It was somewhere between the third or fourth missed tackle from Bart Scott and the crushing hit that Mark Sanchez took just before the end of the first half before the realization started to set in: After an emotionally draining win over the Patriots the previous Sunday in Foxboro, the Jets had nothing left in the tank.
Making their second AFC Championship Game performance in as many years, New York came out emotionally flat against the Steelers on Sunday night, and in the end, it cost them. The Steelers ran 38 plays in the first half, and had just two negative plays, with one of them coming on a Ben Roethlisberger kneeldown at the end of the second quarter. The Jets had one rushing yard over the first two quarters, with Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson combining for four carries and five yards in the first half as Pittsburgh built a 24-3 halftime lead.
Meanwhile, the Steelers weren’t especially dominant on offense, but they put together a nine-minute scoring drive in the first quarter and held the ball for 10:49 of the first quarter, an absolutely ridiculous advantage in time of possession that prevented the New York offense from developing any sort of rhythm early on.
New York showed real life in the second half — cutting the lead to 24-19 when Mark Sanchez found Jerricho Cotchery on a four-yard touchdown pass with 3:06 remaining — but in the end, their early struggles cost them down the stretch, as Pittsburgh won, coming away as the 2010 AFC Champions, 24-19 (click here for the complete recap).
“We played a good half and that was it,” said Jets coach Rex Ryan.
Here are nine other things we learned on a championship Sunday where the Steelers and Packers were the last two teams standing:
Sometimes, a patchwork offensive line is enough. Pittsburgh was coming into the game with a banged-up offensive line that was already missing some starters, and it got even worse for them in the first quarter when starting center Maurkice Pouncey went down with an ankle injury on the first possession. (He was replaced by backup Doug Legursky, who botched a snap with Roethlisberger that led to a New York safety.)
But even though they went with a cobbled together group, the Jets were never able to get the same sort of sustained pressure on Roethlieberger that they got on Brady the week before. The Pittsburgh quarterback was sacked twice, and ended up taking just two quarterback hits. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh offensive line was able to open up enough holes for pick up 166 total rushing yards.
The Jets aren’t going to back down. New York came out flat and that cost them in the second half — the 21-point halftime deficit was simply too great a hole to climb out of. It ends a remarkable year for the Jets, one that started with the weekly drama of “Hard Knocks,” and included a sexual harassment incident involving a female reporter, the roller coaster ride of Ryan and his video scandal and plenty of brash trash talk from the coach and players. In the end, it got the franchise to the cusp of its first Super Bowl appearance in 42 years.
The Jets became the first AFC team to lose consecutive title games since Cleveland dropped both the 1986 and 1987 game to Denver, but after the game, Ryan was unapologetic.
“Our goal for next year? I got news for you, it won’t change,” Ryan told reporters. “And it’ll never change. We’re gong to chase that Super Bowl, we’re going chase it until we get it. And then we’ll chase it again after that. People want to criticize us, then you go ahead. But you really got no right.”
Did the Jets leave everything they had in Foxboro?
“There’s probably no harder three games than any team in the league has to face than that,” Ryan said about the Jets’ postseason journey, which included stops in Indianapolis, New England and Pittsburgh.
One running game delivered, the other one did not. Statistically, Pittsburgh got a below-average performance from Roethlisberger (10-for-19, 133 yards, zero touchdown passes, two interceptions and a passer rating of 35.5), but running back Rashard Mendenhall was a beast, powering for 121 yards and a touchdown while adding 32 receiving yards. The Illinois product, who never got started in a November loss to the Patriots (he finished with just 50 rushing yards in the 39-26 defeat to New England) was in control all night, chewing up big yardage against New York’s stout run defense.
In contrast, the Jets were never able to get a sustained running attack on the night. One of the best running teams in the league throughout the season, New York’s “ground-and-pound” was its signature style of play throughout 2010. However, they had just one rushing yard in the first half and 70 total as a team. The Jets managed to get some quality yardage down the stretch, and Greene ended up with 52 yards on nine carries, but Tomlinson could only muster 16 yards on nine carries. Tomlinson was stopped in the shadow of the Pittsburgh goalposts on fourth-and-1, a killer defeat that was fairly indicative of the New York running game most of the evening.
“It’s a missed opportunity,” Tomlinson said. “It seemed like things were lining up for us, but it didn’t happen. … It’s tough. We fought back in the second half. We felt like we were right there in the game and had a chance to win the game. It’s tough to come up short the way that we did.”
Ben Roethlisberger is now poised to enter some elite territory. With the victory, Roethlisberger and his Pittsburgh teammates will be playing in their third Super Bowl in six seasons, and if he wins, will have every right to stand side-by-side with Tom Brady and his three rings. The Steelers’ quarterback may not have the same stats that Brady does, but a third ring — all of which have come since Brady won his last one — would thrust him into the conversation. One important stat to remember: Brady notched his third when he was 27, while Roethlisberger is 28. At the same time, Roethlisberger is younger than Terry Bradshaw (30), Joe Montana (32), or Troy Aikman (29) when they won their third Super Bowls.
Aaron Rodgers was the best of the four different quarterbacks who saw time at Soldier Field on Sunday. Rodgers won his third road playoff game on Sunday, helping lead the Packers to a 21-14 win over the Bears in the NFC Championship at Soldier Field (click here for the complete recap). And while he wasn’t at the top of his game as he was in the first two — he was 17-for-30 for 244 yards and two interceptions against the Bears, including one that was almost a game-changer — this postseason continues to be his personal coming out party.
For a quarterback who had to sit and stew in the shadow of Brett Favre for the first three years of his career, this year and this playoff run is sweet vindication for a signal caller who never lost faith.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” said Rodgers. “I’m at a loss for words.”
When it comes to the Bears, maybe the position of quarterback is overrated. Chew on this for a second: If Chicago had somehow managed to pull out Sunday’s game, the Bears would have gone to two Super Bowls in five years with Rex Grossman and Caleb Hanie at quarterback.
Hanie certainly exceeded any expectations the Bears put on his shoulders on Sunday, but he was unable to get his team past Green Bay. The third-stringer out of Colorado State gave the Bears a second-half spark, finishing 13-for-20 for 153 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
“You don’t expect to come in and play on a day like this — especially the NFC Championship Game,” Hanie told reporters. “That’s just how it goes sometimes.”
The two picks were killers, with the first coming deep in Bears territory coming when B.J. Raji stepped in front of a pass and took it back for a score. The second came on a pass intended for Bears wide receiver Johnny Knox, was picked off by defensive back Sam Shields at the Green Bay 12-yard line with 47 seconds left.
“People are telling me, ‘Congratulations,’ but I threw two picks,” Hanie said. “That’s the only time you’re going to get a congratulations — when they don’t expect you to do anything.”
The Packers did an excellent job neutralizing Chicago’s biggest big-play threat — punt returner Devin Hester. Green Bay punter Tim Masthay dropped five of his eight punts inside the Chicago 20-yard line, with three punts downed at the 11 or better and one that ended up going for a touchback almost downed at the one.
In the end, Hester had just three returns for 16 yards, and was never a factor on an afternoon where the Bears desperately needed some help from Hester. Packers general manager Ted Thompson told reporters he thought Masthay’s performance was “magnificent,” while the Bears lamented the lack of production from the all-world return man.
“We never got an awful lot from our return team,” said Chicago coach Lovie Smith.
Jay Cutler doesn’t have a whole lot of support from current and former players around the league — at least those on Twitter. After he failed to return in the second half, Cutler was absolutely lacerated by current and former players on Twitter who were (presumably) watching the game. As the Bears went to Todd Collins and then Caleb Hanie, Deion Sanders, Derrick Brooks, Kerry Rhodes, Asante Samuel, Maurice Jones-Drew and Darnell Dockett all eviscerated Cutler in the second half.
However, Cutler still appears to have the support of his teammates — center Olin Kreutz told reporters he thought Cutler had a torn ligament, and was surprised he came in for the second half at all. Linebacker Brian Urlacher was told many NFL players were blasting Cutler on Twitter. “A lot of jealous people watching our game on TV when their season is over,” responded Urlacher. “Jay was hurt. We don’t question his toughness. He’s tough as hell. He doesn’t bitch, he doesn’t complain when he gets hit.”
While the Patriots aren’t playing any more, there were still plenty of New England storylines in the NFC Championship Game. The first came when Cutler was yanked from the game in favor of Todd Collins, a Walpole native. Collins struggled in his brief time on the field before the Bears turned to Hanie. In addition, former BC defensive lineman B.J. Raji turned in a key play when he intercepted a Hanie pass from 18 yards out and trucked into the end zone to give the Packers a 21-7 fourth-quarter lead.
“We’ve been using him on goal line, so I guess now we have to throw him the ball since he’s shown he can catch and score,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of the 337-pound Raji. “He’s a special athlete.”
“I was like, ‘Man, he threw this ball to me. I just have to catch it,’” said Raji, the ninth overall pick in the 2009 draft. “It feels like I’m living the dream. It’s only my second year, first year starting, and to have an opportunity to win a Super Bowl. Words can’t describe.”