Another painful reminder
PITTSBURGH — Did you watch or did you boycott because you believed the Patriots should have been playing?
If you didn’t watch, you missed a strange AFC Championship game in which the Steelers beat the Jets, 24-19. It was a sloppy four quarters that only reinforced the notion that the Patriots blew a golden opportunity to go to the Super Bowl this year.
Pittsburgh is going to the ultimate game and the Jets are finally going home. The Steelers bolted to a 24-0 lead over Rex Ryan’s team, but the Jets — to their credit — did not fold. They scored 19 unanswered points and came close to mounting the greatest comeback in conference championship history.
The greatest comeback in conference championship history was pulled off by the Colts. Remember that one? Indianapolis trailed the New England Patriots, 21-3, then came back to win, 38-34, in January of 2007.
It’s always about us, right? And in that spirit, I have to tell you that it was impossible to watch last night’s game without thinking about the Patriots and the fact that New England whupped both of these teams and should have been hosting this game.
The first half had me thinking, “How could the Patriots have ever lost a home playoff game to the Jets?’’
Really. The Jets were that bad. They played like the early December Jets who were routed, 45-3, at Gillette Stadium. They couldn’t stop the run. They couldn’t generate any offense. Their special teams were terrible. They committed stupid penalties. Ryan had no magic. There were no back flips in the end zone.
Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall ran for 95 yards in the first half. The Steelers had 231 yards of offense to New York’s 50 net yards. The definitive moment came when Mark Sanchez was sacked on his 20 and lost control of the football. William Gay collected it and went 19 yards for a touchdown to make it 24-0 with 1:13 left in the half. Making matters worse, Sanchez got hurt on the play.
It was embarrassing for the Jets and their fans. But New York came back. Pittsburgh never scored again. Sanchez stayed in the game and led a furious comeback that put the game in doubt when New York cut it to 24-19 on a touchdown pass from Sanchez to Jerricho Cotchery with 3:06 left.
In the end, the Jets proved somewhat worthy. Had the Jets been annihilated, it would have made New England’s pain worse.
We spent most of the last week dissecting and analyzing the shocking end of the Patriots season. Over and over. We probed the decision to bench Wes Welker, the botched fake punt, and the 7:45 drive to nowhere in the fourth quarter. We slowly flushed it out of our system. But all the pain came back while watching the Jets and Steelers. It sounds like sour grapes, but I couldn’t get it out of my head that the Patriots should have been in this game. And probably should be going to the Super Bowl.
Certainly the Steelers are playing better now than they were when New England came here and won easily in November, but there’s no way the Patriots would have gotten skunked by Pittsburgh playing in Foxborough last night. The Patriots own the Steelers. Tom Brady owns the Steelers. But now the Steelers have a chance to win their third Super Bowl since the last time the Patriots won one.
Team of the new century? Pittsburgh’s making a case for itself.
And how about Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben is 10-2 in the playoffs and has a chance to win his third Super Bowl while he’s still in his 20s.
Roethlisberger did his best work with his legs last night. He had 11 rushes for 21 yards and a score. He completed only 10 of 19 passes for 121 yards and had two intercepted. He also took a safety in the fourth quarter. But he won. The big guy always seems to win in these situations. Even when his team gets shut out in the second half of the AFC Championship game.
Think about that. The Steelers were blanked in the second half, at home, and they are going to the Super Bowl.
“That’s us,’’ said Roethlisberger. “It’s not always pretty but somehow we always find a way to get it done.’’
“We kind of limped home, but we aren’t going to complain about style points,’’ said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
The Patriots are powerless to stop the Steelers and despicable Ben because they could not beat the Jets at home, six weeks after crushing them. The 14-2 Patriots were forced to watch last night’s weird game and it served as one more painful reminder of an opportunity wasted.
Sorry. But if you watched, I know you had to be thinking the same thing.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.