Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh hailed Joe Flacco as “the best quarterback in football” as the 29-year-old continued his hot postseason streak to dump the Pittsburgh Steelers out of the NFL playoffs.
The Steelers, coming into the wildcard round on the back of four straight wins inspired by the resurgence of their own quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, were beaten 30-17 at home on Saturday as the Ravens got their first-ever postseason win at Heinz Field.
Flacco has changed since Baltimore lost a 14-point advantage in Pittsburgh four years ago, when the Steelers went on to contest the Super Bowl. Saturday was his seventh playoff win on the road - the most by any quarterback since two leagues merged to form the NFL in 1970.
The Ravens now travel to face the New England Patriots in Massachusetts, where Flacco outshone Tom Brady en route to Baltimore’s second Super Bowl title two years ago.
Pittsburgh still hold a record six crowns but there will be continued fretting on whether they can take a seventh, with two-time Super Bowl champion Roethlisberger heading for his 33rd birthday.
He was sacked five times and missed the impact of injured running back Le’Veon Bell - a key weapon for the Steelers this season - while star wide receiver Antonio Brown was kept quiet.
"I didn't play well enough, didn't play well enough to win," Roethlisberger, who led the second-best offense in the NFL to the AFC North title last month, told reporters.
"Guys look at me as the leader and as the quarterback to make plays and to do what it takes to win the football game and I don't believe I did that today."
Flacco passed for 259 yards and two second-half touchdowns with no interceptions, while his opposite number passed for 334 yards but with one touchdown and two interceptions.
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.
Flacco hit Torrey Smith for an 11-yard score in the third quarter but under intense pressure from the Ravens pass rush, 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 replacement 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.
"This is a very special victory for us, because of who it comes against - our most respected rival," said Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. "Five sacks against the number two offense in the league. Our pass rush did a great job."
Earlier, the Arizona Cardinals' dream of playing on their home field in the Super Bowl ended as they lost 27-16 at the Carolina Panthers in the wildcard round.
A highly promising season was disrupted when starting quarterback Carson Palmer suffered a season-ending knee injury on November 9.
Back-up Drew Stanton took over and kept the Cardinals on track before he sprained a right knee in a win over the St Louis Rams which took the team to an 11-3 record.
That left Cardinals coach Bruce Arians with no choice but to turn to third-stringer Ryan Lindley, who had been brought in from San Diego's practice squad.
Inexperienced and with little time to learn the playbook, Lindley was unable to win the final two regular-season games for Arizona and he looked out of his depth in Saturday's playoff game.
Carolina will play either the Green Bay Packers or reigning Super Bowl champions the Seattle Seahawks after quarterback Cam Newton won his first playoff game - and the first for his team since 2005.
Source: Al Jazeera