrown by Ben Roethlisberger. The ball slipped from his grasp, but Suggs secured it between his legs while rolling on the turf.
“Big-time play from a big-time guy,” Baltimore linebacker Pernell McPhee said.
“Whenever my time is done on the field, they could say I never beat the Steelers in the playoffs. They can’t say that now,” Suggs declared. “It was a great achievement, but it’s short-lived. We all know who we’re dealing with next.”
The Ravens have no fear about facing top-seeded New England on Saturday. Baltimore is 2-1 against the Patriots on the road in the playoffs, including a 28-13 triumph in January 2013 that preceded a 34-31 victory over San Francisco in the Super Bowl.
“They’re a very well-coached team, a very talented team, so we just have to prepare hard for it,” said linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who had two sacks. “It’s going to be a tough challenge, and we know that. But we’re looking forward to that challenge.”
McPhee added: “Bring ’em on. We’re going to work hard in practice this coming week and go up there and play our best game. We’re going to play Ravens football. And with a great game plan, I know we’ll be ready for anything.”
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