AFC Championship Recap: Pittsburgh's Goin' To The Super Bowl

On Myron Cope‘s 82nd birthday, the team he loved the most gave him the gift which was undoubtedly at the top of his list.   Hum-Hah!  The Pittsburgh Steelers soundly defeated the New York Jets 24-19, earning a trip to Super Bowl XLV.  Sounds okel dokel to me.

Much like last week, this game was a Jekyll and Hyde affair.  Unlike last week, the Steelers got off to great start by playing one of the most dominant halves of football in playoff history.  The Jets had one yard rushing at halftime.  ONE YARD.  Before Dick LeBeau called off the dogs toward the end of the half, New York was staring at epic futility of less than thirty yards of total offense.

In a fitting tribute to Myron, the Steelers got off to their great start by going Old School.   Pittsburgh’s opening drive lasted fifteen plays and consumed over nine minutes, thanks to the tough running of Rashard Mendenhall.  This was vintage Stillers Football at its finest.   Mendy, who would have 100 yards by halftime, continued pounding the rock on the next three drives, running over and past the big green pylons who barely tried to stop him.

The only thing stopping the Black and Gold juggernaut was a sputtering passing game led by Ben Roethlisberger.  Big Ben’s best contribution came in the form of several key scrambles where he showed the guts and heart missing from sissy-girl cowards like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.  Ben left a number of plays on the field, particularly underthrowing a wide open Mike Wallace early in the second and overthrowing a wide open Heath Miller on a play where Heath’s spectacular catch was later taken away by the clearly biased officiating crew.  When the game was on the line, Ben made the throws he needed to make but this was far from his best effort.

To be fair, Ben was facing the best secondary in the league.  After throwing only five interceptions all season, he threw two picks yesterday and very easily could have thrown two or three more.  His 55.3 quarterback rating was the second worst of his career, behind only his infamous Super Bowl performance against the Seahawks.  Playing most of the game with his key offensive lineman sitting on the sideline probably didn’t help.

Maurkice Pouncey was injured on the opening drive and spent the rest of the game on crutches.  Without him, the Steelers still managed to run the ball effectively throughout the first half.  The Jets couldn’t run at all while Mark Sanchez would throw five yard checkdowns on third and long.  After Ike Taylor forced a fumble on a corner blitz and William Gay picked it up for a defensive touchdown, the game appeared to be over.   Even going to a loose prevent type defense which allowed the Jets a face-saving last second field goal didn’t set off any warning signals.

Then the second half began and everything was reversed.  The breaks starting going the Jets way, starting with a quick touchdown on their opening drive when Face Me Ike slipped, allowing Santonio Holmes to run all alone in to the end zone.  The Steelers answered with a drive of their own but it ended badly when Ben threw his second pick on a fourth and two.  Offensively, Mendy would rush for only 26 more yards after his dominant first half performance.  Worst of all, Bruce Arians seemingly shut his brain off at halftime because he began dialing up some of the dumbest play calls I’ve seen all season.

THIRD AND TWO AND YOU GO FIVE WIDE EMPTY BACKFIELD?!?!   WTF?!?

The key to the second half was the drive New York began at the end of the third quarter.  LeBeau played a bend-but-don’t-break zone type defense, allowing Sanchez underneath stuff in exchange for time on the clock.  Down by two touchdowns, Gang Green consumed over eight valuable minutes of the fourth quarter driving down to the Steelers 2.  From that point, the Steelers D stood strong on four consecutive plays, finally stonewalling LaDainian Tomlinson on a fourth and goal from the one foot line.

If Steeler Nation started breathing a little easier after that, they should know better.  This team NEVER MAKES ANYTHING EASY.  On the very first play backed up in their own end, the absence of Pouncey finally reared its head when Ben fumbled a poor snap from back up center Doug Legursky.  Ben smartly fell on the ball, sacrificing a safety to save a touchdown.  But the two points and free kick signaled a clear change in momentum for the downtrodden Jets.

Sure enough, the Jets took the ball and drove for a touchdown to make the margin an uncomfortably close five points.  The bad news was a 24 point margin had shrunk faster than Bret Favre in an ice bath.  The good news is all these shenanigans had left only three minutes on the clock.  With three time outs and a two minute warning, Rex Ryan chose to kick off.   And that was Sexy Rexy’s fatal error.

As my granddaddy says, never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line!  Or maybe that was The Princess Bride.   Anyway, you never put the ball in Big Ben’s hands when a game is on the line.  He’ll make mistakes, he’ll miss receivers, he’ll get the crap pounded out of him…  But when the pressure is on and you need a play, NOBODY IS CLUTCHER THAN BIG BEN.

After a run netted nothing, Ben hit Heath for 14 yards and a first down.  Two more runs later, the Steelers were staring at a third and long with two minutes left.  Thirty other teams would just run the ball, take time off the clock, then kick and hope your defense can hold for the final ninety seconds.   Not the Steelers.  Not when you have Big Ben.

Ben scrambled to his right, saw rookie Antonio Brown break open, and hit him with a strike for a first down.  I would call it a gutsy call but how much courage do you need when you have the best big game quarterback in the NFL behind center?  Great catch.  Great throw.  Game over.

Just like that, a season that began in turmoil is finishing up in JerryWorld.  But this really isn’t the end but rather a beginning.  The beginning of a two week odyssey which will reaffirm the Steelers position as the greatest franchise in NFL history.  An odyssey which will establish Mike Tomlin as the game’s brightest young head coach and Ben as the game’s greatest big game quarterback.

Here we go…

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