PITTSBURGH – With a bare-knuckle opening and a hanging-on-by-their-fingernails finish, the Pittsburgh Steelers earned a shot to put another ring on their fingers Sunday, beating the New York Jets, 24-19.
“There are 32 teams that start this journey, and there are two left, and we are fortunate enough to be one of them,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “It’s awesome.”
The Steelers, who already have the most Super Bowl wins in NFL history, now have a shot to earn a seventh championship and a third behind 28-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger will return to the NFL’s biggest stage to cap a season that began with scandal and embarrassment, as he was accused, but not criminally charged, with sexual assault and suspended for four games. After the Steelers won, he knelt on the field and appeared to cry into a towel.
“Thanking the lord,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot as a team, personally, and it just feels good. It’s a good feeling.”
The Jets, 42 years removed from their one and only Super Bowl, were disappointed again, falling in the AFC championship game for a second consecutive year despite a late rally.
Having won two of the past five Super Bowls, Pittsburgh earned a chance to extend its legacy in front of a roaring record Steelers crowd of 66,662.
Roethlisberger had a quiet day passing, but, as he has so often, made critical plays that sealed the victory. He completed passes for two critical first downs on the Steelers’ final drive, preventing the Jets from getting the ball back for a chance to win. On a third-and-6 immediately after the two-minute warning, Roethlisberger improvised to create a big play, running away from the pursuing defense and firing a 14-yard completion to Antonio Brown, effectively ending the game. It was exactly the kind of scramble the Jets worried about all week, the kind that neither Tom Brady nor Peyton Manning could make against them.
The play was designed to go to Hines Ward, but when the Jets dropped their men into coverage instead of blitzing, as the Steelers expected, Roethlisberger’s first option was taken away, and he was left to scramble – and instead hit Brown, a sixth-round draft pick from Central Michigan who had 16 catches all regular season.
“We knew it was over,” Brown said.
“That’s pretty funny, isn’t it? A third-and 6-to win the game for a rookie from Central Michigan,” Tomlin said.
After the play, Jets coach Rex Ryan threw his headphones to the ground.
“That’s the first time, in that situation, when our defense hasn’t responded,” Ryan said. “We didn’t give the offense a big stop to win the game.”
Trailing 24-0 in the first half, the Jets had clawed back into the game by scoring three points immediately before the half and seven more to open the third quarter behind improved play by Mark Sanchez.
But the Steelers defense made a critical goal-line stop – stuffing New York on four plays from the Pittsburgh 2-yard line – that prevented the Jets from closing to within a touchdown with just under eight minutes to play. The Jets got a safety on the next snap and added another touchdown to pull within 24-19, but time was winding down and it was as close as they would get.