PITTSBURGH, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- An overwhelming Pittsburgh defensive effort symbolized by Chad Scott's early interception sent the Steelers storming past the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens Sunday, 27-10, and set up a meeting with the New England Patriots for the AFC title.
Kordell Stewart, Amos Zereoue and Plaxico Burress combined to give Baltimore's defense a rare headache despite the fact the Steelers were without star running back Jerome Bettis. But it was the Pittsburgh defense -- ranked No. 1 in the NFL during the regular season -- that dominated the afternoon.
The Steelers intercepted Baltimore quarterback Elvis Grbac three times, forced a fumble that led to a field goal, did not allow a first down until the final four minutes of the first half and did not surrender a third-down conversion until the last six minutes of the contest.
Two of the interceptions came from safety Brent Alexander, the second one coming with four minutes to play when Baltimore receiver Travis Taylor bobbled what appeared to be a touchdown catch right into Alexander's hands on the goal line.
Alexander's first interception came in the end zone late in the first period and halted one of the Ravens' few scoring chances.
Baltimore was limited to 150 total yards, just 22 of those coming on the ground, and the Steelers had the ball for almost two-thirds of the contest. The Ravens finished with seven first downs, four of them coming in the game's final minutes.
The Ravens' lone touchdown came on an 88-yard punt return in the third period by Jermaine Lewis that briefly brought Baltimore within 10 points. But Stewart promptly marched the Steelers 83 yards in 12 plays through a weary Baltimore defense to put the game away.
The game-clinching touchdown came on a 32-yard pass from Stewart to Burress, who broke a would-be tackle by Rod Woodson at the 10 and trotted into the end zone.
Pittsburgh's other two touchdowns came from Zereoue, who filled in more than admirably for Bettis. Zereoue barged in from the one-yard line midway through the first period to give Pittsburgh a 10-0 lead, the first time in 11 games the Ravens had given up a first-quarter touchdown.
Zereoue scored on another one-yard run with 5:43 remanining in the first half as the Steelers took a 20-3 halftime lead. The 20 points produced by Pittsburgh in the first two quarters were one more than the Baltimore defense had allowed in its five previous playoff games.
Bettis, who sat out late in the regular season with a pulled groin muscle, had been pronounced 100 percent and ready to play Sunday. But the Steelers said an injection for pain given Bettis just before the game affected a nerve and rendered him unavailable.
The theme of the game was set on the third play of the day when Grbac was hit as he tried to throw a deep pass on third down. The ball fluttered well short of the intended target and into the hands of Scott, who returned it from his own 38 to the Baltimore 43.
"That was huge because it set the tone," Steelers safety Lee Flowers said. "Elvis already had a problem with throwing interceptiions and that's a bad way to start a game."
"It was a situation where we made too many mistakes to win the game. I made too many mistakes," Grbac said.
After that first interception, Pittsburgh picked up a first down on each of its first three plays and although the Steelers had to settle for a 21-yard field goal by Kent Brown, they demonstrated they could move the ball on a defense that carried the Ravens to the NFL title a year ago.
Stewart completed 12 of 22 passes for 154 yards while Zereoue, who gained 12 yards through the teeth of the Baltimore defense on the first play of the game, finished with 63 yards on 24 carries.
"It feels real good. I'm just glad we seized the moment," Stewart said. "Our defense played awesome as did special teams. We're going to need to continue to play like this if we're going to take it all the way."
The Ravens won the Super Bowl by limiting the opposition to virtually nothing while playing ultra conservative defense. That plan worked again last week in a wild-card round victory over Miami, but Baltimore's bid for a second straight crown came up far short Sunday.
"Sometimes things cascade one into another," said Baltimore Coach Brian Billick, who lost for the first time in six playoff outings. "There is an old coaching saying that sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you. Today, the bear got us.
"When one team has the ball for 40 minutes, you're not going to be that competitive. They dominated on defense, running the ball and passing. Pittsburgh has an outstanding team."
In addition to the long touchdown drive that wrapped up the game in the second half, Pittsburgh had scoring marches of 40 yards in seven plays, 51 yards in seven plays and 43 yards in six plays.
Grbac completed 18 of 37 passes for 153 yards.
The game was the last for Baltimore defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, who announced late in the regular season that this would be his final season.
"You do something for a lifetime and it comes to an end, it's tough," Siragusa said. "Especially going out like this. I started here as a Pittsburgh Panther and I have to leave it here today. It's tough."
The trip to the AFC Championship game will be the fourth for the Steelers in the 10-year tenure of Coach Bill Cowher. They have one AFC title to their credit with Cowher as their coach, but that season ended with a loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.
Bettis is expected to be ready for the game against the Patriots.
"Jerome had an adverse reaction to medication prior to the game and that was unfortunate," Cowher said. "I called the team in after warmups and reminded them that Jerome didn't play in that game in Baltimore when we beat them in that one."
"It's not Jerome Bettis' team. We all understand that," Steelers center Jeff Hartings said. "We went 5-1 without him. No disrespect to him, but this is a team game."