AFC Championship: Steelers 24, Jets 19
By Barry Wilner
PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers found a fitting way to shut down the New York Jets’ season.
What started with “Hard Knocks,” ended with hard knocks.
For the third time in six seasons, Terrible Towels will twirl at the Super Bowl, where the Steelers will meet Green Bay after silencing Rex Ryan’s wild bunch in a 24-19 victory for the AFC championship Sunday.
Look out Big D, here comes another Big D — in black and gold, and with an unmatched history of carrying off the Lombardi Trophy.
The Steelers (14-4) also will challenge the Packers, who are 21/2-point favorites, with a versatile attack led by their quarterback and running back Rashard Mendenhall.
The defense, led by James Harrison, had a fumble return for a touchdown and a goal-line stand that shut down the Jets’ comeback in the fourth quarter. It will certainly test Aaron Rodgers in the title game in Dallas on Feb. 6.
That smothering defense set the tone for most of a frigid night at Heinz Field to end the Jets’ stunning postseason run. Ryan slammed down his headset when Antonio Brown caught a pass for a first down that allowed Pittsburgh to hang on and run out the clock.
“It’s not always pretty with us,” Roethlisberger said, “but we do the job.”
The Steelers ended the Jets’ season with a dominant first half for a 24-3 lead. Mendenhall had 95 of his 121 yards and a touchdown.
“We played a good half. We never played a good game, and that was the difference,” Ryan said in a postgame interview with CBS. “You get to this point, you’ve got to play a great game against a great opponent and we played a good half and that was it.”
At game’s end, Roethlisberger knelt on the field, his face buried in an AFC championship T-shirt.
“I’m going to enjoy this,” he said.
No one had to ask what he meant.
Roethlisberger sat out the season’s first four games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy — an outgrowth of a college student’s accusations that he sexually assaulted her in Georgia last March. The quarterback was never prosecuted over what was the second such set of allegations against him.
“God is good and this one was for Steelers fans,” Roethlisberger said. “I’m really proud of the way you came out and supported us tonight.”
Now he will lead the Steelers into their eighth Super Bowl, a game they handle pretty well — and have a record six titles to show for it.
The cocky Jets seemed to have left everything they had in New England last Sunday. There was little trash talking all week and even less fire early in their biggest game since winning the championship 42 years ago. They haven’t been back to the Super Bowl.
The Steelers are regulars, including Super Bowl titles for the 2005 and 2008 teams, both led by Roethlisberger and a fierce defense sparked by safety Troy Polamalu.
Polamalu, his long hair flowing from under his helmet, didn’t have to do a whole lot this time. Not with the way his teammates whipped the Jets at the line of scrimmage before a spirited New York surge in the second half.
“We overcame a lot more obstacles this year than we have in the past,” Polamalu said. “But we still got one more to go. “
And too often, New York’s defense was like a swinging gate that Roethlisberger and Mendenhall ran through.
New York (13-6) failed for the fourth time in the AFC title game since 1969, when the Jets won perhaps the most significant of all Super Bowls. It was a devastating finish, particularly after the Jets beat Peyton Manning and the Colts, then Tom Brady and the Patriots on the road to get to Pittsburgh.
Asked if he would change anything about this season, Ryan said, “I would change the outcome of this game and that’s the only thing I would change. We don’t need to apologize to anybody. We’ll be back, you’ll see.”
The Steelers snapped New York’s hopes of making the Super Bowl a sixth-seed spectacular; the Packers are the NFC’s No. 6 seed.
Coach Mike Tomlin’s team was eager for the fight from the outset, while Ryan’s guys were flat until it was too late. The Jets did get a 45-yard TD pass from Mark Sanchez to Santonio Holmes — the hero of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl victory two years ago — and a safety after Pittsburgh’s goal-line stand.
But the early hole was too deep, even after a 4-yard TD pass to Jerricho Cotchery made it 24-19 with 3:06 remaining. The Jets never got the ball back.
Pittsburgh set the early tone with a 66-yard march that took up the first nine minutes, with Roethlisberger displaying his scrambling skills on several plays, including a key 12-yard run on third-and-12. Mendenhall reached the ball over the goal line from the 1, the final of a 15-play drive in which the Steelers pushed around Ryan’s pride and joy.
But Pittsburgh also lost outstanding rookie center Maurkice Pouncey with a sprained left ankle, leaving it with just one backup offensive lineman.
It was the Jets who were struggling to block, though. And catch, with the usually sure-handed Cotchery making a key third-down drop.
Or tackle. Mendenhall found seams to the left, right or up the middle. His 35-yard sprint in the second quarter led to Shaun Suisham’s 20-yard field goal and a 10-0 lead that was insurmountable the way the Jets were whiffing.
It became 17-0 as Roethlisberger scooted into the end zone from the 2. Just 47 seconds later, Ike Taylor sacked Sanchez, forcing a fumble that William Gay ran 22 yards for a 24-0 lead.
Then the Jets began their comeback.
Nick Folk made a 42-yard field goal at the end of the first half as Pittsburgh went to a prevent defense. Holmes got behind Taylor down the right sideline for his TD, and Mike DeVito pulled down Roethlisberger in the end zone after the quarterback fumbled a snap.
The record crowd of 66,662 lost its fervor when Cotchery came free in the left flat for his score. But Roethlisberger hit Heath Miller for 14 yards, then Brown for 14 to send the Steelers to yet another Super Bowl.
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