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01-24-2011, 06:40 AM
Steelers climb stairway to Seventh heaven
Mendenhall's running grounds Jets, 24-19, to reach Super Bowl
Monday, January 24, 2011
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Matt Freed/Post-Gazette
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger celebrates after the last play of the game Sunday at Heinz Field.

Seventh heaven?

Not quite yet.

That could come next for the Steelers, who won the chance at an unprecedented seventh Super Bowl crown by staving off the New York Jets, 24-19, in the AFC championship game Sunday night at Heinz Field. Ben Roethlisberger passed for 133 yards and a critical completion to avert a huge collapse, Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 121 yards, and a record crowd of 66,662 celebrated by waving Terrible Towels through equally terrible temperatures.

The final challenge will be Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV on Feb. 6 in Arlington, Texas. The Packers won the NFC championship earlier Sunday, 21-14, in Chicago.

"Never gets old," veteran wide receiver Hines Ward said, grinning as he held up a bottle of non-alcoholic champagne. "A lot of our guys have had to battle a lot of things this year, but we're going to the Super Bowl, we're going to play the Packers, and we're going to enjoy it."

"Shoot, a Super Bowl is a Super Bowl. Doesn't matter if it's your first one or your 10th one," Roethlisberger said. "Any player is happy to get there."

It did not come easily.

The Steelers leaped to a 24-3 lead by halftime and had an absurd 135-1 advantage in rushing yards, dominating all facets. The Jets mounted an impressive 16-point rally in the second half, capped by a Mark Sanchez touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery with 3:06 remaining to pull within five.

Still, Roethlisberger and the offense were able to run out the clock on the final possession, with the killer stake being a 14-yard pass completion to rookie Antonio Brown -- the hero last week against the Baltimore Ravens with a late 58-yard catch -- for a first down.

The Jets had expressed dread all week at containing Roethlisberger's scrambling, and he dashed well to his right before finding Brown.

"I always feel blessed to have my number called," Brown said. "But Ben made the play."

"The first 30 minutes was conference-champion worthy," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We kind of limped home, but we aren't going to complain about style points. They made the necessary plays to get the job done. I'm just so excited and happy for those guys."

This will mark the Steelers' eighth Super Bowl appearance, tying the Dallas Cowboys' NFL record, and third in the past six years. The Steelers' six Super Bowl championships are the most in league history, with the Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers each having five.

On the Steelers' current roster, a remarkable total of 16 players will have a chance at a third Super Bowl championship ring.

The Steelers had former greats Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier present the Lamar Hunt Trophy as AFC champions to team chairman emeritus Dan Rooney and president Art Rooney II, his son, with the crowd roaring.

Asked to rank this among all the successes, Art Rooney replied: "We'll take as many as we can get. Every one of them is special. It's a special group."

It will be a special Super Bowl matchup, too, a meeting of perhaps the NFL's most storied franchises. Green Bay, a founding NFL member born in 1921, has won three Super Bowls, including the first two, plus nine league championships before the Super Bowl's inception in 1967. The Packers' 12 total titles are the most in league history. The Steelers were born in 1933.

The tradition angle already was a topic among fans at Heinz Field.

"It doesn't get any better in football," Scott Cramer of Monongahela said. "And for us ... hey, everybody in the NFL thought this team would go 9-7 or 8-8 after Ben was suspended and some guys were hurt. But they held it together, and they had a big team effort."

That was a reference to the first four games of the season that Roethlisberger was forced to miss for conduct detrimental to the NFL's image.

After Roethlisberger's completion, a community exhale and the trophy presentation, fans streamed down the escalators and rotundas, singing the familiar, "I've got a feeling, Pittsburgh's going to the Super Bowl!"

The victory came with some pain: Roethlisberger was hobbled early when he was hit in the hip but ran for 21 yards. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, a rookie, exited in the first quarter with a high ankle sprain, though he expects to be fine for the Super Bowl. And cornerback Bryant McFadden limped through an evening of sound coverage after missing a week with a strained groin.

"I told the guys, 'I've got half a tank, but I'm going to give you everything I have,' " McFadden said. "That's what we do."

For the brash, bombastic Jets -- though they quieted considerably leading up to facing the Steelers -- it was a bitter finish to a rousing playoff run in which they scored upset road victories against the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots. It also was the second consecutive year they lost in the AFC championship.

"We had a heck of a season," coach Rex Ryan said. "Obviously, we came up short tonight, just like we did last year. But we have to give Pittsburgh credit. That's a heck of a football team. If you're planning on beating them, you'd better put four quarters together. ... We almost pulled out another one."

"I'm sick. It's bad. It's awful," guard Matt Slauson said. "Congratulations to them because they played a whole, entire game. Unfortunately, we only played half."

Temperature at kickoff was a biting 17 degrees, with a wind chill of 5 degrees, and the latter dipped to minus-1 by the second half. But it was not nearly cold enough to dissuade fans of either team, though the Jets did not appear nearly as well represented as the Ravens' fans the previous week.

"I have 10 total pieces of clothing on, plus eight warmers, but I'm just so happy to be here," Tracee Short of Beechview said. "And I'm originally from Texas!"

Yu-Ling Behr of Aspinwall, five months pregnant, went further.

"Five layers of pants, five shirts, two caps, two gloves and a blanket," she said.

The record crowd was the result of the temporary seating section in the north end zone, installed for the National Hockey League's Winter Classic, which drew 68,111 on New Year's Day. The Steelers' previous attendance record was 65,597, set Oct. 25, 2009.

Before the game, fireworks erupted from both stadium rooftops, as well as a larger set from Point State Park. Fifty local military servicemen and women were honored on the field in a welcome-home ceremony. And, just before country star Martina McBride sung the national anthem, local rap artist Wiz Khalifa performed his Pittsburgh-inspired "Black and Yellow" that has become an anthem for the Steelers.

Expect to hear much more of it in the next two weeks, even deep in the heart of Texas.
Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com. Find more at the DK on Pittsburgh Sports blog on PG+.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11024/1120297-66.stm#ixzz1BxKRW8Nq