The Steelers trotted out two of their legends for the latest in their long line of big games. Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier accompanied the captains to midfield for the coin toss before the AFC championship hair-pull against the New York Jets Sunday night. Then they stepped aside and watched Rashard Mendenhall run into franchise lore. Mendenhall didn't stop until he had carried the team to Dallas for Super Bowl XLV against the Green Bay Packers.
OK, Mendenhall didn't stop until helping the Steelers to a 24-3 halftime lead with 95 first-half yards.
That was good enough.
The Steelers hung on for dear life and beat the Jets, 24-19, to advance to their eighth Super Bowl. You think you're lucky to be a pro football fan in this town? The Jets played in their only Super Bowl 42 years ago.
There were a lot of stars for the Steelers, but none shined brighter than Mendenhall, at least in that decisive first half. "The kid was running out of his body," Jets defensive end Trevor Pryce said.
All week, the Jets had talked about stopping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and taking out a future Hall of Famer in his own stadium for the third week in a row in the playoffs after beating Peyton Manning and his Indianapolis Colts and Tom Brady and his New England Patriots. But they failed to account for Mendenhall.
Good thing for the Steelers because Roethlisberger didn't have his best game, at least until he clinched the win with a 14-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Antonio Brown on third-and-6 with 1:48 left.
"I've been telling people for a while now that Rashard is one of the best running backs in the league," Roethlisberger said. "He doesn't get the credit for it. But he is."
It was clear from the beginning that the Steelers believed they could pound at the Jets' defense. Why not? The Jets won at Heinz Field, 22-17, Dec. 19, but it wasn't because they stuffed the run game. Mendenhall ran for 99 yards that game, the Steelers for 147, the most allowed all season by the Jets.
Why not run the ball again?
The plan didn't change even after the Steelers lost their best offensive lineman, center Maurkice Pouncey, to a left high-ankle sprain midway through the first quarter. Doug Legursky stepped in and, although he and Roethlisberger botched two snaps, the second leading to a fourth-quarter safety, he and the line helped Mendenhall account for 121 of the Steelers' 166 rushing yards.
Another former Steelers great running back, Jerome Bettis, always said he was paid to score touchdowns. For the second consecutive postseason game, Mendenhall had a terrific touchdown run. Against the Baltimore Ravens a week earlier, it was a wonderful cutback on a late 2-yard run that won the game, 31-24. Sunday night, it was a 1-yard run off right tackle that gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead and completed a 16-play, 66-yard drive that lasted 9:06. Mendenhall carried linebacker Bart Scott into the end zone.
"That's what big-time players do," said backup running back Ike Redman, who contributed to the first-half run dominance with four carries for 27 yards.
"It always comes down to the running back at the goal line. You can have everybody blocked up, but the running back has to figure out how to get that last yard. Rashard has been doing it for us all year."
Mendenhall was just getting started. He had a 35-yard run to set up a Shaun Suisham field goal for a 10-0 lead. He caught a 14-yard pass on the play before Roethlisberger ran for a 2-yard touchdown and a 17-0 lead. He finished the half with those 95 yards on 17 carries and also had two catches for 32 yards. I wasn't a math major, but that's 127 of the Steelers' 231 yards in the first two quarters.
As it turned out, every one was needed.
The Jets' defense tightened in the second half, holding the Steelers scoreless and Mendenhall to 26 yards on 10 carries. But it was too late. In the end, the Jets couldn't stop the great Roethlisberger from scrambling to his right and finding Brown, who picked the perfect time to make his only catch of the night.
All that was left was the presentation of the Lamar Hunt Trophy to the AFC champions. Harris and Bleier were back again, this time on the makeshift stage on the field, waving their Terrible Towels on what would have been legendary Towel creator Myron Cope's 82nd birthday. They whipped the record Heinz Field crowd into a frenzy as Queen's "We Are The Champions" blared throughout the stadium. Harris then presented the trophy to Steelers owners Dan Rooney and his son, Art II.
Harris and Bleier weren't the only great Steelers' running backs on that stage at that moment.
Mendenhall was there, too, with coach Mike Tomlin and Roethlisberger.
"What a tremendous honor to be asked up there," Mendenhall said. "I'm thinking, 'Why's Troy [Polamalu] or someone else not up here? Why me?' "
There was a good reason.
Actually, 121 of 'em.
Ron Cook: email@example.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published January 24, 2011 5:00 AM