At Irish Exit in Manhattan, Steelers fans in enemy territory celebrate their win over the Jets in the AFC title game.
AFC championship game: Steelers 24, Jets 19
By Mike Batista
What the fuck was Antwaan Randle El doing in there?
The number 82 was the first thing I noticed in the Steelers' huddle when they came out of the two-minute warning.
The Steelers were clinging for dear life to a five-point lead. They faced a third-and-6 from the Jets' 40. All they had to do was run the ball again. Even if they didn't get the first down, they could run the clock down to about 1:15, then punt and try to pin the Jets deep. Sure, Mark Sanchez had a hell of a second half, but the Jets would have needed a touchdown with just over a minute left and no timeouts.
Randle El has done very little this season in his prodigal son return to the Steelers. So his presence in the game made it obvious the Steelers had a lot of receivers in there.
The Steelers weren't going to throw the ball, were they?
Sure enough, I see the Steelers go five-wide with Ben Roethlisberger in the shotgun. Yup. They were going there.
The Steelers were pretty much getting their asses kicked in the second half. Their 24-0 lead was down to a puny 24-19.
Now, the Steelers were going to put the ball in the air and risk an incompletion, which would stop the clock and give the Jets almost two minutes to score a touchdown. Or worse, there could have been an interception. Roethlisberger already had thrown two in the game.
I drank a few IC Lights at Irish Exit in Manhattan before the game, but I was too nervous to drink anything during the game, especially the second half. My tongue and throat were dryer than Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette's sense of humor.
I did not need this, Steelers. I did not need this.
So Roethlisberger gets flushed out of the pocket, looking for someone to throw to. He wasn't going to be able to scramble for a first down like he had a couple of times earlier in the game. Too many white jerseys between him and the big yellow first-down line.
Just before running out of bounds, Roethlisberger tossed the ball to Antonio Brown. After his high-wire, Tyree-like catch last week, the sixth-round pick cradled this one like a newborn for 14 yards. First down. Pittsburgh's going to the Super Bowl.
Jets coach Rex Ryan slammed down his headset as if he was told his favorite snack shack was out of chili dogs.
Unlike me, the Steelers weren't scared. Unlike me, they weren't wringing their hands wishing the seconds would tick off the clock faster.
That's not how you win championships.
You win championships by closing the deal sooner rather than later.
You win championships when your fourth receiver, who hasn't been called upon all night, gets the job done when he finally is needed. And let's not forget Brown's 27-yard kickoff return a minute earlier after a Jets' touchdown narrowed the Steelers' lead to 24-19. That put the ball on the Steelers' 41 and helped the Steelers, and me, breathe a little easier.
Something tells me Brown, who was inactive for seven games this season, will get a hat every Sunday from now on.
Nothing safe about a safety
It looked like the Steelers' defining moment as 2010 AFC champions came midway through the fourth quarter. Leading 24-10, the Steelers stopped the Jets on first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. On third down from the 1, LaMarr Woodley batted down a Sanchez pass. On fourth down, LaDainian Tomlinson took it up the middle and got stood up against a battery of black jerseys.
A goal-line stand. The most dramatic display of football toughness. Unfortunately, right after that the Steelers fell victim to one of football's most emasculating occurrences: a safety.
Roethlisberger fumbled the snap from Doug "The Big" Legursky, who replaced injured Maurkice Pouncey at center, and smartly seized the ball so the Jets would get two points and not six.
The Jets had a safety in their win over the Steelers at Heinz Field last month. The quirkiest of football scoring plays seems to be a running gag whenever these two teams meet. Sort of like Maverick buzzing the tower in "Top Gun." Really annoying.
The safety made the score 24-12. And no, it was no consolation to me that it set things up for my predicted score of 27-15. Fuck that. Now, if the Jets got the two touchdowns they needed, they wouldn't just tie. They would win.
They got the first of those touchdowns after taking the free kick at their 42. Sanchez, who outplayed Roethlisberger, moved the Jets 58 yards in 10 plays and threw a 4-yard TD pass to Jerricho Cotchery, making it 24-19 with 3:06 left.
Fortunately, the Jets didn't touch the ball again.
Cooking up a comeback
After falling behind 24-0, the Jets had all the necessary ingredients for concocting a comeback.
They got a field goal to get on the board before halftime.
They got a touchdown less than three minutes into the second half when Santonio Holmes caught a 45-yard pass from Sanchez.
They got a turnover on the Steelers' ensuing possession when Brodney Pool intercepted Roethlisberger.
Meanwhile, the Steelers got the yips.
Pool's interception came right after Roethlisberger fumbled and recovered a snap.
The Jets went three-and-out on that possession, but Randle El muffed the punt and watched it roll out of bounds.
And after letting Rashard Mendenhall run wild for 95 yards in the first half, the Jets held him to 26 yards in the second half. The Steelers' passing attack wasn't used that much in the game. Roethlisberger completed only 10 of 19 passes for 133 yards to go with the two picks.
On this frigid Pittsburgh night, you got the feeling if the Steelers really needed to throw the ball, their aerial game would have been like a beer that hasn't been out of the freezer long enough. Still some ice in there.
In the second half, the Jets looked like the team that beat the Patriots. But the simple reason they couldn't beat the Steelers is because the Steelers scored more points in the half that they dominated.
Run, Rashard, Run
Am I the only one who forgot what Rashard Mendenhall looks like?
When he stood on the podium during the Steelers' celebration Sunday night, it was the most face time he's had since he got a call on his cell phone from the Steelers on draft day nearly three years ago.
Mendenhall's kind of been a man of mystery in his career. The Steelers' ability to move the ball through the air has at times made him an afterthought.
Jerome Bettis was The Bus. Willie Parker had the speed of a race car. What about Mendenhall? It hasn't been easy to identify him that way.
Sure, Mendenhall's had monster rushing numbers against porous run defenses like the Chargers last season and the Bills this season.
Mendenhall was seventh in the NFL this season with 1,273 rushing yards, just 25 less than Adrian Peterson. But he averaged only 3.9 yards per carry, and just hadn't passed the eye test that defines a top-notch running back like Peterson.
But he did on Sunday.
The Jets' first mistake came when they won the coin toss and deferred to the second half. While it worked out well for them in the second half, it kept dangerous Brad Smith, and the Jets' offense, off the field for the first nine minutes of the game.
Mendenhall carried eight times for 28 yards on the Steelers' opening drive. He scored on a 1-yard touchdown run in which he stuck his arm across the goal line with Bart Scott trying to take him down.
The touchdown gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead. It also softened any emotional blow from the loss of Maurkice Pouncey on the previous play. Pouncey left the game with a high-ankle sprain. Even though he's barely old enough to drink, the rookie center has been so good this year that many of his older teammates look up to him.
But The Big Legursky filled in admirably, and the Steelers' first-half fireworks had just begun.
The centerpiece of Mendenhall's performance was his 35-yard run in the second quarter, putting the ball on the Jets' 27. Isaac Redman gave Mendenhall a breather and got the Steelers deeper into field goal range with runs of eight and 13 yards. Shaun Suisham's 20-yard field goal made it 10-0.
Mendenhall found a couple of other ways to help on the Steelers' next possession. With the Steelers at the Jets' 16 and all the receivers covered downfield, Mendenhall got open in the flat, caught a pass and rambled to the 2. That set up Roethlisberger's 2-yard touchdown run. Jets' linebacker Bryan Thomas was too worried about Mendenhall, and that opened a lane the size of the Tuscarora Tunnel for Roethlisberger, who scored to make it 17-0.
Then came the grand finale of the Steelers' first-half spectacle. How many times over the years have we seen one Steeler mug an opposing quarterback and another Steeler pick up the free ball and take it the other way?
It's quite a sight to behold.
It happened again Sunday when Ike Taylor strip sacked Sanchez, and William Gay cleaned up. Gay didn't just fall on the ball. Oh no. He hovered over it and positioned himself to grab it and take it to the house. With his dreadlocks, Gay has a little (and I do mean a little) of the flair that Troy Polamalu has on his takeaways.
Gay ran it back 19 yards for a touchdown to increase the Steelers' lead to 24-0 with 1:23 left in the first half, and Heinz Field was awash in an ear-splitting, Terrible Towel-waving celebration of Steelerism.
Little did anyone know that the reaction to Gay's touchdown would serve as the Steelers' sendoff party as they were deployed to a treacherous second half.
It was time to hunker down.
But they survived. Next stop: Dallas.
I guess Randle El can come, too.