|Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez walks dejectedly off the field near the end of the AFC title game. (Matt Slocum/Associated Press)|
Steelers beat Jets, reach Super Bowl
PITTSBURGH — There are two sides to every story. For Hines Ward, Pittsburgh’s nine-minute, 15-play touchdown drive to open the game was a tone-setter — a signal to the Jets that the Steelers came to play in last night’s AFC Championship game.
For the Jets, that drive, and much of the first half, was simply poor football by them. As Jason Taylor noted, you can’t play only 30 minutes of football in the conference title game — “it’ll get you beat.’’
New York did make things interesting, but couldn’t overcome a three-touchdown, first-half deficit and fell in the conference title game for the second straight year, 24-19.
The Steelers are headed to Arlington, Texas, to face the Packers, with Pittsburgh looking to win the seventh Super Bowl in franchise history.
“We wanted to get off to a fast start,’’ Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “Give the Jets a lot of credit and coach [Rex] Ryan because in the second half their defense came out and threw a lot of things at us and put a damper on the way we were moving it on offense. Give them credit for slowing it down in the second half.’’
New York didn’t just slow Pittsburgh’s offense down in the second half, it pitched a shutout. But the Jets simply ran out of time.
Trailing, 24-3, to start the third quarter, the Jets had the ball first and scored, with Mark Sanchez finding a surprisingly open Santonio Holmes for a 45-yard touchdown.
After the Pittsburgh defense stopped New York in the shadow of the goal line, the Jets seized momentum when they got a safety and pulled even closer. Center Doug Legursky, subbing for injured starter Maurkice Pouncey (ankle), bounced a snap off Roethlisberger’s shins.
The quarterback fell on the ball, but was tackled in the end zone by Mike DeVito, giving the Jets 2 points and the ball back.
They took advantage of the opportunity, scoring again on a 10-play drive. Sanchez, who responded to the challenge of being largely without a running game, completed all six of his passes on the drive, which was culminated by a 4-yard pass to Jerricho Cotchery.
The Steelers took over with just over three minutes to play and their lead down to 24-19. Facing third and 6 on the first play after the two-minute warning, Roethlisberger scrambled to his right and completed a 14-yard pass to Antonio Brown.
It sealed the game. New York was out of timeouts and Roethlisberger took a knee to bleed the clock.
“I was actually shocked they didn’t run the football [on the pass to Brown],’’ Ryan said. “Even though they spread us out and went five wide, I actually expected them to run quarterback draw there, but they didn’t. We were supposed to have pressure off both edges, and I think they were a little late on the pressure.’’
“It was kind of intended for Hines,’’ Roethlisberger said. “We kind of expected them to bring the house. They dropped everybody so as soon as I saw them leave, it was a really, really tight window in order to get it to Hines. My thought was, ‘Let’s try and run it.’ I started running to the sideline and, next thing you know, AB comes flying across the field. I just threw it and he made a heck of a catch.’’
Ryan, who began his news conference quietly, seemingly a bit stunned, got louder as it went on, saying those who might want to criticize his club had no right to do so.
He repeatedly said how proud he was of his team and the season. And he added, of course, that New York is still a good team intent on getting to the Super Bowl.
After promising to a man during the week that there would be no letdown after their cathartic win over the Patriots — the reasoning being that they were just a step from the Super Bowl — New York’s play in the first half seemed as though it was experiencing one.
Pittsburgh began the game at its 34-yard line after a nice return by Brown, then proceeded to march down the field for a touchdown, mostly on the legs of Rashard Mendenhall.
The Steelers’ 15-play drive took just over nine minutes off the clock. They were able to overcome a replay overrule on what at first glance appeared to be a 21-yard completion from Roethlisberger to wide-open tight end Heath Miller that would have given them first and goal from the 2.
But Ryan challenged the call, and official Ed Hochuli ruled that the ball hit the ground while Miller was trying to gain control.
Mendenhall was stopped behind the line of scrimmage on second down, but on third and 12, the middle of the field opened in front of Roethlisberger and he took off, picking up the necessary yardage.
Two plays later, he used his pump-fake ability, which Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine called the best in the business, to buy time, and found Ward for a 7-yard completion on second and 5.
With a fresh set of downs just a yard from the goal line, Roethlisberger handed off to Mendenhall, who was wrapped up quickly by Bart Scott and wound up dragging the loud-mouthed linebacker a few feet before stretching the ball into the end zone for the touchdown.
It was just the beginning for the Steelers, who had a defensive TD courtesy of an Ike Taylor strip sack and William Gay fumble recovery, and went into halftime with a 24-3 lead.