All of a sudden, there wasn't much to say. The Pittsburgh Steelers had shut up the New York Jets abruptly and completely. They beat the smack out of them by halftime, and then smothered them, choked them off, and practically did everything but stuff rags down their throats.
All season the Jets had been the noisiest team in the league. But it's pretty hard to talk when you're getting blasted off the ball and knocked tumbling backward on to your butt. Which was what happened for much of this AFC championship game at Heinz Field. Let's put it this way: It was as much of a laugher as a 24-19 score could be. The Steelers led by 24-0 with 1 minute 13 seconds left in the first half, and they still led by two touchdowns at the start of the fourth quarter. Then, when it got close, they beat down a feisty Jets rally led by Mark Sanchez with a goal line stand. The right team is going to the Super Bowl.
"The game is played out on the field, and words can't make you play any better," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said.
The Jets were a team of big mouths, playing on big emotions summoned by their roaring Coach Rex Ryan. But they were finally met by something bigger, a great surging team in the Steelers. Everything about the Steelers seemed huge, from their Mountain Man of a quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, to Troy Polamalu's massive flying wedge of hair, to the way they physically overwhelmed the Jets at every important turning point in the game. When the clock finally ran out the Jets stood on their sideline, sullen and still. Ryan issued a curt, wordless handshake to Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin and trudged into the tunnel, leaving all the big words and emotion behind him on the field, where Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor was sailing around with his arms open, imitating a Jet doing a crash landing.
"I would change the outcome of this game and that's the only thing I would change," Ryan said. "We don't need to apologize to anybody."
To understand the extent to which the Steelers pulverized the Jets in the first half, all you had to do was look at the rushing statistics. The Steelers had 135 yards running the ball - to just one for the Jets. "We played a good half," Ryan said, "We just didn't play a good game."
The Jets, for once, ran into a team they couldn't mess with. They have made a habit of getting into the opponents' heads with trash talk, but this week they were actually somewhat restrained in their comments, perhaps a sign that they knew who they were dealing with in the Steelers. Still, quiet for the Jets was ex-Steeler Santonio Holmes saying he wanted to deliver a "slap back in those guys face," for trading him away, and cornerback Antonio Cromartie calling out Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward for cheap shots, saying he's "not man enough to hit you when you're looking at him."
The Jets tried to seem swaggering, even in the cold and forbidding environment of Heinz Field. The game-time temperature was 17 degrees with a wind chill of 5 degrees, and the field was a dead looking dull brown-green. Outside of the stadium, ice floes drifted by in the Ohio River, which was the color of iron. Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards announced his toughness by jogging out for his warmup in no socks, no sleeves, and with his jersey tucked up under his pads exposing a bare midriff. Next here came Sanchez - in a short sleeve jersey. Finally Ryan made his entrance, with no coat, just a turtleneck and sweater vest. But maybe the Jets should have dressed warmer, judging by the way they were about to get run over.
The Steelers had the real substance to back up their own swagger. They are a tight and deeply experienced bunch in big games: 11 of their starters played for the Super Bowl XL champions five years ago. They basically lined up and charged at the Jets like a team of snorting bulls, issuing great white plumes of exhalations from their mouths in the cold air. They were backed by an immense noise from the crowd of 66,662, which made Heinz Field into a dark, frenzied-seeming hive. Fans swathed in black and gold issued a relentless hum of boos and swirled their yellow Terrible Towels.
When they opened the game with a grinding 15-play scoring drive that ate up 9:09 of the first quarter, it was just a sample of how they would wear the Jets out all game. There went Rashard Mendenhall, bouncing off tacklers like a bumper car, picking up third-effort yards. Then here came Roethlisberger, like a tree that had grown legs, high-stepping into the end zone just before the two-minute warning in the second quarter, for a two-yard touchdown. That put the Jets at their largest playoff deficit ever under Ryan. And it was about to get much worse.
On the next series, the Jets were simply overrun. The protection for Sanchez collapsed like a sand castle wrecked by an oncoming wave, Sanchez fumbled when Taylor blind-sided him, and cornerback William Gay scooped up the ball at the 19 and raced it into the end zone. A shaken up Sanchez lay on the field huddled in a fetal position.
Sanchez may have been tempted to stay there. To his credit, he climbed back to his feet, and it was only thanks to his dash and some spearlike throws that the Jets made the fourth quarter interesting.
But in the end the difference was that the Jets are a team still seeking enough muscle to back up their big words, having now lost twice consecutively in the AFC title game, while the Steelers are a fully matured force, going to their third Super Bowl in six years.