Steelers win AFC crown

Steelers hold on for championship after dominating Jets in first half


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Hines Ward gripped a near-empty bottle of non-alcoholic champagne and joked that he had stolen it from the New York Jets, who had boasted that they and their fans would be drinking the bubbly.

"I'm sleeping with this bottle tonight," Ward proclaimed after the jubilation around him in the Steelers locker room had calmed down.

Ward had just performed his as-promised Heinz Field leap, joining fans in the stands to celebrate the Steelers' eighth trip to a Super Bowl after they prevailed against the New York Jets, 24-19, Sunday night in the AFC championship.

"I was hugging everybody, kissing grandmas and everything. I hope I didn't kiss anyone's girlfriends. I think a couple of dudes kissed me on the cheek.'' • They can kiss another Vince Lombardi Trophy if they beat the Green Bay Packers Feb. 6 in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Steelers already own six, more than any team.

"There are 32 teams that start this journey and there are two left," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, "and we are fortunate to be one of them."

PG VIDEO: STEELERS REPORT

More fortunate than maybe they realize after running out to a 24-0 lead in the first half. The New York Jets scored the next four times and weren't out of it until Ben Roethlisberger completed a third-down pass to rookie Antonio Brown for 14 yards and a first down with 1:48 and no Jets timeouts left.

The Steelers discussed possibly running on that play in which they needed 6 yards for a first down at the New York 40; it would have run the clock down a little more before they punted. Tomlin opted to go for the first down instead.

"We weren't going to play not to lose," Tomlin said. "That's pretty funny isn't it? A third-and-6 to win the game for a rookie from Central Michigan."

The catch wasn't as long or as spectacular as the one Brown caught that helped the Steelers beat the Ravens the previous week, but it may have averted a meltdown of epic proportions had New York been given one final try to win it.

The Steelers grew a little nervous as they saw their huge lead nearly evaporate.

"I did, I'm not going to lie," offensive lineman Trai Essex said. "They're a good team and the momentum shifted and we couldn't get anything going."

Just a week earlier, the Steelers overcame a 21-7 Baltimore halftime lead, and they were seeing it happen to them after a 24-3 halftime lead.

In the first half, they did little wrong. Rashard Mendenhall had 95 of his 121 yards rushing in the first half. He scored from the 1 to kick things off, capping a nine-minute drive that lasted 15 plays and traveled 66 yards to open the game.

The points started dropping faster than the temperature in the second quarter as Shaun Suisham kicked a 20-yard field goal, Roethlisberger ran around right end for a 2-yard touchdown and William Gay ran 19 yards with a Mark Sanchez fumble caused when cornerback Ike Taylor blitzed him from the blind side.

"Ike did a tremendous job, not only getting the sack but getting the ball down," Gay said.

When the Jets scooted 44 yards in 1:04 to Nick Folk's 42-yard field goal with nine seconds left, it seemed an exercise in futility for the Jets.

Yet the second half nearly turned Heinz Field into an historic meltdown in the bitter cold night.

Sanchez threw touchdown passes to Santonio Holmes and Jerricho Cotchery around a safety when Roethlisberger fumbled a snap in his end zone and there was no scoring done by the Steelers.

A hush fell over the record crowd of 66,662 when the Jets took the opening kickoff of the second half and moved 90 yards in five plays to score on a 45-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to Holmes.

Holmes flashed wide open, beating Taylor.

That cut the Steelers' lead to 14 points with plenty of time left.

The Jets had a chance to cut it to seven midway through the fourth quarter but the Steelers' defense had a great goal-line stand, holding the Jets out of the end zone after a first down at the 2. New York's drive had consumed 17 plays, 80 yards and 8:06 with nothing to show for it.

"They had our number on it," Jets guard Matt Slauson said. "It seemed like they knew what we were going to call every single time. They blitzed perfectly and we just didn't get it done with our one-on-one matchups."

But the Jets got something out of it when on the next play from the 1, Roethlisberger fumbled the snap from center and was downed in his end zone for a safety.

That cut their lead to 24-12 with 7:38 left, but the point difference between a Jets touchdown and a safety turned out to be the difference in the game.

Roethlisberger was not sharp with his passes. He completed just 10 of 19 for 133 yards and he was intercepted twice. His passer rating was a poor 35.5. One came off of a tipped pass but another occurred when he had Emmanuel Sanders wide open on the left inside the Jets' 10, but the pass hung more to the right and safety Brodney Pool intercepted it.

Roethlisberger, though, had some key runs for first downs -- he ran 11 times for 21 yards including his touchdown.

The Jets, who rushed for a season-high 106 yards against the Steelers in a five-point victory in December, had just 70 yards rushing. Sanchez completed 20 of 33 for 233 with no interceptions and a 102.2 passer rating. Each quarterback was sacked twice.

The Steelers played their most dominant half of football this season as they ran out to their 24-3 lead. It appeared the game was over.

"I didn't think it was over," said linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who had another sack to give him 10 in six postseason games. "It was still early in the game. You saw last week against Baltimore when we were down. There was still another half of football left ... so it's not over until it's the fourth quarter with 0:00 on the clock."

The Green Bay Packers have been established as early 2 1/2-point favorites in Super Bowl XLV. Start a new clock.


For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com . First Published January 24, 2011 5:00 AM


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