The frigid air that descended on the city of Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship game against the Jets couldn't cool off a crackling intensity on the playing surface of Heinz Field during pre-game. The crowd was into it early and often, and on what would have been the 82nd birthday of Myron Cope, I could've sworn I heard a "Yoi" more than once.
* As I watched the Jets go through their pre-game paces, the thought crossed my mind that they reminded me of a fastball pitcher who, while warming up, realizes that he might have to rely on a change-up. In other words, this looked to me like a cold "Jet" engine warming up in frosty air and sputtering. For such a smack talking crew of wild ones, there wasn't the braggadocio that I was anticipating. The lack of any Jets offense in the first half and a defense that wasn't talking or making tackles made me think that two games in Indy and Foxborough may have taken a little jump out of the legs and verbal venom from the Jets.
* Meanwhile at the other end of the field, I assumed Bryant McFadden was ready to go and his ab injury wasn't going to hamper him on this night. One of the final "rites" of warm up for the defense include a rhythmic, swaying huddle with a featured dancer in the middle. B-Mac was the dancer and since the gumby-like gyrations Bryant displayed would have caused the average man to "throw out his lumbago," ok, B-Mac is ready to roll I thought.
* Former Jet DE Dennis Byrd, who once suffered a cracked vertebrae that left him paralyzed, only to walk 10 months later, was the honorary captain for the Jets at the coin toss, and folks that is powerful mojo. The Steelers countered by drawing on the mojo of two of my former teammates, Rocky Bleier and Hall of Famer Franco Harris. They were the Steelers choices for honorary captains. Rocky's story of overcoming personal injury to play matches that of Dennis Byrd. Franco of course, is the "Immaculate" one his own self. I like it, match the mojo, then raise you one mojinator more.
*Because the Jets' corners play man-cover so much, and they aren't the best of tacklers, Rashard Mendenhall appeared to want the off-tackle area. And rip the off-tackle he did. On the 35-yard run Rashard took advantage of Flozell Adams getting to the second level after whacking the down Jet DT to the inside with Ramon Foster, then taking over and sealing the double-team. Flozell then got up to the backer, got his mighty mitts on him and Rashard did what he does best.
* This is just one of the many areas Sean Kugler has upgraded. The double-team action that has two hogs moving the down man to a place he doesn't want to go followed by one of the hogs getting up on a linebacker and sealing him. It's a high velocity game of chess, if you will.
* On that first drive, Hines Ward caught a ball along the sideline. Jets linebacker David Harris tackled Hines, then gave him a little extra while unpiling. I'm thinking that the highlight reel of Hines' greatest hits compiled and displayed to all the Jets defenders this past week had them a little edgy. When the hunter becomes the hunted, as is often the case with Ward on seek and destroy missions, you cause some consternation and angst among the former hunters. One thing for sure, Hines was in their head.
* Dick LeBeau was coming after Mark Sanchez. LeBeau blitzed from the player intro's on. And the cause was helped by the Steelers playing at home. Because of all the noise, the cadence of Sanchez was locked in. Therefore Potsie Farrior had a great read on the snap count. Early in the first quarter, Farrior got a running start at a Fire-x which had both he and Timmons crossing and hitting strong-side gaps. James hit the A-gap like he was playing WR in the Canadian Football League. Farrior's penetration caused Sanchez to throw off his back foot and high on several throws.
* Speaking of penetration, in the first Jets-Steelers contest, Jets center Nick Mangold did a great job on Casey Hampton. This game would be different. On three separate occasions, Big Snack keyed on the snapping hand of Mangold and got the shoulder edge to rip up field. Big Hamp missed two sack opportunities, but played havoc with the running game and keeping Sanchez from setting his feet. The snapping hand of the center can be keyed on because there is a delay from snapping the ball. But to somebody like Hamp, as quick as he is in reaction time, it can be a real weapon, which it was.
* Big Hamp must have touched a nerve too because Jets RG Brandon Moore blatantly cheap-shotted Casey twice. Shots like those got Chris Kemoeatu a flag a week earlier. Moore is the Jets' offensive enforcer, and Hamp was causing a ruckus in their run game so the enforcer was out.
* I watched William Gay return the Ike Taylor induced whackeration of a Sanchez pass attempt that turned into a fumble which turned into 7 points and a 24-0 lead with a sense of satisfaction. I remember Will's troubles last year. I remember a lot of people saying that Will had to go. I remember talking to Will up at training camp and asking him about his fighting spirit, and asking if he was ready to compete for a job. I saw and heard the confidence in the young man as we talked. Not so much about the end result, but the fight that was in him to get back and contribute. Contribute he did, and watching him celebrate with his teammates, training camp seemed like eons ago.
* When the Steelers took Maurkice Pouncey off the field I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. He was in some serious pain when they carried him off the field. Tears of frustration ran down his face, and it wasn't lost on him that he might be a no-go for the biggest game of his life. To go all this way and come this close to grabbing the brass ring seemed almost cruel. Stay tuned.
* Things got sour in the second half when a quick screen from Ben Roethlisberger to Mendenhall turned into a volleyball set and INT. During the ensuing timeout OC Bruce Arians attempted to talk the ref into throwing a flag for somebody tripping Mendenhall. Rashard lost his footing (I'm guessing he got tripped here) and while trying to come to balance flailed at the ball as Ben tried to hit him. Bruce couldn't convince the O-ffish of any subterfuge on the part of the Jets.
* When Ben fumbled the snap in the end zone, and the Steelers' offense came to the bench, I could see the pressure the "Big Legursky" was under. Pressure can shrink a player, or create an opportunity to learn how to deal with adversity. Kugler approached Legursky, patted him on the head, and said a few words. Again, that's good coaching. Cool, calm and measured, as opposed to the screamer, works in situations like this. Only a coach confident in his guys can pull off a move like that. There's a time to kick butt, and a time for reassurance. This most definitely was the latter.
* Just before the Steelers took to the field after the Jets had closed to 24-19, the hogs grouped up at the 30-yard line to mojinate for the upcoming series. This was a time for drawing their resources together and drawing strength from each other. By looking at their faces, I could tell they understood the gravity of the moment. I had a brief flashback to Super Bowl 43 and the last two and a half minutes. They did the same thing there. The tension was thick as the moment right before you say "I do."
* The game, and thus a trip to the Super Bowl, were in their hands. Seconds before Antonio Brown returned a kickoff to set the table for the finishing blows to the Jets' resurgent second half, the hogs drew into a tight huddle. Kugler was there, and when the hogs broke the huddle, so was Maurkice Pouncey, crutches and all. Determination was written all over the faces of the five as they took the field.
* The "game-over" moment from Rex Ryan signaling the Jets offseason beginning was the ripping off and slamming of his headphones after Antonio "Third Down" Brown notched the Steelers' victory by pulling in a chain-moving catch. It was the "Thrill of victory, the agony of defeat." If Wide World of Sports ever wanted to revamp their opening footage, they could give the crash-and-burn ski-jumper a break and insert Ryan in his place. I would be hard-pressed to tell who's ending of a dream hurt more.
* It's difficult to paint a picture of the field during the post-game ceremony. Elation and mayhem pop into my gourd first. All the emotions of a hard-fought journey that is the 2010 season began to flow out from the players as they reveled in the moment with nearly 70,000 others. Interviewing a super-pumped Brown moments after turning in two of the biggest plays of the biggest game of his life, Ben burying his face in an AFC Championship t-shirt, Ziggy Hood going shirtless in freezing weather, Big Juicy Kemoeatu swinging a t-shirt like a Terrible Towel while dancing up a storm, Ward climbing into the stands to celebrate with the fans, Mendenhall with a glow encircling his face while taking in the moment from the trophy platform, Farrior with his arms outstretched like a "Jet" going bye-bye cruising out on the field, the uber-relieved expression on Legursky's face, Ramon Foster so joyous I thought he might hurt people, Kugler bear-hugging me so tight I thought I might have popped a couple of ribs, and while interviewing Hampton, seeing emotion spilling out of the great nose tackle like this was his first trip to the big dance.
* As I came walked into the Steelers' locker room, I bumped into Aaron Smith. He was heading home. I asked him about his thoughts, and Aaron smiled and said "I'm going to enjoy this one."
* I think we should all heed Aaron's words and enjoy this one. Let the revelry begin Pittsburgh, your Steelers are going to Dallas!