PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers found a fitting way to shut down the New York Jets’ season.
What started with “Hard Knocks,” ended with hard knocks.
For the third time in six seasons, Terrible Towels will twirl at the Super Bowl. The Steelers silenced Rex Ryan’s wild bunch with a fumble return for a touchdown and a goal-line stand in a 24-19 victory for the AFC championship Sunday. They will face Green Bay in Dallas in two weeks.
Look out Big D, here comes another Big D — in black and gold, and with an unmatched history of carrying off the Lombardi Trophy.
You can bet that unit led by James Harrison, which shut down the Jets’ comeback in the fourth quarter, will test Aaron Rodgers. That overwhelming defense set the tone for most of a frigid night at Heinz Field to end the Jets’ stunning postseason run. Ryan slammed down his headset when Antonio Brown, also a hero last week, caught a pass for a first down that allowed Pittsburgh to hang on and run out the clock.
And the Steelers (14-4) will challenge the Packers’ defense with a versatile attack led by running back Rashard Mendenhall and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers ended the Jets’ season with a dominant first half for a 24-3 edge. Mendenhall had 95 of his 121 yards and a touchdown.
“We knew we were going to have a chance to run the ball well,” Mendenhall said. “The offensive line, they controlled the line of scrimmage all game.”
Roethlisberger has moved on from a four-game suspension at the beginning of the season to take Pittsburgh to its eighth Super Bowl; the Steelers own the most titles, six. He scrambled time and again for key gains, often against shoddy tackling.
At game’s end, he kneeled on the field, his face buried in an AFC championship T-shirt.
The cocky Jets seemed to have left everything they had in New England last Sunday. There was little trash talking all week and even less fire early in their biggest game since winning the championship 42 years ago. They haven’t been back to the Super Bowl.
The Steelers are regulars, including titles for the 2005 and 2008 teams, both led by Roethlisberger and a fierce defense sparked by playmaking safety Troy Polamalu.
Polamalu, his hair pouring from under his helmet as the black-and-gold signature towels flowed throughout Heinz Field, didn’t have to do a whole lot this time. Not with the way his teammates whipped the Jets at the line of scrimmage before a spirited New York surge in the second half.
And too often, New York’s defense was like a swinging gate that Roethlisberger and Mendenhall ran through with ease.
New York (13-6) failed for the fourth time in the AFC title game since 1969, when the Jets won perhaps the most significant of all Super Bowls. It was a devastating finish, particularly after the Jets beat Peyton Manning and the Colts, then Tom Brady and the Patriots on the road to get to Pittsburgh.
Asked if he would change anything about this season, Ryan said “I would change the outcome of this game and that’s the only thing I would change. We don’t need to apologize to anybody. We’ll be back, you’ll see.”
The Steelers snapped New York’s hopes of making the Super Bowl a sixth-seed spectacular; the Packers are the NFC’s No. 6 seed.
Coach Mike Tomlin had his Steelers eager for the fight from the outset, while Ryan’s guys were flat until it was too late. The Jets did get a 45-yard TD pass from Mark Sanchez to Santonio Holmes — the hero of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl victory two years ago — and a safety after Pittsburgh’s goal-line stand.
But the early hole was too deep, even after a 4-yard TD pass to Jerricho Cotchery made it 24-19 with 3:06 remaining. The Jets never got the ball back.
Pittsburgh set the early tone with a 66-yard march that took up the first nine minutes, with Roethlisberger displaying his scrambling skills on several plays, including a key 12-yard run on third-and-12. Mendenhall reached the ball over the goal line from the 1, the final of a 15-play drive in which the Steelers pushed around Ryan’s pride and joy.
But Pittsburgh also lost outstanding rookie center Maurkice Pouncey with an ankle injury, leaving it with just one backup offensive lineman.
It was the Jets who were struggling to block, though. And catch, with the usually sure-handed Cotchery making a key third-down drop.
Or tackle. Mendenhall found seams to the left, right or up the middle. His 35-yard sprint in the second quarter led to Shaun Suisham’s 20-yard field goal and a 10-0 lead that was insurmountable the way the Jets were whiffing.
It became 17-0 as Roethlisberger, who was not prosecuted after being accused in March of the sexual assault of a 20-year-old college student, scooted into the end zone from the 2. Just 47 seconds later, Ike Taylor sacked Sanchez, forcing a fumble that William Gay ran 22 yards for a 24-0 lead.