The crowd at Heinz Field was on pins and needles with 2:56 remaining in the AFC Title game. The Steelers had built a 24-0 lead with what seemed like ease, but now were hanging on for dear life leading just 24-19.
All the momentum was with the Jets. Not only had they outscored the Steelers 19-0 in the last minute of the first half and to that point in the second half, but they had made enough adjustments to that point to shut down the Steelers offense.
It was an offense that had been red hot in the first half, putting up 231 yards to just 50 for the Jets, but also they had held the ball for 21:04 of the first 30 minutes.
So when Ben Roethlisberger and company took the field, even the most biggest optimist had to be nervous. Fail to get a first down, and your kicking the ball back to New York. Get a couple first downs – the game and conference title belongs to the Steelers.
The drive started with a good kick return by rookie Antonio Brown, who weaved his way to the 41 after taking the short kick at his own 14-yard line.
The first play was a harmless run to Rashard Mendenhall, who had been a beast all day. The run, with the Jets loading the box, was for just a yard.
Then came surprise number one. Instead of running and having the Jets use another critical timeout, the Steelers went to throw. Roethlisberger fired a pass for tight end Heath Miller, who came up with the grab after a 14-yard gain to the Jets 44.
Two minute warning.
The Jets were down to one timeout, and another first down and the title would belong to the Steelers. The next play was another run, this time it netted two yards for Mendenhall. 2nd and 8, and another run to try and eat up clock. Again, a two-yard game, setting up 3rd-and-6 from Jets 40 at the two-minute warning.
It was time for Mike Tomlin and the team to make a decision. Do you go for the win, trying to break the hearts of the Jets all at once, or do you do the safe thing, which is to run the ball, and likely have to punt with about 1:10 left?
The Steelers decided to go for the win, and boy did it ever pay off. Roethlisberger scrambled, and eventually found young rookie Antonio Brown streaking from the other side of the field for a 14-yard gain that in the end, was the clincher.
Brown was part of a three WR set to Ben’s left, while Heath Miller and Hines Ward were on his right. Brown was matched up on a linebacker, and broke free after getting stopped to make the play and clinch the win.
“I always feel blessed to have my number called,” Brown said. “But Ben made the play.”
And he’s right. Roethlisberger right away after seeing Miller and Ward covered decided to run, but instead of doing the safe thing and either running or just going down to keep the clock running, he chucked it to Brown, who made another memorable play.
Tomlin said it best when he said the team simply wasn’t playing the safe mode on the final series, or on the 3rd and 6 that in the end decided the game.
“We weren’t going to play not to lose,” Tomlin said. “That’s pretty funny isn’t it? A third-and-6 to win the game for a rookie from Central Michigan.”
And the trust that has become so evident between the coaches, the players, and a QB who had to sit and watch the first four games grows ever stronger. One more win, and that bond will be super glued forever with another piece of hardware.