(Reuters) - The Baltimore Ravens used an unrelenting pass rush to shut down the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers offense and advanced in the NFL playoffs with a 30-17 AFC wildcard victory on Saturday.
Joe Flacco passed for 259 yards and two second-half touchdowns with no interceptions to set up a clash with the top-seeded New England Patriots next Saturday in the divisional round.
“We’ve got a good football team and I think we’re getting better every time we take the field,” said Flacco, MVP of Baltimore’s 2012 Super Bowl triumph, after the win in Pittsburgh.
Baltimore, who only made the playoffs after San Diego lost on the last day of the regular season, registered five sacks of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and hurried him into numerous mistakes.
It was the first playoff win for the Ravens over AFC North foes Pittsburgh after three losses.
“This is a very special victory for us, because of who it comes against -- our most respected rival,” said Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, joined on the sideline by brother Jim, who has left the 49ers to coach the University of Michigan.
”Five sacks against the number two offense in the league.
Our pass rush did a great job.”
Despite the heavy pressure, two-time Super Bowl winner Roethlisberger brought the Steelers close early in the fourth quarter, taking advantage of a fumble by Justin Forsett with a six-yard touchdown pass to Martavis Bryant to make it 20-15.
The Ravens countered with a 52-yard field goal by Justin Tucker and then built up a comfortable cushion.
A full-force blitz rushed Roethlisberger into floating a short pass to running back Ben Tate that tipped off his fingers for an improbable interception by linebacker Terrell Suggs, who trapped the ball between his legs before it hit the ground.
On the next play, Flacco rolled right and hit tight end Crockett Gillmore for a 21-yard touchdown that made it 30-15.
The Steelers sorely missed the running and pass catching of injured running back Le‘Veon Bell, who hyperextended his knee in last week’s game.
Pittsburgh were held to a total of 68 yards rushing and were continually thwarted in the red zone, settling for three field goals in the first half.
“There is disappointment with our performance but such is life,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We didn’t make enough critical plays and they did.”
Baltimore got a five-yard touchdown run from Bernard Pierce in the second quarter to lead at the half despite trailing Pittsburgh in time of possession by 21 minutes to nine.
Roethlisberger, without a reliable running game, attempted 45 passes, completing 31 for 334 yards and was intercepted twice.
‘Big Ben’ banged his head on the ground after the fifth sack of the game late in the fourth quarter and left the field to be checked for concussion before returning.
Steve Smith led Ravens receivers with 101 yards on five receptions, with tight end Owen Daniels catching four passes for 70 yards.
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York, Editing by Peter Rutherford/Patrick Johnston