The Steelers' mental toughness dipped for much of Sunday's second half against the Jets, but when it mattered most, they didn't break. That's the difference between this season's Steelers and last year's version.
Pittsburgh held on for dear life and advanced to the Super Bowl with a 24-19 victory in the AFC Championship, but after the Steelers staked themselves to a 24-point lead, they needed a key third-and-6 conversion with two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to seal a tense win.
The 2009 Steelers, who were the defending Super Bowl champions, blew five fourth-quarter leads and missed the playoffs. They were soft, and their defense couldn't keep a lead in key situations.
This year's squad blew just one fourth-quarter advantage — Week 3 against the Ravens — and the renewed faith in one another helped Pittsburgh win the AFC North and snag the second seed for the playoffs, which came with a first-round bye that might have been the difference against the well-traveled Jets.
It was ugly at times, especially when Ben Roethlisberger couldn't handle a fourth-quarter snap from backup center Doug Legursky, and the Jets picked up a safety that trimmed the deficit to 24-12.
On the Steelers' next offensive possession, though, they rectified all of their second-half wrongs. Needing six yards to lock up the win, Roethlisberger scrambled out of the pocket and kept the play alive for a few extra seconds — since the Jets were out of timeouts, it would have been easier for Roethlisberger to slide to the turf and let the clock run before punting — and then snuck a nice pass into Antonio Brown's chest.
The Jets also managed to mismanage their own situation, particularly with some curious coaching during a failed goal-line situation just prior to that safety. With a second-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Jets — with the fourth-ranked running game in the NFL — threw two straight incompletions.
At any rate, the Steelers have moved on because they erased a 14-point deficit against the Ravens and clung to a 24-point lead against the Jets. They've got Super Bowl experience — most notably Roethlisberger, who has two rings and will try to match Tom Brady, among others, with three — and enough mental toughness to handle the big stage.
The Super Bowl will feature a matchup between two of the best defenses in the NFL this season, which is a recipe for a close game, and the Steelers' improved mental aptitude in late situations could give them an edge against the Packers.
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