PITTSBURGH — Nothing in this city's rich football heritage will ever replace the Immaculate Reception, the nickname given Franco Harris' great catch to win a 1972 AFC playoff game against the Oakland Raiders in the final seconds.
Now the Steelers have an interception that deserves a title too.
Safety Troy Polamalu picked off Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco and returned the ball 40 yards for a touchdown and a play for the ages in the Steelers' 23-14 victory over the Ravens in the AFC championship game Sunday at Heinz Field.
On third and 13 at the Baltimore 29-yard line with 4 minutes 24 seconds left and the Steelers clinging to a 16-14 lead, Polamalu read Flacco's eyes and followed them all the way to Tampa.
Polamalu stepped under the route run by intended receiver Derrick Mason, caught the ball and returned it to the end zone to set off a celebration as wild as his flowing hair.
Thousands of the yellow Terrible Towels that waved as Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin accepted the AFC championship trophy during a postgame celebration can be packed for Florida. The Steelers will play the Arizona Cardinals, coached by the man who called plays in Pittsburgh's last Super Bowl victory in 2006, Ken Whisenhunt, on Feb. 1 in Super Bowl XLIII.
"They did it tonight the way we did it all year," Tomlin said. "It's a humble group, a selfless group, and because of that we're very opportunistic."
The Steelers took advantage of the opportunities but never really took control of a game so physical it could have been played in the 1960s.
The Steelers got to the Super Bowl the hard way -- with a defense that held the Ravens to 198 total yards and an offense that overcame itself.
But in the end, the game came down to Ben Roethlisberger making plays that Flacco couldn't.
Flacco looked much like the rookie he is, completing 13 of 30 passes for 141 yards and three interceptions.
Meanwhile, Roethlisberger survived by going 16 for 33 for 255 yards and a touchdown.
Flacco eventually developed confidence and a rhythm in the second half that kept the Ravens in it until the interception that will haunt him all off-season. Polamalu's pick was more costly but no less careless than Flacco's first interception.
It came on Flacco's sixth snap of the day.
Facing pressure from LaMarr Woodley, Flacco forced a throw to favorite target Mason. Cornerback DeShea Townsend jumped the route and easily intercepted Flacco at the Baltimore 29.
It was Flacco's first interception in 50 postseason passes.
The mistake set up the Steelers' second field goal, but even with a 6-0 lead Pittsburgh couldn't relax.
Late in the first quarter, Roethlisberger absorbed a blow to the back and ribs from safety Haruki Nakamura after he threw. No flag was thrown, but it was the kind of contact that often has resulted in roughing-the-passer penalties.
Television cameras caught Roethlisberger retreating to a spot under the stands where he was examined. The Steelers were concerned enough that backup Byron Leftwich started warming up on the sidelines. But a moment before the starting offense returned to the field, Roethlisberger jogged back out to cheers.
Good thing for the Steelers he did.
On the next series, Roethlisberger stepped up on third and nine to avoid the rush, threw a wobbler off his front foot and let Santonio Holmes do the rest. Holmes took advantage of Ravens defensive back Fabian Washington, who had slipped, and weaved into the open field for a 65-yard touchdown pass to make it 13-0, a lead the Steelers would need.
Nothing summed up the vicious nature of the hitting more than the sight of Ravens running back Willis McGahee being wheeled off on a stretcher with 3:29 left in the game. Steelers safety Ryan Clark uncorked the blow that left McGahee down, motionless for several minutes. Players from both teams gathered on the field out of concern for their teammates, and only Clark got up.
McGahee left the field wearing a neck brace and lying on a stretcher. He was moving his arms and legs but complained of significant neck pain, according to Ravens personnel.
After this one, every Raven hurt all over.
Arizona 30, Atlanta 24
San Diego 23, Indianapolis 17, OT
Baltimore 27, Miami 9
Philadelphia 26, Minnesota 14
Baltimore 13, Tennessee 10
Arizona 33, Carolina 13
Philadelphia 23, N.Y. Giants 11
Pittsburgh 35, San Diego 24
Arizona 32, Philadelphia 25
Pittsburgh 23, Baltimore 14
SUPER BOWL XLIII
Feb. 1 at Tampa, Fla.
3 p.m. PST, Channel 4
Arizona vs. Pittsburgh