By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Given another opportunity to make a big play, rookie wideout Antonio Brown came through once again with flying colors.
Clinging to a precarious 24-19 advantage late in the game after giving up 19 unanswered points, the Pittsburgh Steelers needed one more first down to seal the win in the AFC championship game Sunday night at Heinz Field.
On a third-and-six play, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found Brown racing across the middle for a 14-yard connection to secure a trip to Super Bowl XLV Feb. 6 to face the Green Bay Packers.
“I think I’ve made a lot of great catches as a football player, but it doesn’t get any better than what I’ve done in the last two games,” Brown said in a jubilant Steelers locker room. “I’m just blessed to be given an opportunity, and I’m so glad that I was able to take advantage of it.”
Brown also helped the Steelers pull out a win against the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC divisional playoff Jan. 16 at Heinz Field when he hauled in a 58-yard pass from Roethlisberger on third-and-19. The Steelers punched in the game-winning score a short time after that.
“Ben made a great throw last week, and he put it right on the money again (against the Jets),” Brown said. “I was coming across the middle and got bumped a little bit, but Ben moved to the right to bide some time. Once I got open, he fired the ball in there, and I was able to make the catch.”
The Steelers weren’t sure that their offense would even get the ball back with the way the fourth quarter was going. The Steelers gave up a late field goal to take a 24-3 lead at halftime. The Jets scored once in the third quarter on a 45-yard pass from quarterback Mark Sanchez to former Steelers wideout Santonio Holmes and added nine points in the fourth quarter to get within five.
The Steelers defense stopped the Jets without a touchdown after they first-and-goal at the 2, but Roethlisberger fumbled the snap on the ensuing play for a safety. Sanchez’s four-yard pass to Jerricho Cotchery got the Jets close, but the Steelers would have a chance to run out the clock.
“The one thing was that we were still winning,” Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said. “We gave up a lot of yardage and let them move the ball down the field on us, but we were still winning the game. We just wanted our offense to get a chance to come through, and they did it.
“So, we can’t thank them enough. More than ever, I think we’ve proven this season that this is a team sport. Offense, defense and special teams, all facets of the game came into play for us at one time or another, and our offense and special teams really showed up today. So, our hats off to them.”
The most crucial special teams play came right after the Jets cut the Steelers lead to 24-19. There were 3 minutes, 6 seconds on the clock, and the Steelers had a chance to hold onto the ball for the duration. Brown got things started with a dazzling 27-yard kickoff return even though the Steelers didn’t set up for one.
“That was key,” Brown said. “We were expecting an onside kick, so I really was back there by myself with not much blocking. And somehow, I was able to get outside and get good field position to the 41. It was a great way to start.”
Roethlisberger, who finished with 10-for-19 passing for 133 yards with two sacks and two interceptions, ran hot and cold on the day. But his two biggest plays were a 14-yarder to tight end Heath Miller to change field position and the 14-yarder to Brown to seal the win.
“Ben made some really big throws today,” Steelers veteran wideout Hines Ward said. “He’s had games where he’s been a lot sharper, but he really made some big throws and some big plays with his feet, too. Don’t discount those.”
The Steelers wanted to run the ball against the Jets and rolled up 166 with 121 and one touchdown from Rashard Mendenhall. Isaac Redman had 27 on just four carries, but Roethlisberger chipped in with 21 and one touchdown.
“We believed we could run the ball on them, so that’s what we wanted to do,” Steelers offensive guard Chris Kemoeatu said. “We got off to a great start, especially running the football, and it helped us get a big lead.”
Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 66 yards in 15 plays and 9:06 on the opening series to take a 7-0 lead. Roethlisberger hit Mike Wallace for six on third-and-five and after a 21-yard pass to Miller was overturned. It would have been first-and-goal at the 2. Roethlisberger scrambled for 12 on third-and-12.
A seven-yard hookup with Ward made it first-and-goal at the 1 to set up Mendenhall’s score. Mendenhall added a 35-yard drive later in the first half to get close to a touchdown, but Shaun Suisham was forced to kick a 20-yard field goal with 6:51 remaining in the first half.
After the Steelers’ defense came through with a third straight three-and-out, and it was all Roethlisberger for the club’s ensuing offensive drive. He hit a 24-yard pass to Miller, a 20-yarder to Emmanuel Sanders and 14-yard dump off to Mendenhall to the 2. Roethlisberger ran it in from there to cap the seven-play, 66-yard scoring drive that gave the Steelers a 17-0 advantage.
The Steelers’ defense played a spectacular first half and ended it with a score. LaMarr Woodley sacked Sanchez on first down. After an incompletion, Ike Taylor blitzed and sacked him again. Sanchez fumbled. William Gay scooped it up at the 19 and ran it in for the touchdown to make it 24-0.
“That was a great play,” Woodley said. “We didn’t do that in a while, where Ike blitzes, but Coach LeBeau picked the right time. And it worked.”
And that defensive touchdown were the final points needed to send the Steelers to the franchise’s eighth Super Bowl.
Notes: Steelers rookie center Maurkice Pouncey said he has a high ankle sprain, but he was walking gingerly on crutches afterward. … The attendance was a stadium-record 66,662.