You didn’t really expect it to be all that easy, did you?
The same Steelers who needed dramatic plays on the way to their two Super Bowl titles in the past six seasons couldn’t possibly dominate the New York Jets for 60 minutes in the AFC championship game on Sunday night, could they?
Not a chance.
As good as Mike Tomlin’s team looked in the first half, it looked almost as bad in the second half, but nobody in black and gold was complaining after a 24-19 victory over the Jets resulted in a record-tying eighth Super Bowl appearance.
Tomlin said that the game was a microcosm of what it takes to get to the Super Bowl.
“It’s kind of been our story this year, and not only this year, but really, all of these journeys are like that,” he said.
“They are adversity-filled, collective and personal.”
For the first 29 minutes of the game it looked like the Steelers might just run away with the AFC championship.
Rashard Mendenhall slashed his way through the Gang Green defense and the Steelers completely shut down Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and the running game.
When William Gay returned a Sanchez fumble 19 yards for a touchdown after an Ike Taylor sack, it gave the Steelers a 24-0 lead and Pittsburgh fans were already checking on flights to Dallas, site of Super Bowl XLV.
But Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers couldn’t take such a pedestrian path to the title game.
“That’s us,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s not always pretty, but somehow we find a way to get it done.”
No, Roethlisberger’s Steelers have a flare for the dramatic.
They did in 2006, when the quarterback needed to make a game-saving tackle after Jerome Bettis fumbled on the goal line in an AFC divisional game at Indianapolis. The Steelers held on for an improbable 21-18 victory on their way to winning Super Bowl XL in Detroit.
Winning Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla., was even more heart-stopping for Steelers fans, as Roethlisberger hit Santonio Holmes for a 6-yard touchdown pass with 35 seconds remaining to lift Pittsburgh to a 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
Both Holmes and Roethlisberger were involved in the drama on Sunday night at Heinz Field, but on opposite sides. Holmes, who the Steelers traded to the Jets in the offseason, had five catches for 61 yards and a touchdown.
Meanwhile, Roethlisberger struggled to a 35.5 passer rating, completing just 10 of 19 passes for 133 yards and two interceptions.
He was working with backup center Doug Legursky after Pro Bowl rookie Maurkice Pouncey was injured in the first half, but Tomlin never allows the Steelers to use injuries as excuses.
Linebacker James Farrior said that helped the Steelers fight through a season loaded with adversity, from the four-game suspension that the NFL handed Roethlisberger to start the season to injuries that took a toll on the offensive line.
“We have a saying around here that Mike Tomlin has been preaching since he got here: ‘A standard is a standard.’ I think not only does he say that, but I think he has everybody believing that. We all believe it, no matter who is in the game, a standard is a standard.”
Even so, Legursky hadn’t worked with the first-team offense much this season, and it showed in the fourth quarter when Roethlisberger fumbled the snap in his own end zone with the Steelers holding a 24-10 lead. The quarterback recovered it, but the safety gave the Jets another chance, and they quickly capitalized to cut the lead to 5 points.
But the Steelers are used to playing in close games and, for the most part, they win those games.
“We have a lot of tenacity,” Roethlisberger said. “We have a don’t-quit attitude and mentality. We have a belief in each other. We are a family. We stay close no matter what. If things go bad on offense, the defense is picking us up. If things go bad on special teams, the offense and defense are picking them up. Everybody is always there for each other. There is never finger pointing.”
The Steelers special teams and offense made sure the defense never had to take the field again. Rookie Antonio Brown returned the ensuing kickoff to the to the 41-yard line, giving Roethlisberger a bit of breathing room.
After Mendenhall was stopped for a 1-yard gain on first down, Roethlisberger found tight end Heath Miller for a 14-yard gain and a first down.
Two more ineffective Mendenhall carries had the Steelers facing a third-and-6 from the Jets 40 at the two-minute warning.
Rather than try to run the ball and take more time off the clock, Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians put the ball in Roethlisberger’s hands and it paid off. He found Brown for a 14-yard completion that allowed the Steelers to run out the clock.
Much like the other details of Pittsburgh’s postseason runs, the pass play didn’t go exactly as planned.
“It was kind of intended for (receiver Hines) Ward,” Roethlisberger admitted.
But like nearly everything else that Roethlisberger has done in the postseason, where he is now 10-2, it all worked out in the end.