By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011; 12:49 AM
PITTSBURGH - The New York Jets' soul-baring, open book of a season had already turned a corner into a dark, cold alley when quarterback Mark Sanchez dropped back to pass late in the second quarter. His team trailed by 17 points. New York had possessed the ball long enough to take all of two sips of hot chocolate. A proper course of action might have been to run the ball, kill the clock and sprint full-speed to the locker room, where perhaps a warm fire and a soothing pair of slippers awaited.
Instead, Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, coming on a blitz, took the opportunity to pulverize Sanchez, simultaneously accomplishing three things: registering a sack, forcing a fumble and deciding the AFC championship game. There were, of course, the remaining 31 minutes, and the resilient Jets turned a blowout into a ballgame. But the Steelers' 24-19 victory Sunday night at icy Heinz Field was symbolized and cemented in the moment Taylor provided, because cornerback William Gay returned the ball for a touchdown and a lead that could not be overcome.
"I think that probably put us over the top," linebacker James Farrior said.
Over the top, but not quite feet-up-on-the-ottoman relaxed, because the Jets were the only team to score after halftime. Indeed, if not for a gutsy, third-down throw from Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to wide receiver Antonio Brown - a 14-yard gain that gave the Steelers one final first down and left the Jets, with no timeouts remaining, helpless one last time - New York may have gotten the ball back with a chance to finish what would have been a historic comeback.
"I expected to win," Jets Coach Rex Ryan said, and he never wavered from that attitude - not in training camp, not when his team was on the verge of missing the playoffs, not in the final moments Sunday.
The Steelers, though, never wavered from their attitude, either. Pittsburgh's season began with a six-game suspension of Roethlisberger by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, later reduced to four. It will end in two weeks with the franchise's eighth Super Bowl appearance, this one against the Green Bay Packers, despite the uneven ride.
"That's us," Roethlisberger said. "That's the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's not always pretty. But somehow, we find a way to get it done."
The way on Sunday was with one overwhelming half, and one held together by duct tape. Running back Rashard Mendenhall ground the Jets to a fine powder, carrying 27 times for 121 yards - including 95 before halftime. Those first-half stats were staggering. Pittsburgh outgained the Jets 231-50, 135-1 on the ground. The Jets had allowed more than that many rushing yards in an entire game just twice all season, and their defense - which remained on the field for 21:04 in the first half - withered as Mendenhall and backup Isaac Redman averaged 5.8 yards a carry.
"That first 30 minutes was conference-champion worthy," Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said. "We kind of limped home, but we aren't going to complain about style points. It was an awesome effort from a lot of people in there from start to finish. They made the necessary plays to get the job done."
Taylor's hit on Sanchez was one, and perhaps the biggest. It was enough to warm the 66,662 fans who packed Heinz - seemingly bringing out 66,662 gold towels - and there's no telling how many signed up for Super Bowl travel packages at the half.
Sanchez - beaten up and bullied for most of the first half - threw a pair of touchdowns in the second half. Had the Jets' defense showed the kind of proficiency before halftime that it did afterward, the discussion might be different Monday morning. But Pittsburgh won the game in those first 29 minutes, when it was at its best.
Sanchez, though, showed why Ryan could stand up afterward and say, "I'm proud of our football team." Battered and bullied before halftime, he kept the Jets in the game, completing 20 of 33 throws for 233 yards and two scores, badly outplaying Roethlisberger. His 45-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes - once a Steelers Super Bowl hero - opened the third quarter in the only acceptable manner for the Jets, and an unexpected feeling settled over Heinz: uneasiness.
That was even more the case when the Jets took the ball late in the third quarter, still down 24-10, and began an 18-play march. It continued to be the case even after the Steelers came up with a goal-line stand - stopping Ladainian Tomlinson on fourth down from the 1 - because Roethlisberger couldn't handle the ensuing snap from backup center Doug Legursky, and when he fell on the ball in the end zone, the Jets had a safety.
The Jets' final touchdown - a four-yard pass from Sanchez to Jerricho Cotchery - came on their next possession, but they used more than 41/2 minutes to score it, and still trailed by five. When they kicked off, only 3:06 remained. On third and six, with no timeouts left, they needed a stop. Pittsburgh lined up in a spread formation - and threw to Brown.
"We weren't going to play not to lose," Tomlin said.
When Brown cradled the ball, they had won. There were smooth moments and speed bumps, both over the course of the day and the course of the season. But in the end, the Steelers are in that familiar spot - back in the Super Bowl, regardless of how the season began, regardless of how the second half of this game looked.
"All of these journeys are like that," Tomlin said. "They are adversity-filled, collective and personal. We got a close-knit group in there. We have great leadership in there. We have a lot of components in there that make navigating the waters possible."