The Pittsburgh Steelers found a fitting way to shut down the New York Jets’ season.
What started with “Hard Knocks,” ended with hard knocks, too.
For the third time in six seasons, Terrible Towels will twirl at the Super Bowl. The Steelers silenced Rex Ryan’s wild bunch with a fumble return for a touchdown and a goal-line stand in a 24-19 victory for the AFC championship Sunday. They will face Green Bay in Dallas in two weeks.
Look out Big D, here comes another Big D — in black and gold, and with an unmatched history of carrying off the Lombardi Trophy.
You can bet that unit led by James Harrison, which shut down the Jets’ comeback in the fourth quarter, will test Aaron Rodgers. That overwhelming defense set the tone for most of a frigid night at Heinz Field to end the Jets’ stunning postseason run. Ryan slammed down his headset when Antonio Brown, also a hero last week, caught a pass for a first down that allowed Pittsburgh to hang on and run out the clock.
And the Steelers (14-4) will challenge the Packers’ defense with a versatile attack led by running back Rashard Mendenhall and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers ended the Jets’ season with a dominant first half for a 24-3 edge. Mendenhall had 95 of his 121 yards and a touchdown.
Roethlisberger has moved on from a four-game suspension at the beginning of the season to take Pittsburgh to its eighth Super Bowl; the Steelers own the most titles, six. He scrambled time and again for key gains, often against shoddy tackling.
At game’s end, he kneeled on the field, his face buried in an AFC championship T-shirt.
The cocky Jets seemed to have left everything they had in New England last Sunday. There was little trash talking all week and even less fire early in their biggest game since winning the championship 42 years ago. They haven’t been back to the Super Bowl.
The Steelers are regulars, including titles for the 2005 and 2008 teams, both led by Roethlisberger and a fierce defense sparked by playmaking safety Troy Polamalu.
Polamalu, his hair pouring from under his helmet as the black-and-gold signature towels flowed throughout Heinz Field, didn’t have to do a whole lot this time. Not with the way his teammates whipped the Jets at the line of scrimmage before a spirited New York surge in the second half.
And too often, New York’s defense was like a swinging gate that Roethlisberger and Mendenhall ran through with ease.
New York (13-6) failed for the fourth time in the AFC title game since 1969, when the Jets won perhaps the most significant of all Super Bowls. It was a devastating finish, particularly after the Jets beat Peyton Manning and the Colts, then Tom Brady and the Patriots on the road to get to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers snapped New York’s hopes of making the Super Bowl a sixth-seed spectacular; the Packers are the NFC’s No. 6 seed.
Coach Mike Tomlin had his Steelers eager for the fight from the outset, while Ryan’s guys were flat until it was too late. The Jets did get a 45-yard TD pass from Mark Sanchez to Santonio Holmes — the hero of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl victory two years ago — and a safety after Pittsburgh’s goal-line stand.
But the early hole was too deep.