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Steelers, Packers Advance to Super Bowl as Jets’ Season Ends

LaMarr Woodley #56 and Brett Keisel #99 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrate after sacking Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets. Photographer: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
LaMarr Woodley #56 and Brett Keisel #99 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrate after sacking Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets. Photographer: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers are headed to the Super Bowl for the record-tying eighth time and will face the Green Bay Packers, whose 12 National Football League championships are the most in history.

The Steelers beat the New York Jets 24-19 yesterday at Heinz Field, jumping out to a 24-0 first-half lead and then holding on to win the American Football Conference title. The Packers defeated the rival Chicago Bears 21-14 in the National Football Conference championship at Chicago’s Soldier Field.

Pittsburgh will be seeking a record-extending seventh Super Bowl win -- and third in six years -- on Feb. 6 at Cowboys Stadium at Arlington, Texas, about 22 miles west of Dallas. Green Bay has won three Super Bowl titles among its 12 league championships, the most recent being 14 years ago.

“There are 32 teams that start this journey and there are two left,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who joins Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs as the second coach to reach two Super Bowls in his first four NFL seasons. “We’re fortunate to be one of them. It’s awesome.”

This was the first time in 10 years that both conference championship games were decided by a touchdown or less.

Pittsburgh avenged last month’s 22-17 home loss to the Jets by scoring on three of its first four offensive possessions and also getting a 19-yard fumble return for a touchdown from cornerback William Gay.

The Jets rallied for 19 straight points -- outscoring the Steelers 16-0 in the second half -- yet had their season end in the AFC title game for the second year in a row.

‘Four Quarters’

“We played a good half, we just never played a good game,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said during a news conference. “That’s a heck of a football team there and if you plan on beating them, you better put four quarters together and we didn’t do that.”

Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown for the Steelers to overcome a two-interception performance by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who also mishandled a snap that led to a Jets’ safety.

The Packers are headed back to the Super Bowl after beating the Bears in the first playoff meeting in 70 years between the NFL’s oldest rivals.

Aaron Rodgers and James Starks had first-half rushing touchdowns as the Packers opened a 14-0 lead and B.J. Raji scored on a fourth-quarter interception return. Green Bay knocked Bears quarterback Jay Cutler out of the game in the second half with a knee injury and held on for the victory after Chicago turned to third-stringer Caleb Hanie, who directed two fourth-quarter scoring drives.

Defensive Credit

“You have to give credit to our defense,” Rodgers, the Packers’ quarterback, said in a televised interview. “I didn’t play my best game. We just had enough points on offense and B.J. had a big touchdown.”

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers’ opening drive lasted nine minutes, six seconds, a 15-play series capped by Mendenhall’s 1-yard touchdown run.

Shaun Suisham added a 20-yard field goal midway through the second quarter and Roethlisberger’s 2-yard touchdown run on the next drive gave Pittsburgh a 17-0 lead. Gay extended the Steelers’ advantage 42 seconds later, scooping up a fumble after teammate Ike Taylor sacked Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez on a blitz and stripped him of the ball.

Nick Folk kicked a 42-yard field goal on the Jets’ final possession of the first half, when New York was limited to 50 yards of offense.

Closing the Gap

The Jets struck on their first possession of the second half, with former Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes hauling in a 45-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez.

New York missed a chance to draw closer when LaDainian Tomlinson was stopped on a fourth-down run from the Pittsburgh 1-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. The Jets were able to get a safety on the following play, when Roethlisberger mishandled a snap in the Steelers’ end zone.

A four-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to Jerricho Cotchery then pulled the Jets within 24-19 with 3:06 left. It was as close as they’d get, as Roethlisberger completed two passes for first downs and the Steelers ran out the remaining time on the clock.

“Any time you can get to the Super Bowl it feels good, I don’t care what you’re going through or what’s going on,” said Roethlisberger, who was suspended for the team’s first four games this season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. “We, as a team, put a lot of stuff behind us early and found a way to get it done.”

Road Wins

The Packers have won three straight road playoff games and become the second team to reach the Super Bowl as a sixth seed, joining the 2005 Steelers. They’re the first to do it from the NFC since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990.

“It’s always hard when we come to Chicago,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after receiving the NFC championship trophy named after former Bears owner George Halas. “We had a little bit of everything today, that’s for sure. We’re looking forward to going to Dallas.”

The Packers’ last Super Bowl win came after the 1996 season with Brett Favre at quarterback. Rodgers took over for Favre in 2008 and is now 3-1 in the playoffs.

After throwing six touchdown passes with no interceptions in wins over the Philadelphia Eagles and the Atlanta Falcons this postseason, Rodgers was intercepted twice against the Bears while completing 17 of 30 passes for 244 yards.

Instead it was the Packers’ defense that sealed the win.

Raji -- a 337-pound lineman -- scored with 6:12 left and Sam Shields had a fourth-down interception with 37 seconds remaining at the Green Bay 12-yard line. Shields finished with two interceptions, a sack and a forced fumble.

“Our defense carried us,” Rodgers said.

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