The Pittsburgh Steelers silenced the tough-talking New York Jets with a 24-19 victory in the AFC championship game Sunday, setting up a Super Bowl showdown with the Green Bay Packers.
While the Steelers and their fans celebrated a third trip to the Super Bowl in six years, the Jets were left crushed after seeing their season end with a defeat in the AFC title game for the second consecutive year.
“We knew we were going to have a chance to run the ball well,” said Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, who had 121 yards on 27 carries. “The offense, they controlled the line of scrimmage all game and we got a lot of movement and we were able to get up on them early.”
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was 10 of 19 for 133 yards and ran for one touchdown as he improved his playoff record to 10-2.
The agonizing defeat ended a spectacular playoff run by the brash Jets, who travelled a treacherous path to reach the AFC Championship by recording road wins over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts and Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
The Steelers will now travel to Dallas for a February 6 meeting with the Packers, who booked their Super Bowl ticket earlier on Sunday with a 21-14 win over the Chicago Bears in the NFC title game.
The buildup to the AFC championship was strangely subdued, almost respectful, compared to the trash-talking and chest-thumping the Jets had engaged in ahead of their clashes with the Colts and Patriots.
The respect was well deserved as the Steelers scored on their first possession and never trailed after Roethlisberger engineered a time-crunching, nine-minute, 15-play scoring drive capped by Mendenhall diving over from the one.
In the second quarter, Shaun Suisham added a 20-yard field goal and on the next possession Roethlisberger scampered over from two-yards out to cap another clinical 66-yard drive to jump in front 17-0.
The Steelers top-ranked defense also got in on the action when Ike Taylor stripped New York quarterback Mark Sanchez of the ball and William Gay scooped up the loose ball and returned it 19 yards for another score.
With 14 seconds left in the half, Nick Folk finally put New York on the scoreboard with a 42-yard field goal.
The Jets then flew out of the half, Sanchez hooking up with Santonio Holmes for a 45-yard touchdown to trim the Pittsburgh advantage to 24-10.
Suddenly, a game that had threatened to become a rout was transformed into a nail-biter as the Jets took command in the second half.
The Jets put a scare into the crowd of 66,662 – the biggest to ever to attend a Steelers game – when they worked the ball down to the Pittsburgh one early in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers defense denied the Jets a touchdown but New York would not come away empty-handed, sacking Roethlisberger for a safety after Pittsburgh had regained possession.
There was more drama as the Jets rally continued, Sanchez hitting Jerricho Cotchery with a four-yard touchdown strike to trim the Steelers lead to 24-19 but the Steelers dug in and were able to run out the clock to clinch a nervous victory.
“We finished short again but I believe in our football team and I’ve got news for you, our expectations (next season) will be exactly the same and they should be,” said Jets head coach Rex Ryan.
“We knew we’d come back. Everybody’s doubted us all year but we thought we could win the game. I said that going in halftime that we’d come back and we’d have opportunities to win it and we just came up short.”