This was, of course, music to the receivers' ears, and it was Brown who turned it into magic. He got past his man, Lardarius Webb, ran down the right sideline under Roethlisberger's perfect throw and caught it with one hand up against his outside shoulder for a 58-yard gain. That set up Rashard Mendenhall's short touchdown run, which set the final score and sent the Steelers to the AFC championship game with a breathless 31-24 comeback victory over the Baltimore Ravens.
"Putting Baltimore out, having them thinking about us all offseason, it doesn't get any better than that," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said.
It wasn't easy. The Ravens took advantage of two Pittsburgh turnovers to reach halftime with a 21-7 lead. But a Ray Rice fumble early in the third quarter sent the momentum roaring back the way of the home team, and the Steelers' defense locked down a jittery Joe Flacco all through the second half.
Pittsburgh went ahead 24-21 early in the fourth, only to see Baltimore come right back and tie it with a field goal. So with the two-minute warning rushing toward them in a chippy, physical, trash-talk-heavy game between two rivals that can't stand each other, Roethlisberger decided it was time for extreme measures. Worst that happened, he figured, was an interception that would have roughly equated to a punt.
"We loved hearing it," Wallace said of Roethlisberger's play call. "We didn't want to play it safe."
The Steelers broke that huddle fired up by their quarterback's chutzpah, but there was plenty of work yet to be done. Roethlisberger first had to assess the defense. The first purple number he looked for was 20, and he found it over on Wallace's side.
"Ed Reed lined up to the left," Roethlisberger said. "I figured it's always good to know where he's at. After that, it was make sure and keep the safety on the inside slot guy, and then just hope I can throw it far enough."
Over on the left side, Wallace saw the coverage and figured the ball wouldn't be coming his way. The fastest, most dangerous, most electric player on Pittsburgh's offense, he wasn't surprised to see the Ravens dedicate an extra man to him when the only outcome they couldn't accept was a deep pass completion.
"On third-and-19," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said, "you can give up 18."
But over on the right side, Antonio Brown, a rookie the Steelers took with the 195th overall pick in last April's draft, knew he was going way past 18. He took off alongside Webb and, very soon, knew he'd beaten him.
"I think he was kind of sitting a little bit, and he was kind of reading the quarterback, and by the time he realized what was going on, I was two, three yards behind him," Brown said.
Wallace, watching from across the field, saw the separation and had one thought: "Catch the ball. Please."
Roethlisberger saw it earlier.
"I saw him even with his man," Roethlisberger said. "And I know, if he's even, he's leavin'."
So Roethlisberger heaved it -- a perfect deep ball to Brown's right shoulder, where only he could catch it. Brown pinned the ball against his right shoulder with one hand and immediately thought of his feet. He knew he was near the end zone and wanted it badly, but he skittered instead out of bounds at the Baltimore 4, and that was plenty good enough.
"On that play, I know we've just got options on either side," Brown said. "I'm just glad Ben trusted me."
To hear Ben tell it, that was never an issue. The fact that Brown caught just 16 balls for 167 yards during the regular season -- that he was inactive for nine of the team's first 11 games -- none of that mattered. Brown and fellow rookie Emmanuel Sanders had been coming on at the end of the season. Roethlisberger and the rest of the team practice with them every day. Brown might have been a surprise to the rest of us as the target on the play of the game, but it didn't feel weird to his teammates. Somebody told Roethlisberger that Brown didn't think he'd be the target there.
"Well, that speaks volumes for him, to be ready, then," Roethlisberger said. "He stepped up big when his number was called, and he made a play."
Brown said he spent those inactive weeks all through September and October thinking about a moment like this, working as hard as he could in practice and believing he'd eventually matter in the Steelers' offense. Of his 16 catches, 14 came over the final five weeks, as he and Sanders became more involved.
"I might have come on late, but here I am," Brown said. "I'm a part of something special -- something that's bigger than me. I can tell my kids, my grandkids I made a play like that in the playoffs for the Pittsburgh Steelers. That's special, to be a part of that."
It was that kind of a day. Whether it was James Harrison making sacks or Ryan Clark wreaking havoc in the secondary or Rashard Mendenhall picking up tough yards, the Steelers hung together and came back. And there wasn't a man in their locker room who didn't feel great about it.
"Every man in a helmet was a potential playmaker," head coach Mike Tomlin said. "Right down to Antonio Brown on third and a long, long way."
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