The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Baltimore Ravens 23-14 in a bone-jarring AFC Championship game Sunday to set up a Super Bowl XLIII clash against the darkhorse Arizona Cardinals.
The Steelers will be seeking their sixth Super Bowl crown in the NFL title game in Tampa on 1 Febuary, while the Cardinals booked their first trip to the season finale with a 32-25 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles to claim the NFC crown.
In a game of ferocious hitting between the top two defenses in the league, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu stood out.
Polamalu flew around the field making crunching stops, leapt over the line to squelch Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's fourth-and-one sneak and scored the final touchdown with a 40-yard interception return, his dreadlocks whipping the air.
"I was just running for my life," Polamalu told reporters.
A violent hit by safety Ryan Clark on Ravens running back Willis McGahee late in the fourth quarter brought the game to a sombre close.
McGahee, who scored both Baltimore touchdowns on short runs, was flattened by a high-speed, helmet-to-helmet collision that snapped his head back.
As a cart and stretcher were sent to take McGahee off the field, players from both teams bowed their heads praying he was all right. Officials said McGahee had significant neck pain but was able to move his limbs.
"It's always the same against them," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "This is a 12-round slugfest. It's violent from start to finish. That's the nature of this rivalry."
Pittsburgh went against pre-game expectations by relying on the passing of Roethlisberger rather than try to move the ball on the ground against the rugged Ravens.
They surged to a 13-0 lead during the first half on field goals of 34 and 42 yards from Jeff Reed followed by a 65-yard catch-and-run by Santonio Holmes.
The Ravens fightback was sparked by a stunning 45-yard punt return by Jim Leonhard that set them up at the Pittsburgh 17 yard line. Three plays later McGahee burst three yards for a touchdown that closed the gap to 13-7 at halftime.
Reed gave the Steelers some cushion at 16-7 with a 46-yard field goal with 3:38 left in the third quarter after an 11-play drive that covered 51 yards.
The Ravens, who had lost by three points in overtime and by four points in two regular season jousts with Pittsburgh, clawed back again, taking advantage of a weak punt by Mitch Berger that gave them the ball at the 37.
A double-reverse run by Mark Clayton and two completions to Derrick Mason put Baltimore in striking range.
A pass interference call in the end zone against Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor put the ball on the one yard line and McGahee ran it in to make it 16-14 with 9:29 left before Polamalu put a finishing touch to the Steelers win.
"We congratulate them and I also want to say how proud I am of our football team," Ravens rookie coach John Harbaugh said.
"I thought our guys throughout the course of the season and throughout the course of this game demonstrated who they are as men, what they're all about."