PITTSBURGH, Penn. - (AP) - The Pittsburgh Steelers found a fitting way toshut down the New York Jets' season.
What started with "Hard Knocks," ended with hard knocks, too.
For the third time in six seasons, Terrible Towels will twirl atthe Super Bowl. The Steelers silenced Rex Ryan's wild bunch with afumble return for a touchdown and a goal-line stand in a 24-19victory for the AFC championship Sunday. They will face Green Bayin Dallas in two weeks.
Look out Big D, here comes another Big D - in black and gold,and with an unmatched history of carrying off the Lombardi Trophy. You can bet that unit led by James Harrison, which shut down theJets' comeback in the fourth quarter, will test Aaron Rodgers. Thatoverwhelming defense set the tone for most of a frigid night atHeinz Field to end the Jets' stunning postseason run. Ryan slammeddown his headset when Antonio Brown, also a hero last week, caughta pass for a first down that allowed Pittsburgh to hang on and runout the clock.
And the Steelers (14-4) will challenge the Packers' defense witha versatile attack led by running back Rashard Mendenhall andquarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers ended the Jets' season with a dominant first halffor a 24-3 edge. Mendenhall had 95 of his 121 yards and atouchdown.
Roethlisberger has moved on from a four-game suspension at thebeginning of the season to take Pittsburgh to its eighth SuperBowl; the Steelers own the most titles, six. He scrambled time andagain for key gains, often against shoddy tackling.
At game's end, he kneeled on the field, his face buried in anAFC championship T-shirt.
The cocky Jets seemed to have left everything they had in NewEngland last Sunday. There was little trash talking all week andeven less fire early in their biggest game since winning thechampionship 42 years ago. They haven't been back to the SuperBowl.
The Steelers are regulars, including titles for the 2005 and2008 teams, both led by Roethlisberger and a fierce defense sparkedby playmaking safety Troy Polamalu.
Polamalu, his hair pouring from under his helmet as theblack-and-gold signature towels flowed throughout Heinz Field,didn't have to do a whole lot this time. Not with the way histeammates whipped the Jets at the line of scrimmage before aspirited New York surge in the second half.
And too often, New York's defense was like a swinging gate thatRoethlisberger and Mendenhall ran through with ease.
New York (13-6) failed for the fourth time in the AFC title gamesince 1969, when the Jets won perhaps the most significant of allSuper Bowls. It was a devastating finish, particularly after theJets beat Peyton Manning and the Colts, then Tom Brady and thePatriots on the road to get to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers snapped New York's hopes of making the Super Bowl asixth-seed spectacular; the Packers are the NFC's No. 6 seed.
Coach Mike Tomlin had his Steelers eager for the fight from theoutset, while Ryan's guys were flat until it was too late. The Jetsdid get a 45-yard TD pass from Mark Sanchez to Santonio Holmes -the hero of Pittsburgh's Super Bowl victory two years ago - and asafety after Pittsburgh's goal-line stand.
But the early hole was too deep.