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Steelers Withstand Jets' Charge In AFC Title-Game Thriller
Monday, 24-Jan-2011 2:34AM AP / Scott Brown, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
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The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Jan. 24--Dallas may fancy itself as America's team, but that city is where the Steelers will try to put more distance between themselves and the Cowboys.

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And every other NFL franchise, for that matter.

Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown, and the Steelers survived a furious second-half rally to beat the New York Jets, 24-19, on Sunday night in the AFC Championship Game.

The Steelers (14-4) have a chance to win a seventh Super Bowl in Dallas, and a victory would give them two more Lombardi Trophies than the Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers -- their closest pursuers in the NFL's benchmark for excellence.

Super Bowl XLV will pit the Steelers against the Green Bay Packers, another of the league's storied franchises, on Feb. 6 at Cowboys Stadium.

"We're very similar organizations, the way we operate", Steelers chairman emeritus Dan Rooney said in the victorious locker room last night. "We have great respect for them, and we always have. It's wonderful to have two smaller-market teams playing in the Super Bowl."

The Steelers outgained the Jets (13-6) by 171 yards in the first half, scored the first 24 points of the game and almost registered an early knockout.

That came in the second quarter, when a blitzing Ike Taylor crushed Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez with a blind-side hit, causing a fumble that William Gay returned 19 yards for the touchdown.

Outside linebacker James Harrison stood over Sanchez after the hit, waving for Jets medical personnel to attend to the second-year quarterback. Sanchez was able to get up and stagger off the field, but no sequence better captured how the Steelers bullied the Jets in front of a record crowd of 66,662 at Heinz Field -- at least in the first half.

After imposing their will on the Jets, the Steelers had to hold on for dear life.

The Jets narrowed the gap to five points on a Sanchez touchdown pass with 3:06 left in the game. But New York did not get the ball back, as Ben Roethlisberger twice moved the chains late in the game with clutch passes.

"The first 30 minutes was conference-championship worthy", Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We kind of limped home, but we aren't going to complain about style points."

The Jets had pulled off upsets in consecutive weeks to get to the championship game. And after a relatively quiet week, some of the Jets players did some talking in the latter part of it.

Several of them predicted that New York would beat the Steelers.

"When you're not used to winning, you do a little bit more talking to try to talk yourself into it", Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "Maybe when they get an opportunity to win championships they'll keep their mouths closed and play."

Two of the biggest questions going into the game had been whether the Jets were emotionally spent after upsetting the hated New England Patriots the previous week.

Or whether they would roll into Heinz Field on such a roll, a la the Steelers in 2005, that Roethlisberger and Co. would be a mere speed bump on the Jets' way to Dallas.

The latter scenario did not transpire, in part because Roethlisberger did not play one of his better games.

Roethlisberger took a streak of 190 consecutive pass attempts without an interception into the game, but he threw a pair of picks. He also fumbled a snap after the Steelers had stuffed Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson on fourth down from the 1-yard line, giving New York a safety.

Roethlisberger, who improved to 10-2 in the postseason, did make some timely plays. Mendenhall gashed a Jets defense that finished third in the NFL against the run during the regular season, hitting the 100-yard mark against New York for the second time this season.

The Steelers set the tone early, marching 66 yards on 15 plays on the opening possession.

Mendenhall pounded out 28 yards on the ground and finished the drive by bulling into the end zone on a 1-yard run.

Roethlisberger, who threw for 133 yards, completed his final pass to rookie wide receiver Antonio Brown, a 14-yarder that caused Jets coach Rex Ryan to throw his headset to the turf.

"That's pretty funny, isn't is?" Tomlin said. "A third-and-six (catch) to win the game for a rookie from Central Michigan."

Taylor, Gay team on big play

The way the Steelers were running the ball and controlling the clock, it looked like they wouldn't need a big play from their defense.

Thanks to Ike Taylor and William Gay, they got one anyhow.

Taylor's forced fumble and Gay's 19-yard touchdown return turned out to be a pivotal play in the AFC Championship Game, giving the Steelers a 24-point lead over the New York Jets with 1:13 remaining in the first half.

The play loomed large when the Jets rallied to within five points in the fourth quarter before the Steelers held on for a 24-19 victory.

The Steelers had just tacked on their second touchdown to go ahead, 17-0, shortly before the two-minute warning. The Jets were trying to salvage something in the half, but quarterback Mark Sanchez was sacked for a 7-yard loss on first down.

Sanchez dropped back to pass again on second-and-17 and didn't see Taylor coming untouched from around the edge.

"I saw him cock his arm as I was trying to hit him", Taylor said. "I didn't know it was a fumble, and I didn't know William Gay had the ball until I heard the crowd."

After Taylor knocked the ball from Sanchez's grasp, Gay swooped in and retrieved it and scooted into the end zone for the touchdown.

"I didn't want to fall on the ball", Gay said. "I wanted to do something with it. We want to score on defense."

The score was upheld after a booth review ruled that Taylor knocked the ball loose before Sanchez's hand came forward in a passing motion.

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"Every time you go to the Super Bowl, it's a wonderful thing. It's just so terrific with what all we went through this year. I'm very happy for everyone in the organization."

Dan Rooney -- Steelers chairman emeritus, on the team's third Super Bowl trip in the past six years.

DIGITS

9 Times in 13 tries that the AFC champion has won the Super Bowl since the Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XXXI.

2 Times in the past three years that the NFC champion has won the Super Bowl.

-- Joe Rutter

Steelers-Jets report

Steelers -- Position -- Jets

B -- Quarterback -- B

Ben Roethlisberger scored a rushing touchdown but had only eight completions until the final drive. Mark Sanchez overcame a miserable start to throw two TDs and bring the Jets to within five points.

A -- Running back -- C

Rashard Mendenhall carved up a defense that was ranked third in the regular season against the run. The Steelers finished with 166 rushing yards. The Jets rarely ran after falling behind 24-0 and couldn't get the big fourth-down conversion at the goal line in the fourth quarter.

C -- Wide receiver -- B

Antonio Brown made the first-down catch that sealed the outcome, but the receivers weren't a factor for much of the game. Santonio Holmes got behind Ryan Clark for a 45-yard TD pass that brought the Jets within 24-10, and Jerricho Cotchery added a TD catch.

A -- Offensive line -- B

Even without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers opened big holes for Mendenhall, particularly on the right side. The Jets gave Sanchez adequate protection in the second half.

B -- Tight end -- A

Heath Miller had a 24-yard catch that set up the Steelers' second TD and a key first-down catch late in the fourth quarter. Dustin Keller led the Jets with eight catches for 64 yards.

B -- Defensive line -- C

Brett Keisel came up with the big stop on the fourth-quarter goal-line stand. The Jets put pressure on Roethlisberger but couldn't stop the run.

A -- Linebacker -- C

LaMarr Woodley was all over the field, getting a sack and two tackles for loss. Bryan Thomas had one of the Jets' two interceptions, and David Harris had nine tackles.

B -- Secondary -- B

Ike Taylor and William Gay combined for the big defensive play that provided a 24-point lead late in the first half, but Ryan Clark was burned on the long TD pass to Holmes. The Jets didn't give up any deep passing plays but couldn't make the stops on the Steelers' final drive.

B -- Special teams -- C

Shaun Suisham made his only field goal attempt, and the Steelers did a good job of denying any big runbacks. The Jets had a roughing-the-punter penalty, and Steve Weatherford shanked a punt 29 yards.

B -- Coaching -- C

The Steelers had the right game plan at the outset, although they had a letdown for much of the second half. Despite the second-half comeback, the Jets weren't prepared to play in the first 30 minutes.


To see more of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/.

Copyright (c) 2011, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit www.mctinfoservices.com.

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