By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers ran for nearly 170 yards, including 121 by Rashard Mendenhall, in a heart-pounding 24-19 win against the New York Jets in the AFC championship game Sunday night at Heinz Field.
The Steelers (14-4) advance to Super Bowl 45 against the Green Bay Packers Feb. 6, 2011 at Cowboys Stadium near Dallas, Texas.
The Steelers raced to a 24-0 lead and survived 19 unanswered points to hold on for the victory. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had an excellent first half, but finished with two interceptions and no touchdowns through the air.
Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 66 yards in a staggering 15 plays and 9:06 on the opening series to take a 7-0 lead. The opening first down was a gift, a penalty for illegal hands to the face by Antonio Cromartie, but the Steelers converted two other third-down plays before punching it in.
Roethlisberger connected with Mike Wallace for six on third-and-five and after a 21-yard pass to Heath Miller was overturned that would have been first-and-goal at the 2, Roethlisberger scrambled for 12 on third-and-12. A seven-yard hookup with Hines Ward gave the Steelers first-and-goal at the 1, and Mendenhall plunged in for the score to give his club a 7-0 first-quarter edge.
The Steelers’ second possession didn’t end as positively, but Roethlisberger led a decent drive. It went from the club’s 13-yard line to a third-and-one at the Jets 32. However, Isaac Redman was held for no gain and Roethlisberger’s fourth-down screen attempt clanked off Mendenhall’s hands and was picked off by Bryan Thomas. But the Jets couldn’t do anything with that good fortune.
The Steelers nearly ran all the way to a second touchdown, but they were stopped at the 2. Mendenhall’s 35-yard run changed field position, and Isaac Redman ran for eight and 13 yards on consecutive plays, barreling over several Jets along the way both times to the 5. Mendenhall got just one yard on first down and three to the 2 on second. Roethlisberger’s third-down pass fell incomplete, and 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 completed a 24-yard pass to MIller, 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 Mark 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.
The Jets needed just a minute to drive into field-goal range, and Nick Folk booted a 42-yard field goal to put his team on the scoreboard. The half ended with the Steelers leading, 24-3.
The Jets needed just five plays and 2:47 to drive 90 yards for a touchdown after the second-half kickoff. On third-and-four, Sanchez hit Santonio Holmes for 16 yards to the 45. The two combined for a 45-yard touchdown on the ensuing play with Troy Polamalu at the line and Ryan Clark hung out to dry.
The Steelers received another gift to keep their opening second-half possession alive, as punter Jeremy Kapinos was roughed to make it first down at the Jets 49. Roethlisberger hit Mewelde Moore for nine yards on third-and-six to get to the 36. But after a fumbled snap, Roethlisberger fired an interception to Brodney Pool at the 5.
The Jets could have swung the momentum completely in their favor with a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, but a 17-play, 80-yard drive in 8:06 ended at the 1. They had first-and-goal at the 2, but three runs and a pass netted one yard. Just like in their regular-season matchup, however, the Jets recorded a safety on the next play, as Roethlisberger fumbled the snap and was tackled in the end zone to make it 24-12.
After the free kick, the Jets drove 58 yards in 10 plays and 4:32 to get within four, 24-19 with 3:06 remaining. Sanchez found Jerricho Cotchery wide open for the score.