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 PITTSBURGH (AP) -The Baltimore Ravens won 13 games this season by taking advantage of their opponents' mistakes.
Then, when it mattered most, they gave away their chance to go to the Super Bowl.
Baltimore's bid to extend its improbable season was buried Sunday under the weight of five turnovers, the majority of them by their previously unflappable rookie quarterback.
Joe Flacco threw three interceptions, two in the final five minutes, and the Ravens lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-14 in the AFC championship game.
``Joe went out there and competed and fought and tried to find a way to win the football game. So I certainly have no complaints about that,'' said John Harbaugh, Baltimore's first-year coach.
And really, the Ravens couldn't complain about a season in which they went from 5-11 to within a victory of going to the Super Bowl.
Especially with a rookie quarterback and a first-year coach.
we wanted it to, but like Coach Harbaugh said, it's just a starting point,'' offensive tackle Adam Terry said.
That also applies to Flacco, who went 13-of-30 for 141 yards to put a disappointing finish on an otherwise memorable rookie season.
``I'm not blaming it on a rookie wall. I don't believe in that stuff,'' Flacco said. ``I threw two interceptions at the end of the game. You don't want to do it. Bottom line is we were still being aggressive and trying to put points on the board.''
But that was no easy task, because in this game the top-ranked defense in the NFL outplayed the second-ranked unit. The Ravens (13-6) led the league in takeaways during the regular season and owned an 8-1 advantage in turnovers after their first two playoff games, but it all changed in this game.
``They played excellent defense. They did what they had to do to get a victory,'' Ravens receiver Derrick Mason said. ``I wish them well in Tampa.''
Mason, who played the second half of the season with a shoulder injury, expects Flacco to benefit from the experience he gained starting all 19 games.
``Joe has to keep his head up because the guy is going to get better,'' Mason said. ``As long as we stick together as a team, Joe's going to lead this team to many more AFC championship games.''
If the Ravens are lucky, they won't be playing in those games against the Steelers.
lf its losses this season, and in those three games Flacco threw one touchdown pass and was intercepted five times.
Which explains why Pittsburgh won the AFC North (beating out Baltimore) and is headed to the Super Bowl.
``You have to give it up for the Steelers. They played tough all year,'' Flacco said. ``We lost to them three times, and I have to give them credit.''
Although he struggled for most of the game, Flacco directed a 59-yard drive that got Baltimore to 16-14 with 9:29 left. Baltimore got the ball back, and it was up to Flacco to lead the Ravens to a victory.
He couldn't deliver.
Under pressure, Flacco threw the ball up for grabs before being hit. Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu made the catch and weaved his way 40 yards into the end zone with 4:24 left, virtually assuring the Ravens a trip home without the AFC title.
``Troy was probably just able to read my eyes,'' Flacco said. ``I think he was just able to jump over there, read a little bit and he made a nice play.''
His final interception, which came on a deflection, sent Flacco to the sideline for the final time this season.
pionship game.
Roethlisberger won the Super Bowl the following season.
The Ravens can only hope a year of experience will work similar wonders for their young quarterback, who only 13 months ago was flinging passes for the University of Delaware.
``The Super Bowl is something that we wanted to happen, but the Steelers are playing the way they have all year,'' Flacco said. ``They're a good team to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.''

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