In the end, the AFC Championship wasn’t about the chatter surrounding Hines Ward or Mike Wallace’s adventures on Revis Island or even the redemption of Ben Roethlisberger. It was — in the prophetic words of none other than Jets coach Rex Ryan earlier in the week — a “triple chin strap game, a straight-ahead, no-dodging game.”
Some of the loudest cheers before the game shook Heinz Field as the crowd caught a glimpse of Hall of Fame great Franco Harris roaming the Steelers sideline. He and Rocky Bleier, who both rushed for more than 1000 yards in 1976 (when the season was just 14 games), served as honorary captains for the game. Message sending?
Their modern-day successor Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 95 yards by halftime…against a Jets defense that had averaged 90.9 yards allowed per game all year. Behind a much-maligned offensive line, which clearly set out to make this a statement game, Mendenhall’s Steelers set the tone from the opening drive. After the Jets elected to defer, the Steelers dominated with a 15-play, 66-yard, smash-mouth drive that ate up 9:06. Pittsburgh’s line suffered a blow when rookie Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey left the game with an ankle injury with his team sitting at the Jets’ 1-yard-line. But Mendenhall put the final signature on the drive anyway with backup Doug Legursky filling in. Mendenhall rammed it in off right tackle, carrying Jets linebacker Bart Scott into the end zone with him. Triple chin strap, indeed.
All week, we had speculated about how the Jets would stop Ben Roethlisberger after having neutralized Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in successive playoff weeks, a task the Jets themselves dubbed “Mission Impossible: III.” In the final analysis, Roethlisberger’s passing numbers were less than impressive: 10-19 for 133 yards and two interceptions. But on the ground, Roethlisberger ran for more yards than Ladainian Tomlinson, including a critical scramble for first down when the Steelers had 3rd-and-12 at the Jets’ 25 during that opening drive. The Steelers were outrushing the Jets 128 to -2 at one point. By the third quarter, Roethlisberger was playing with his name torn and hanging off the back of his jersey.
With complete dominance in the trenches, the Steelers were able to execute a game plan no one had predicted. Rather than test the Jets vaunted cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, the Steelers complemented the rushing game by attacking underneath, dinking to Mendenhall out of the backfield and effectively using tight end Heath Miller, who finished as the Steelers’ leading receiver. In addition to his 121 rushing yards, Mendenhall had more receiving yards than Hines Ward and Mike Wallace…combined.
By the time the Jets had gotten it together, it was too late. The Steelers didn’t score after halftime but withstood a Jets rally to win 24-19. After the game, exuberant and celebratory, the Steelers gathered at midfield to hoist the Lamar Hunt Trophy as AFC Champions. Steelers owners Dan and Art Rooney II stepped onto the stage to accept the prize. Guess who handed it off? Appropriately enough, it was Franco Harris.
About the Author
Written by Lisa Edwards
I am a former producer at ESPN and currently run my own television production company. I also am a field producer for the NFL Network.