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Hard Knocks: Steelers Silence Jets, Advance to Seventh Super Bowl

For the first time in what feels like an eternity, you don’t hear the cocky and bombastic voices of Rex Ryan and the New York Jets. 

After all, it’s hard to whoop and holler and boast when you lose in the AFC Championship game for the second straight year.

For the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday night must have felt like heaven.  They’ll be making Super Bowl trip No. 7.

The Steelers remain on the road to the Super Bowl with one final stop coming in two weeks in Super Bowl XLV against the Green Bay Packers where Pittsburgh will have a chance to claim their seventh Lombardi Trophy on Feb.6th.

Behind bitter cold temperatures in the low teens, over 66,000 crazied fans proudly sporting the Terrible Towels, the Steelers were able to survive and advance past the Jets, 24-19 in the AFC Championship Sunday night at Heinz Field.

Much like fellow member of the quarterback club, Aaron Rodgers a few hours earlier, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t wear the blue tights and put on the red cape.  Big Ben had just 133 yards passing and three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble that led to a Jets’ safety).  But it was Rashad Mendenhall’s 121 rushing yards and one touchdown that helped the Steelers offense stave of the Jets.

While it looked fairly easy in the first 30 minutes, this one turned out to be very difficult in the end.

The celebration in Pittsburgh was evident and you could smell the sourness from the Big Apple.  Pittsburgh blitzed the Jets for a 24-0 lead before the Jets woke up from their first half slumber to tack on a field goal near the end of the first half.  The Jets were an utter mess in the first half, allowing the Steelers to rush for over 100 yards in the first half.  They missed tackles.  They lunged, they tried to grab and reach.  They looked confused.  And the Steelers looked every bit as dominant.

Pittsburgh outgained the Jets 231-50 in the first half, holding the Jets to just one rushing yard.  The Steelers outrushed the Jets 135-1 and held what looked like an insurmountable 21-point lead.  But the Jets woke up in the second half, and put together a great half of football.  Just not a great game.

Behind Mark Sanchez, the Jets mounted a 16-point comeback that began with Sanchez hooking with former Steelers Super Bowl hero Santonio Holmes, who was wide open for a 45-yard touchdown after Steelers CB Ike Taylor slipped and fell down.  For the second time in as many meeting the Jets recorded a safety on Roethlisberger.  Sanchez capped off the Jets’ rally with a four-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery with 3:06 left in the game to pull to within five points. 

But with the Jets surging, the Steelers sinking and the Terrible Towels being nervously clenched, it was winning time for Roethlisberger who’s made a great habit of producing big time gutsy plays in the big moments of big games.  Big Ben and the offense were able to run out the clock on the final possession.  It was dejavu again, for Antonio Brown.  As the pocket collasped, Roethlisberger fleed and scrambled to right, patiently waiting for something to open up.  There was Brown, sitting down in an open spot in the defense, hauling in the game-sealing 14-yard catch on third down.

It was a tale of two halves, with the Steelers dominating the first and the Jets claiming the second.  It was pretty for Pittsburgh.  They took their foot off the gas and halftime was the worst thing that happened to the Steelers.  After that, they never found the same rhythm and comfort for the rest of the game.  They limped to the finish line.  But I think they’ll take it.  Pittsburgh now will make their eighth Super Bowl appearance, and third in the past six seasons.

New York finds themselves in a familiar situation, having lost in the conference title game a year earlier to Indianapolis.  It’ll be a long and bitter offseason for the Jets, who have to wonder how and why they started the game in a such poor and unprepared fashion.  Ryan and company will have a tough time as they wrestled with the prospects of what might have been had they been able to play a 60-minutes game instead of a 3o-minute half.   They tried to get away with victory by not playing four quarters of football.  At this stage of the game, playing two quarters and expecting to win is a pipe dream.

The Jets’ season started in the spotlight and on Sunday night, it came to end in the public eye.  Perhaps he’ll have want to dig another hole and bury the football from this game, too.  Now it’s the Steelers who are lonely at the top of the heap in the AFC.  There were 32 teams that began the season on a quest for Super Bowl XLV and the Lombardi Trophy. 

And then there were two:  Green Bay and Pittsburgh.  Enjoy the ride.  The best awaits us in Dallas.

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