Today, the Pittsburgh Steelers once again earned their spot into the Super Bowl in February by defeating the New York Jets for the AFC Championship by a score of 24-19. As the game played, I noted some observations from the classic fight between the two teams:
(1) Mendenhall ran like he was mad at the ground. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Rashard Mendenhall run more determined than he did Sunday night. He shredded the Jets for 95 rushing yards in the first half and finished with 121 yards on 27 carries and one touchdown. He also caught two passes for 32 yards and would have scored on one of those receptions had he stayed on his feet. He now has three touchdowns this postseason and has provided the Steelers’ offense with balance. Against the Jets, he rarely went down on first contact and he flashed terrific speed on a 35-yard jaunt in the first half. No running has rushed for more yards against the Jets since Rex Ryan took over as head coach in 2009. Mendenhall set the tone for Pittsburgh’s win.
(2) Bruce Arians shows some stones. Pittsburgh fans have had a roller coaster relationship with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians over the years, but they have to love him for his gutsy 3rd and 6 call with less than two minutes remaining. How many times do teams run the ball in that situation, get stopped, punt and then have to rely on their defense to close out the game? Arians knows he has a great defense so if the clock is stopped because of an incompletion, so what? But thanks to Ben Roethlisberger’s 14-yard competition to Antonio Brown (how big has this kid come up in the last two weeks?), the Steelers were able to pick up a first down and run the rest of the clock out. They didn’t even give the Jets an opportunity to win. Great call.
(3) Had the Jets showed up in the first half… Rex Ryan has to be beside himself right now, and not just because his team lost in the AFC title game for the second straight year. He must be furious that his team only played one half of football and fell behind 24-0 and still only lost by five points. Give the Jets credit for not giving in after nothing was going their way and give the coaching staff credit for making some great halftime adjustments. But in the end, Ryan and his players will lose sleep over the fact that they didn’t show up in the first half. The Jets had just one yard rushing on five carries in the first two quarters, while their defense missed tackles and failed to contain Mendenhall. Had they played for 60 minutes instead of 30, maybe the Jets would be gearing up for Dallas right now.
(4) Sanchez earned a lot of respect Sunday night. Say what you want about Sanchez but that kid fought to the bitter end. Pittsburgh’s defense abused him like a piñata in the first half but he settled down and made some great plays in the third and fourth quarters. He cost his team dearly by fumbling the ball right before halftime, but he didn’t quit. He didn’t sit on the bench with his head between his knees beginning for the game to be over. In fact, he led his team to a field goal right before halftime and then came out in the third quarter playing with a ton of confidence. On a day were Jay Cutler is being criticized for throwing in the towel, Sanchez played with a lot of pride. If his teammates had any doubts about his toughness coming into this game, they don’t now.
(5) Aaron Rodgers vs. Pittsburgh’s defense? Sign me up. Unless you have a deep hatred for both the Packers and Steelers, it’s hard not to love this Super Bowl matchup. Rodgers has been on fire for about a month and Pittsburgh’s defense loves to bring pressure on damn near every down. The Packers have the weapons at wideout to take advantage of Pittsburgh’s secondary, but how will Green Bay’s offensive line hold up against the Steelers’ front seven? Can Rodgers put the Ghost of Brett Favre to rest for good? Can Big Ben beat a highly underrated Green Bay defense and win his third ring? The two weeks leading up to the big game will be as exhausting and nauseating as usual, but at least this matchup offers a ton of great storylines.