The Pittsburgh Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl for the eighth time in franchise history with their 24-19 win over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game last night at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh will meet the Green Bay Packers in two weeks in Dallas in what should be one of the most hyped Super Bowls in recent memory.
Pittsburgh jumped out to a 24-0 first half lead and the game looked to be a rout, but to New York's credit, they came back strong in the second half and had the Steelers on the ropes at one point before finally fading at the end.
The Steelers took the opening kickoff and marched down field largely on the legs of Rashard Mendenhall. Roethlisberger scrambled to pick up an important first down on 3rd and 12 and Mendenhall punched it in from the 1. It was a 15 play, 66 yard drive that ate up 9 minutes and set the tone for the first two quarters.
The Jets could do nothing on offense for nearly the entire first half and Pittsburgh scored ten more points on a short Suisham field goal and then on a Roethlisberger quarterback keeper to make it 17-0 with two minutes to go in the half.
And then the most important play of the game: Sanchez went back to pass on 3rd and 17and was hit by a blitzing Ike Taylor just before he could get rid of the ball and Willie Gay scooped it up and ran it in for another score. Since it was under 2-minutes, there was a booth review, but the call was upheld and it was like a dream as the Steelers were up 24-0.
The Jets got some momentum when they drove down and kicked a field goal just before the half, but I don't think too many people were worried at that point.
I think most fans and players would take a 24-3 halftime lead in the AFC Championship Game.
In many way's, last night's game was eerily similar to the 2005 AFC Championship Game.
Much like the '05 game, the Steelers controlled most of the first half and scored two touchdowns in stunning fashion near the end of the 2nd quarter with Ike Taylor figuring heavily into the 2nd touchdown.
The similarities continued in the second half when Mark Sanchez hit a wide-open Santonio Holmes for a 45 yard touchdown to open the 3rd quarter and suddenly it was 24-10.
When Pittsburgh got the ball back, Roethlsiberger was intercepted trying to hit Emmanuel Sanders down field.
The Steelers offense did very little in the second half. That might have been due to the cold weather. It could have been the result of losing Maurkice Pouncey early in the game with a high ankle sprain. It's hard to say, but Pittsburgh certainly didn't have the same kind of success in the second half that it did in the first two quarters.
The defense stepped up to the challenge and when they stopped New York on an awesome goalline stand with just under 8-minutes remaining, I know I breathed a little easier.
Unforunately, with the offense in the shadows of its own goalline, Roethlisberger and back up center Doug Legursky had a problem with the snap and Roethlsiberger was tackled in the endzone for a safety. So for the second time in two games against the Jets, the Steelers gave up a safety.
After the free kick, New York mounted another drive and scored when Sanchez hit Jerricho Cotchery on a touchdown pass to make it 24-19 with 3:06 remaining.
Now those 2 points really looked crucial.
However, New York never got the ball back. Much to their credit, the Steelers' offense forced New York to use all three of their time outs, and after the two minute warning, facing a 3rd and 6, the much maligned Bruce Arians gambled on a pass and when Roethlisberger hit Mr. Clutch, Antonio Brown, for a first down, it was lights out for the Jets.
Roethlisberger didn't have the greatest of games, but once again, with everything on the line, he came through.
The Steelers defense was also pretty spectatular for most of the night.
However, the story of this game was the running of Rashard Mendenhall. It was a coming out party for Mendenhall. Even though he rushed for over a 1000 yards for the second consecutive year, he isn't thought of as an elite back, but in the most important game of his career, he came up big with 121 yards and a touchdown against a stingy Jets' run defense.
It was a great victory for the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh.
Now it's off to Dallas where the team will try to win its 2nd Lombardi Trophy in 3 seasons, its 3rd in 6 seasons and it's 7th over all.
Pittsburgh's going to the Super Bowl!