Mendenhall powers the Steelers back to the Super Bowl

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall (L) embraces New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez (R) after the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the New York Jets 24-19 in the AFC Championship game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, 23 January 2011. The Steelers will go on to face the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV on 06 February 2011 in Arlington, Texas. EPA/JUSTIN LANE fotoglif933714

Here are five quick-hit observations on the Steelers’ 24-19 win over the Jets in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.

1. Mendenhall ran like he was mad at the ground.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Rashard Mendenhall run with more determination than he did Sunday night. He shredded the Jets for 95 rushing yards in the first half and finished with 121 yards on 27 carries and one touchdown. He also caught two passes for 32 yards and would have scored on one of those receptions had he stayed on his feet. He now has three touchdowns this postseason and has provided the Steelers’ offense with balance. Against the Jets, he rarely went down on first contact and he flashed terrific speed on a 35-yard jaunt in the first half. No running back has ever rushed for more yards against the Jets since Rex Ryan took over as head coach in 2009. Mendenhall set the tone for Pittsburgh’s win.

2. Bruce Arians shows some stones.
Pittsburgh fans have had a roller coaster relationship with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians over the years, but they had to have loved his gutsy 3rd and 6 pass call with less than two minutes remaining. How many times do teams run the ball in that situation, get stopped, punt and then have to rely on their defense to close out the game? Arians knows he has a great defense so if the clock is stopped because of an incompletion, so what? But thanks to Ben Roethlisberger’s 14-yard competition to Antonio Brown (how big has this kid been the last two weeks?), the Steelers were able to pick up a first down and run the rest of the clock out. They didn’t even give the Jets an opportunity to win. Great call.

3. Had the Jets showed up in the first half…
Rex Ryan has to be beside himself right now, and not just because his team lost in the AFC title game for the second straight year. He must be furious that his team only played one half of football, or that they fell behind 24-0 and still only lost by five points. Give the Jets credit for not giving in after nothing went their way in the first half and give their coaching staff credit for making some great halftime adjustments. But in the end, Ryan and his players will lose sleep over the fact that they didn’t show up in the first half. The Jets had just one yard rushing on five carries in the first two quarters, while their defense missed tackles and failed to contain Mendenhall. Had they played for 60 minutes instead of 30, maybe the Jets would be gearing up for Dallas right now.

4. Sanchez earned a lot of respect Sunday night.
Say what you want about Sanchez but that kid fought to the bitter end. Pittsburgh’s defense abused him like a piñata in the first half but he settled down and made some great plays in the third and fourth quarters. He cost his team dearly by fumbling the ball right before halftime, but he didn’t quit. He didn’t sit on the bench with his head between his knees begging for the game to be over. In fact, he led his team to a field goal right before halftime and then came out in the third quarter playing with a ton of confidence. On a day when Jay Cutler is being criticized for potentially throwing in the towel because of an injury, Sanchez played with a lot of pride. If his teammates had any doubts about his toughness coming into this game, they don’t now.

5. Aaron Rodgers vs. Pittsburgh’s defense? Sign me up.
Unless you have a deep hatred for both the Packers and Steelers, it’s hard not to love the Super Bowl matchup this year. Rodgers has been on fire for about a month and Pittsburgh’s defense loves to bring pressure on nearly every down. The Packers have the weapons at wideout to take advantage of Pittsburgh’s secondary, but how will Green Bay’s offensive line hold up against the Steelers’ front seven? Can Rodgers put the Ghost of Brett Favre to rest for good? Can Big Ben beat a highly underrated Green Bay defense and win his third ring? As usual, the two weeks leading up to the big game will be exhausting and nauseating, but at least this matchup offers a ton of great storylines.

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