In the two days since the Steelers beat the Jets to advance to the franchise's eighth Super Bowl, I've heard mostly exclamations of incredulity from fellow Steelers fans that this seemed like something between a fever dream and a pleasant lie from viewed from the perspective of the preseason. Sure, if one takes that vantage point, the fact that the Steelers are now advancing to Super Bowl XLV seems almost absurd.
I'd like to think there have been enough recalibrations of expectations over the past four months that a broader perspective is needed than one that merely examines the very beginning and now, just short of the very end.
Think back to Week 3 when the Steelers had started 3-0 without Ben Roethlisberger, having defeated teams that had all suffered their only loss of the season to date to Pittsburgh. Perhaps this doesn't quite seem so improbable.
A humbling defeat to the Patriots at home on Sunday night likely set the dial back to maybe being thankful for just getting back to the postseason.
Another late win in Baltimore that essentially secured the division and a first-round bye was enough to make people think that, hey, give the Steelers another shot at the Patriots and they could just mess around and do it.
Of course, we know since then that no such Patriots rematch occurred and that the Jets wanted to justify all the preseason Super Bowl hype that had enjoyed months earlier. In that sense, it was an AFC Championship Game featured a team that summer dictated would thrive being hosted by one that would supposedly be fortunate to keep its head above water.
Maybe in a just world, or maybe a more poetically just one, the Steelers would have been made to pay dearly for their decision to trade Santonio. 'Tone gave it his best and provided the early second half spark that started the nerves rattling. Lucky for us, that was about it out of him.
I'll never be an ardent Bruce Arians supporter, but I'll give him this much: he's figured out how to run on the Jets. Granted, several of the nice gains by Rashard Mendenhall were the result of a mixture of poor tackling and pure effort of the runner's part, but oftentimes the blocking and running schemes were superb. The Steelers ran the ball nearly at will in the first half, with their best offensive lineman only playing the opening drive. This against the league second-best run defense. That's pretty damn impressive.
I'll cop to being overconfident at this point. That a few Jets fans were leaving in the surrounding rows didn't help to assuage that hubris. That lasted for all of about two minutes until Santonio broke free deep and pulled the Jets to within two scores. It probably took me a full hour to let panic return to elation even after the Steelers ran out the clock.
From the Santonio score on, it was pretty much all defense until the final three minutes. Scanning the reactions to this game, Ben Roethlisberger is either being appallingly fluffed by the media or wrongly dumped on. Obviously, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Sunday certainly wasn't his best game by any stretch, but he did make several key plays to either extend scoring drives, then to run out the clock at the very end. Like Mark Sanchez, he got away with two or three throws that could or should have been interceptions. His game turned out to be not very dissimilar to the one Aaron Rodgers had against Chicago: a first interception that wasn't really on him followed by an ugly one that took away a score that might have put the game out of reach earlier in the second half. Had Roethlisberger deep throw that was intercepted by Brodney Pool been thrown further toward the sideline, it would've likely been a touchdown. As it was, it squandered what would have at least been probably a key field goal drive. Mike Wallace also had Darrelle Revis beat about two steps on the one long bomb they tried, but Ben didn't put it out there far enough. Let's hope it's his one less than inspiring performance of the postseason.
You don't need to tell you that Rashard Mendenhall was easily the offensive star of this game. It was truly a star-making performance out of Mendy. While I don't think Mendy is a top five back in the league, I allow rarely see him get much recognition in the national media. Perhaps that will change now.
The defense did a better job getting to Sanchez than in Week 15. LaMarr Woodley might not have his multiple sack streak going, but he's still had at least one sack in every postseason game he's appeared in. Woodley had one of the sacks on Sanchez and was close a few other times, including one where he was held pretty badly a few plays before the Jets scored. Harrison was good in run coverage but Ferguson did a sound job of neutralizing him in the pass rush. Woodley will be going against a rookie in the Super Bowl, so it's probably a good chance he'll be getting in on Aaron Rodgers. If Silverback gets going as well, the Steelers chances for getting no. 7 will be considerably better.
So if you got tired of people parsing what to make of Week 15's impact on the AFC Championship Game, I won't have much to console you about how much last year's memorable win (also in Week 15) against the Packers will be pored over excruciatingly for the next two weeks. A few observations/things worth noting:
- Hines and Heath accounted for nearly half of Ben's 500 passing yards
- Greg Jennings had a pretty huge game (5 catches for 113 yards and a score)
- Two sacks for Clay Matthews. Steelers only had one total.
- No Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith playing
- With nearly 900 total passing yards, you don't expect a ton of rushing. Accordingly, neither team had more than 65 yards total on the ground.
The health of Maurkice Pouncey is going to be a huge concern, no matter his level of confidence following Sunday's game. Even if he plays, it likely won't be at 100 percent. That's good in that there's a much less chance of the bobbled snaps we saw against the Jets, but it does mean bad things going against B.J. Raji. With two additional weeks, however, Bryant McFadden and Troy Polamalu will be that much closer to full strength. And Aaron Smith will likely get to pull a Rod Woodson and validate the Steelers' decision not to put him on IR back in October. Should he do so, one of the more interesting wrinkles will be how he is worked in with Ziggy Hood, given that the second-year player has more than come into his own as the season has worn on. Not the worst problem to have, I'd say.