Mike Tomlin may not wear his heart on his sleeve the way Bill Cower does, but his teams certainly do not lack a flair for the dramatic.
Going into the AFC Championship game against the Jets everyone knew the Steelers were 7-7 in previous contests. What escaped most was the Steelers 1-4 record against AFC East teams.
Such statistics tempt one to question Chuck Noll’s dictum that “Losing has nothing to do with geography.”
Fear not, the Pittsburgh Steelers vindicated the Emperor in large part because they embrace another credo laid down by their current standard bearer, Mike Tomlin.
A Historic Playoff Half
If the AFC Divisional Playoff game vs. Baltimore provided one of the darkest quarters in Steelers playoff history, then the first half of the Steelers AFC Championship victory over the Jets offered one of the most glorious.
Somewhere, former WMAL/WTEM sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice was smiling. Beatrice always preached against coaching fueled by emotion, arguing that it led to erratic highs and lows.
The Steelers imposed their will in the first half, making the Jets look like playground bullies that crumple when confronted by someone who isn’t cowed by trash talk.
Pittsburgh thoroughly dominated New York during the first 30 minutes, even mimicking the Raven by scoring two touchdown in less than 30 seconds.
Disrupting Ben Roethlisberger was the only thing the Jets did right in the first half , but at the time, it didn’t matter….
One Man, Who Wanted It
Watching the Steelers first half brought to mind two quotes. One from my former wrestling coach Dave Moquin and another from Peter King.
Moquin once told a story about “Billy” a wrestler who’d gone 0-10 against the top wrestler in his weight class, until they met as seniors in the county finals, where Billy defeat his rival. Billy, Moquin explained, didn’t win because he’d become a better wrestler, but because “He Wanted It More.”
Peter King observed this after the Steelers-Ravens game:
“I think Rashard Mendenhall, two touchdowns Saturday and all, is just not a big-time back.”
This past season I too have questioned whether Mendenhall had what it took to be a feature back. But last night, he made one thing clear:
- Rashard Mendenhall Wanted It
For a franchise that yields nothing in running tradition, Mendenhall did himself proud: Pounding holes, evading tacklers, pumping the legs, pushing through the pile, moving the chains.
The Steelers nine minute time of possession advantage was a key to victory, and much of the advantage came because Mendenhall was on a mission.
Jets Fly on Their Resolve
Give all of the credit in the world the Rex Ryan. Down 24-3, playing in a hostile environment in sub zero temperatures, many others would have mailed it in.
The Jets’ resolve did not flag.
- They tightened their run defense.
- They worked the underneath routes with patience and precision.
- And, as they had first half, befuddling Big Ben and dismantled the Steelers passing game.
And it almost worked. Almost.
“Destiny, is what you make it.” – Mike Tomlin, prior to the AFC Championship game
The New York Jets made many plays, often in impressive fashion, during the second half. Except for when it counted the most.
For example, the Steelers two third quarter possessions ended in a punt and an interception…
- …but Steelers burned 10 minutes off of the clock.
The Jets drove 80 yards in their first drive in the 4th quarter…
- …yet the Steelers stopped them cold on 4th and goal at the 1.
The Jets rebounded with a safety and a touchdown on the ensuing drive…
- …but a safety is a cheap substitute for a touchdown in when you’re down by 14 in the 4th quarter.
“If we’re going to beat Indianapolis and New England,” Ryan told Tannenbaum, “we’re going to need more speed and athleticism. It’s that simple…. all the other stuff won’t matter.” [Emphasis added] – Rex Ryan quoted by Peter King explaining his off season strategy.
Conventional wisdom holds that Ben Roethlisberger played a bad game. No one would argue that he played well… except for when the outcome hung in the balance
Roethlisberger’s rushing was every bit as important as Mendenhall’s, but that counted for little when the Steelers took possession with 3:06 remaining to play.
The Steelers ran. The Jets stuffed them, immediately calling time out, sensing blood in the water.
To win, the Steelers needed Ben to do something he’d only done on one series all night – complete consecutive passes.
- Ben delivered. First to Health Miller for 14 yards, and then to Antonio Brown for another 14.
All Rex Ryan could do was tear his head set off in anger.
As you can see from the quote above, Rex Ryan’s stated off season goal was beating the Colts and Patriots.
The Steelers goal each year is to contend for a championship. Rex Ryan, realized his destiny.
So did the Steelers.