In the end, Pittsburgh's 24-0 lead was too big, and the Jets will have to settle for their second straight AFC title game defeat despite getting the final score to 24-19.
It was a classy football game, and both teams enhanced their reputations as solid franchises that have legitimate Super Bowl dreams every year.
The 10 things we learned ...
1. Big Ben has officially replaced Tom Brady as the playoff winner of this QB generation.
Was Roethlisberger great? Nope. He was better than his shoddy stat line (10 of 19 for 133 yards and
two picks), but he had his struggles.
What he did, though, for the 10th time in 12 playoff games, was win the game – and win with more than just a defense. The Steelers have never scored fewer than 20 points in a Roethlisberger playoff start, which is a pretty remarkable number. Patriots and Colts fans certainly wish they could say the same in recent years.
In Big Ben's two losses, the Steelers averaged 28 points: a 41-27 loss in the 2004 AFC title game to the dynastic Patriots in his rookie year, and a 31-29 loss to the Jaguars in the 2007 playoffs, after a down year for Pittsburgh.
His ability to hold up under pressure and make big third down plays (the Steelers were 6 of 11) goes past the box score, and another Super Bowl win would be enough to start carving his Hall of Fame bust.
2. No one saw the Rashard Mendenhall Express coming. Mendenhall's last six games of the season didn't do much to inspire confidence that Pittsburgh would be able to run the ball against the stingy Jets.
In six games, mostly against similarly good run defenses, he had 106 carries for 357 yards and 3.4 YPA. Against the Jets? He was supposed to pound out just enough yards to keep play action honest and that's about it.
Instead, he was the offensive MVP – maybe the only Steelers offensive player that you could say played well, and it was very well.
Not only did he run 27 times for 121 yards (4.48 YPA), he caught two big 16-yard passes and generally played like a fast, young Jerome Bettis. The Steelers can only hope they'll get that same Mendenhall in two weeks.
3. Mark Sanchez might just be good after all.
After the game, Rex Ryan referre
d to Sanchez morphing into a top quarterback sooner than later, and there are signs of it.
He turned in a championship-caliber effort against a very good defense (20 of 33, 60.6%, 233 yards, 7.1 YPA, 2 TDs, 0 INT, 102.2 rating) Sunday, played through pain, and showed great leadership in his post-loss demeanor, consoling teammates and offering sincere congratulations.
Sanchez went from a 63.0 rating as a rookie to a 75.3 in his sophomore season, and it's reasonable to believe that that growth pattern has him in the 90s by his fourth year. The Jets aren't built as a one-year wonder, and Sanchez looks more and more like the right fit for this franchise.
4. Good as Sanchez might be, it's Darrelle Revis that makes the future so bright for the Jets. Revis wasn't on Mike Wallace all game, but he was the main reason the Pittsburgh deep threat had one catch for 6 yards. Revis' impact on the game was felt by three straight franchise quarterbacks – no one, including Aaron Rodgers, has been better in the 2010 playoffs than Revis.
The Jets' DBs followed up their domination of Brady with a huge effort against the Pittsburgh wideouts, who combined for 5 catches for 54 yards all night. Had the run defense not been so surprisingly poor, this probably would have been a green-and-white celebration Sunday night.
5. If the Steelers want to play the "disrespect card," being a 2-point underdog in Vegas is a slam. When a 14-4 team that's a perennial power makes the Super Bowl against a No. 6 seed, they can usually expect to be the favorite. Not the case for the Steelers, who were installed as the early underdog pending later action.
It's a bit of a surprise, and is no small historical disadvantage for the Steelers. Only 12 of 44 previous underdogs have won the Super Bowl.
However, this also promises to be one of the smallest spreads in Super Bowl history. Only the 49ers-Bengals in Super Bowl XVI and the Dolphins-Redskins in Super Bowl VII were considered closer by Vegas. Both games opened at -1. And if a lot of Steelers money comes in, it could be a pick'em by kickoff.
6. The Steelers have O-line issues for the Super Bowl. Who is Doug Legursky? Even Steelers fans didn't know much about him until a couple weeks back, and they have to hope that they won't hear his name in the Super Bowl starting lineup.
It's not often that you see a guy come off the bench to play left tackle one week and center the next – and it's even rarer for his team to win both games, in the playoffs no less.
But that's what the little-known Legursky did Sunday, coming in for the injured Maurkice Pouncey and playing a shaky second half. Legursky and Roethlisberger cost the Steelers two points on the fumbled snap, and the Jets' defensive surge coincided largely with Pouncey's exit.
News that Pouncey's injury was ankle and not knee related is good news for the Steelers, who will need all the help they can get against NFC title game star B.J. Raji
and the rest of Green Bay's excellent middle.
7. LaDainian Tomlinson will probably be back for another season with the Jets, but his role has to be reduced. Ryan's respect for Tomlinson is clear, and the future Hall of Famer had his moments this year. But the Jets' best chance to win this game would have been Shonn Greene at tailback.
Except for the first month of the season, Greene has been the better back, statistically and with the eye test. In a game against a great run defense, Ryan needed to put his best foot forward with Greene in the early stages rather than giving LT another shot.
Instead, it was LT's number that was called on 4th and goal from the 1 in the fourth quarter. He went up the middle and was stuffed for no gain. Greene, the bigger, younger more productive back, was the better option.
Tomlinson turns 32 this summer, and with an average-to-middling season under his belt despite good health, he will probably have to accept a smaller role in 2011 if the Jets want to get one step better.
8. Pittsburgh's 3-4 should be an interesting challenge for the Packers. Green Bay plays in an NFC North that runs all 4-3 defenses (except for themselves), and they beat three 4-3 defenses to get to Dallas.
Now, here comes the ultimate 3-4 wrecking crew in Pittsburgh, which has the best group of linebackers in the NFL. The Packers were 4-3 against teams that run that set in 2010. But three of the four wins came against bad Buffalo, Dallas and San Francisco teams. The Pack put up only nine points in a win over the Jets this year (9-0), another 3-4 team.
The 3-4 is more popular in the AFC, and Green Bay faced nothing but 3-4s from its four AFC opponents this year. Dick LeBeau's Steelers will make it five for five 3-4s from the AFC. Over in its NFC home, 12 of Green Bay's 15 opponents this year were base 4-3 defenses.
Is it a major concern? Well, the Packers will get to see plenty of 3-4 from their own defense in practice. And the offense had big days against the Patriots, Bills, Cowboys and 49ers. So probably not. But it is a wild card to consider as we all over-analyze the Super Bowl over the next two weeks.
9. The Jets continue to be the team that's almost good enough.
New York is now 12-13 all time in the
playoffs, and really hasn't gotten that close to a Super Bowl since the
Namath magic. In these back-to-back AFC title games, they either peaked too early or too late, they allowed way too many points for a defensive team (30 and 24), and you never really got the sense that they were going to win the game.
The problem? As much as Sanchez might be good someday, he's a question mark now, and one that's haunted the Jets since Namath's knees went.
They haven't had an MVP quality QB since Namath – not even close – and that's who wins championships. A great pass defense is a very good thing to have, but it's not enough when the chips are down.
10. Super Bowl XLV is going to be a classic. Franchise QBs? Check. Great organizations? Check. NFL history? Check. Teams with big national followings? Check. Game expected to be a close one? Check.
You really have to go back to Super Bowl XIX in January 1985 to find a similarly good matchup, when Dan Marino's Dolphins went up against Joe Montana's 49ers in a game that was considered a tossup. As it turned out, the 49ers dominated the game, but heading in it had all the earmarks of a classic.
So does this one, and considering the passion of both cities, the city of Dallas is going to be buzzing in ways Jerry Jones has to find painfully bittersweet.
Two weeks to go. Bring on the Bowl.