AFC Championship: Steelers’ goalline stand denies Jets’ fightback

Pittsburgh Steelers 24 New York Jets 19

A pair of touchdowns 52 seconds apart and a dramatic fourth quarter goalline stand propelled the Pittsburgh Steelers to an NFL record-tying eighth Super Bowl, as the New York Jets finally ran out of gas on their long road trip around the north-eastern United States. The Steelers will now take on the Green Bay Packers in a clash of two of the NFL’s most storied and successful franchises, boasting a combined Super Bowl record of 9-2.

The Jets had already won this season at the Steelers’ Heinz Field home, emerging as 22-17 victors in week 15 after Ben Roethlisberger twice failed to find a winning pass from their 10-yard line as time expired. Their return trip to the same venue took in stop-overs at Indianapolis (17-16) and New England (28-21), as they arrived at the AFC Championship game via two road victories for the second season in succession. Pittsburgh’s route had been more straightforward, although they had had to overturn a 21-7 halftime deficit against the Baltimore Ravens the previous weekend.

Jets grounded in first half

Mendenhall carried the Steelers offense in the first half, scoring the opening TD (image courtesy of steelers.com)

The Steelers took the opening kickoff and immediately produced the longest touchdown drive (15 plays) in a Championship game since 1998. Rashard Mendenhall carried the ball eight times, while Roethlisberger completed short passes to wide receivers Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, and scampered for 13 yards on third-and-12 to keep the drive alive. The series was capped after over nine minutes when Mendenhall’s second effort took him across the goalline from a yard out.

By contrast, the Jets and their quarterback Mark Sanchez were unable to gain any kind of traction offensively in the first half. The Jets’ aggressive defense struggled to compensate for their offense’s impotence. Pittsburgh’s second possession came up short on the edge of field goal range when Mike Tomlin elected to go for it on fourth-and-one from the 32 and Roethlisberger’s pass bounced off Mendenhall’s hands and was picked off by veteran linebacker Bryan Thomas. The interception was Roethlisberger’s first in his last 198 passes, the longest streak of his career.

Nonetheless, Pittsburgh were moving the ball with ominous efficiency. Although the Steelers repeatedly tried – and failed – to beat the Jets’ secondary deep, Mendenhall continued to grind out the hard yards to keep the chains moving.

Sanchez went three-and-out on the Jets’ next two offensive series, and each time the Steelers punished them with points. First they marched 60 yards – all on the ground – to Shaun Suisham‘s 20-yard field goal. Then, on the back of 24, 20 and 14-yard pass completions, Roethlisberger rolled out to his right and took it into the endzone himself from the two.

Gay's fumble return TD looked to have sealed the game for Pittsburgh (image courtesy of steelers.com)

17-0 down against the NFL’s meanest defence (in terms of points allowed) was bad enough. But 52 seconds and two sacks later, it was 24-0. Sanchez was hit by Ike Taylor on a corner blitz as he set up to throw – the officials ruled it a fumble rather than an incomplete pass – and William Gay scooped up the loose ball and scooted into the endzone for a 19-yard touchdown return.

Having gone punt, punt, punt, fumble and amassed a pathetic 11 yards on their first four possessions, the Jets’ offense finally sprang into life. With Pittsburgh easing into prevent mode in the final minute of the half, Sanchez finally established a semblance of rhythm, completing four passes – and almost having a couple intercepted – to set up Nick Folk for a 42-yard field goal which barely crept inside the left-hand upright.

It was a small victory, but a significant confidence boost nonetheless at the end of a half which had seen Pittsburgh dominate in just about every way possible, holding on to possession for over 21 minutes, outgaining the Jets 135-1 on the ground (and 231-50 overall) and earning 16 first downs compared to just five.

Jets take off after half-time

Much as in the earlier NFC Championship game, however, the second half took on a completely different complexion, with the Jets turning the tables in terms of yardage, 239-56, as they opened up their normally conservative offense to chase the game.

Holmes' TD gave the Jets hope (image courtesy of newyorkjets.com)

The half did not start promisingly. Brad Smith mishandled the opening kickoff as it bounced in front of him, pinning the Jets back on their 10. But running back Shonn Greene, who had rushed for just four yards in the first half, ripped off a 23-yard gain up the left sideline, and then Sanchez hit former Steeler Santonio Holmes (the Super Bowl XLII MVP), who had not caught a single pass to that point, first for 16 yards and then 45 and a touchdown after sucking in the Steelers with a play-action fake.

The Jets’ defense also stepped up their game, plugging the lanes which Mendenhall had found with regularity in the first half, and continuing to prevent Roethlisberger from hooking up with his wide receivers. (After their opening drive of the game Ward caught just one more pass, Wallace none.)

Their increased aggression started to force errors from the Pittsburgh offense. First Roethlisberger fumbled the snap from backup center Doug Legursky (starter Maurkice Pouncey having left the game injured in the first quarter). On the next play, his deep throw for Emmanuel Sanders presented safety Brodney Pool with an easy interception.

After forcing the Jets to punt, the errors continued. Antwaan Randle El muffed his catch out of bounds, and two sacks in the space of three plays stalled the subsequent drive.

Tomlinson's failure to score on fourth-and-goal cost the Jets dear (image courtesy of newyorkjets.com)

The Jets then embarked on a 17-play, eight-minute drive which would provide the game’s pivotal moment. Sanchez completed four short-to-medium passes to set the ball rolling, then Greene converted on fourth-and-one at the Pittsburgh 18. A third down conversion gave them first-and-goal at the two, but after three plays netted just one yard, LaDainian Tomlinson was stuffed at the line of scrimmage on fourth down.

This was not the spring-heeled Tomlinson of 2006 who rushed for 28 touchdowns in a single season, rather the ten-year veteran who now lacks the burst of acceleration and second effort which in the past would have seen him power his way into the endzone.

Even though Roethlisberger fumbled again on the next play and conceded a safety, the damage had already been done. Instead of reducing their deficit to seven points with nearly eight minutes left, the gap remained at 12.

Despite having a poor game, Roethlisberger produced when it really mattered at the end (image courtesy of steelers.com)

The offense did their best to rectify their error, taking the restart kick and converting another fourth down on their way to Jerricho Cotchery‘s four-yard scoring catch. That made the score 24-19, but the clock was now working against them.

The Steelers came back on to the field with 2:56 remaining needing to spark back into life to run out the clock and Roethlisberger, despite having had a poor game overall, came up trumps as he has so often in the past, completing a pair of 14-yard passes to Heath Miller and Antonio Brown to give Pittsburgh the two first downs they needed to prevent the Jets from ever taking possession again.

In victory, Roethlisberger finished a modest 10-of-19 for 133 yards and two interceptions, while Mendenhall had 121 yards on the ground and two catches for 32 more. For the Jets, Sanchez finished 20-of-33 for 233 yards and had two second half touchdown passes, but it proved to be too little too late after a first half in which he had thrown for just 63 yards.

Super Bowl pointers

The running game – on both sides of the ball – will be key to Green Bay‘s chances in Super Bowl XLV. On offense, they need to at least keep the Steelers’ top-ranked run defense honest, or else Aaron Rodgers will have a tough day against their pass rush.

On defense, they do not possess a pair of elite cornerbacks like the Jets’ Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis – who between them restricted Ward and Wallace to just 20 yards’ receiving – so they will look to slow Mendenhall down with their front four and then look to blanket cover Ward, Wallace and tight end Miller, all of whom Roethlisberger will look for early and deep.

One final point of note. All four starting quarterbacks in the two Championship games are aged 28 or under. With the 41-year old Brett Favre now seemingly retired, Matt Hasselbeck‘s (35) situation in Seattle uncertain, and Peyton Manning (34) and Tom Brady (33) victims of the Sanchez-led Jets in this season’s playoffs, it signifies something of a changing of the guard in the NFL. In the most vital position in football, the next generation is ready to take over from the established superstars of the game, with Roethlisberger (28) and Rodgers (27) at their forefront.

Next stop: Cowboys Stadium, for Super Bowl XLV. Bring it on.

Previous 2010 NFL playoff articles

NFL wild-card playoffs: Manning shows why he isn’t the greatest ever

NFL divisional playoffs: Quarterbacks and defenses key to Conference finalists

NFC Championship: ‘Freezer’ puts Bears on ice, Packers head for Super Bowl

The week in numbers: w/e 14/11/10

David Haye successfully defended his WBA heavyweight crown (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

7:53 – In their all-British WBA heavyweight title fight, defending champion David Haye stopped Audley Harrison after 1:53 of the third round. In total, the fight lasted just seven minutes and 53 seconds.

0 – Neither boxer landed a single punch in what can only be described as a cagey first round (if you’re being charitable) – or a crap one (if you’re not).

1 – Harrison threw 32 punches but landed just one, in a contest which was as one-sided as it was short.

8Manny Pacquiao beat Antonio Margarito to win the WBC light-middleweight title after a unanimous and overwhelming points decision. He is the only boxer to have ever won world titles in eight different weight categories.

18 – 18-year old Sam Twiston-Davies rode Little Josh to victory at the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham, earning his trainer father Nigel his third win in the race.

4Barcelona‘s Xavi Hernández is the only player in La Liga to have completed more than 100 passes in a single game – he has now managed this feat four times this season.

2010 F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

256 – Final points total of Sebastian Vettel, who won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the Formula 1 drivers’ title. At the end of a 19-race season, he beat runner-up Fernando Alonso by just four points.

23 – At 23 years and four months, Vettel beat Lewis Hamilton‘s mark as the youngest ever F1 world champion.

0 – Vettel had not led the drivers’ championship at any point before yesterday’s race.

1 – Price in pounds paid in 2005 by Red Bull for the old Jaguar team. In just their sixth season, Red Bull have won both the drivers’ and constructors’ titles.

46Inter Milan‘s unbeaten 46-match streak at home ended last night after their 0-1 loss in the derby against AC Milan.

25 – Points scored by England‘s Toby Flood in their 35-18 win over Australia at Twickenham.

17 – England’s 17-point margin of victory equalled their biggest ever win over the Wallabies.

46Scotland succumbed to a record 46-point defeat at Murrayfield, losing 49-3 to New Zealand.

The Premier League week in numbers

Robert Huth - drought-breaker

697Robert Huth‘s opening goal in Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Birmingham broke Stoke‘s run of 697 minutes without a goal against the Blues.

15Michael Essien scored the only goal in Chelsea‘s 1-0 win over Fulham on Wednesday night. Chelsea are undefeated in the 15 league games in which Essien has scored.

4Bolton‘s 1-1 draw at Everton on Wednesday made them the first team in Premier League history to draw four consecutive games 1-1.

10 – Number of changes to Blackpool’s starting XI made by manager Ian Holloway for the midweek trip to Aston Villa. Blackpool lost 3-2.

92:26 – In Arsenal‘s 2-0 win at Wolves on Wednesday, Marouane Chamakh posted the longest time between two goals by the same player in the same Premier League match.

37 – Time (in seconds) of Chamakh’s first goal, the fastest in the Premier League this season and the quickest ever by Arsenal in the Premier League era.

2 – Wolves have now conceded a goal in the first minute of their last two games, against Arsenal on Wednesday and against Bolton on Saturday.

10 – Wolves continued their streak of never having won a Premier League game in November, having drawn two and lost eight of their ten matches.

Johan Elmander - away-day specialist

6 – Bolton’s Johan Elmander has now scored six league goals this season, all away from home.

7 – Saturday’s 4-2 win over Blackburn was Rafael van der Vaart‘s seventh Premier League game at White Hart Lane, and the first in which he has failed to score, having scored seven in his previous six. He is yet to score away from home.

25Fulham achieved a creditable 0-0 draw at Newcastle, but have nonetheless gone 25 consecutive away games without a win.

0 – In failing to find the target in their goalless draw with Birmingham, Manchester City remain the only Premier League team without a headed goal.

47 – Even though they drew 0-0, West Ham and Blackpool attempted 47 shots (including blocked efforts) between them, the most by both teams in a single game this season.

4 – In recovering from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 at Aston Villa, Manchester United became the fourth Premier League team to remain unbeaten in their first 13 games. Only the Arsenal 2003/04 ‘Invincibles’ went the entire season unbeaten, however.

39Nedum Onuoha‘s opening goal in Sunderland’s surprise 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge broke Chelsea’s run of 39 straight league goals at home without reply.

The NFL week in numbers

3 – Number of San Francisco touchdowns negated by penalty in the 49ers‘ game against the St Louis Rams. The Niners also had an interception chalked off due to a defensive penalty, but still rallied to win 23-20 in overtime.

0 – There are now no winless teams in the NFL after the Buffalo Bills beat the Detroit Lions 14-12.

25 – In losing at Buffalo, Detroit set a new NFL record by losing their 25th straight road game – a streak dating back to 2007. The previous record of 24 straight road losses was also set by the Lions, between 2001-03.

David Garrard completed a 50-yard Hail Mary pass as time expired (image courtesy of jaguars.com)

50Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard threw a 50-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to Mike Thomas on the final play of regulation to give the Jaguars a 31-24 win over the Houston Texans.

16 – Seconds remaining in overtime when Santonio Holmes scored the game-winning touchdown to give the New York Jets a 26-20 victory over the Cleveland Browns. It was the third latest touchdown in regular season overtime history. (In 1996, Michael Jackson scored with 10 seconds left as the Ravens defeated the Rams, and in 1978 John Jefferson scored as time expired in overtime for the Chargers against the Chiefs.)

2 – The Jets, who won 23-20 in overtime at Detroit last week, are the first team in NFL history to win road games in overtime in consecutive weeks.

3 Denver quarterback Tim Tebow’s first NFL pass went for a three-yard touchdown to running back Spencer Larsen, making him only the third rookie quarterback since 1991 to register a touchdown on their first career pass attempt (also Atlanta‘s Matt Ryan and Pittsburgh‘s Kordell Stewart) (Denver 49 Kansas City 29).

1 – The Broncos led 35-0 in the second quarter, and are the first team since at least 1950 to have a first half lead of 35-plus points and a first half deficit of at least 35 points in two games in the same season. (The Broncos trailed 38-0 in the first half against the Oakland Raiders in week seven.)

(Some statistics courtesy of Opta Sports, @StatManJon and NFL.com.)

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