James Farrior wound up calling it "a small, sick feeling of relief," rarely the kind of nominative phrase associated with the winning side in the AFC championship game, but given the only alternative -- a gigantic, nauseous feeling of lingering disbelief -- it managed to make perfect sense.
On their way to Super Bowl 45, the Steelers' iconic defense probably came within one more sorry series of fully regurgitating a 24-point lead at Heinz Field, a virtually unthinkable collapse that every last man in Dick LeBeau's decorated deployment might have spent the rest of his life trying to chase from his memory.
"It could have been a disaster," said nose tackle Chris Hoke after Pittsburgh canceled all Jets to Dallas at the last minute. "They really had all the momentum in the second half. It was like we were banging our heads against the wall out there. We finally stopped them at the goal line and I think that changed things."
Arguably, but then, just about everything is arguable.
Surely it was mad clutch when Brett Keisel and Lawrence Timmons stopped LaDainian Tomlinson on fourth down at the 1 with 7:44 left on the game clock, but Ben Roethlisberger, working on a miserable passer rating of 35.5 on this bitter winter night, fumbled the snap from backup center Doug Legursky for a safety on the very next play. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez then went 6 for 6 on the ensuing New York possession to pull Rex Ryan's team to within five at 24-19.
The Steelers could not play pass defense to save their Super Bowl reservations after a Rashard Mendenhall-powered offense erected most of the 24-0 lead that was established 63 seconds before halftime.
Fortunately, the same people who couldn't catch up with anybody in the Steelers' secondary had taken the precaution of making what proved to be the winning play in the Jets' backfield. It came on third-and-17 at the Steelers' 26, just 47 seconds after Roethlisberger's 2-yard keeper had erected a 17-0 lead.
Sanchez dropped to pass again, two plays after LaMarr Woodley planted him 7 yards deep in his backfield, but now a corner blitz from the opposite side was even more destructive. Ike Taylor crashed into Sanchez from behind just as the quarterback cocked his arm, ejecting the ball onto the grass in the vicinity of William Gay, who was on the approach from the opposite corner.
Gay waited with a kind of maddening precarious patience, looking for something like a hop that he could scoop. The fact that he got it just as Ziggy Hood was clearing a path in front of him resulted in a 19-yard fumble return for a touchdown and the bonus points that would ultimately prove too daunting for New York to overcome.
"That wasn't an individual play," said Gay in a boisterous Steelers locker room. "That was just great coverage, great pressure, a great call, just a total team defensive play. I didn't want to fall on it. I was trying to scoop it, but I don't take any credit for that play. That was just a great effort by everybody."
But the Jets didn't blink; they taxied into position even before the intermission, when Brad Smith (who burned the Steelers for a 97-yard kickoff return in New York's victory here a month ago) caught two passes for 25 critical yards on the drive to a Nick Folk field goal with nine seconds left in the second quarter. It was 24-3.
As the second half began, the Jets were somehow cleared for takeoff. They needed just five plays to go 90 yards, half of them on Santonio Holmes' 45-yard touchdown catch behind Taylor that made it 24-10.
"This is the AFC championship game," Timmons reminded people afterward. "These guys are going to come out and make some plays too. We expected a very competitive game, and that's what we got, a very competitive game."
But what they very nearly got was a nightmare scenario in which the Jets scored 26 second-half points to rip a Super Bowl berth from the very defense that's put its signature all over recent Super Bowl history.
"We made just enough plays in the first half," said Woodley, "but this just shows that you can never make enough. It's never enough until that fourth-quarter clock hits 0:00."
"They were the better team in the second half," said safety Ryan Clark, "and they're a very brassy team. You can't talk before you play like they do. You know I can't wait. I can't wait to get on the jet to Dallas and go to the Super Bowl."
Especially since such a long, long layover over indeterminate duration was just barely averted.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org