- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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PITTSBURGH -- Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall owns a Super Bowl ring from the 2008 season. But the much sought-after prize was more of a gift from his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates than jewelry earned.
As a rookie, the former first-round pick broke his shoulder in Week 4 against the Baltimore Ravens and was out for the remainder of the season. As Mendenhall rehabbed, the Steelers took him along and won their NFL-best sixth Super Bowl title in Tampa without him.
It was a nice feeling for Mendenhall to get his first title, but he still relished the chance to play for -- not watch -- a championship team.
Just two years later that chance has come again and this time Mendenhall is at the forefront. He led Pittsburgh with 121 yards rushing and a touchdown on 27 carries in Pittsburgh's 24-19 victory Sunday over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game.
Mendenhall helped Pittsburgh advance to its third Super Bowl appearance in six seasons. The Steelers will face the Green Bay Packers on Feb. 6 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. This will be his second career trip to the big spectacle. But this year will have a much different feel now that Mendenhall is healthy and a major contributor.
"It's a great honor to be going with these men and to be putting in the work," Mendenhall told the AFC North blog in the locker room Sunday night. "To be right there next to the guys you're with every day means a lot to me. So I plan to take full advantage of it."
Mendenhall had no problems taking advantage of his first conference title game. He picked a perfect time to have one of his best outings of the season against the tough Jets defense.
Behind a physical Pittsburgh (14-4) offensive line, Mendenhall put together some nice runs early, which set the tone for his big day. Mendenhall rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown in the first half to help Pittsburgh take a 24-3 lead. Oftentimes Mendenhall wasn't touched until he was well up the field, and he broke numerous tackles.
"He balled out, but that's what we expect from him in these type of situations," Steelers receiver Mike Wallace said. "He's a big-time player and big-time players make big-time plays. I think they were worried about our passing game, and any time you take us away we have a really good running back, and we have good guys behind him."
The Jets had the NFL's third-best run defense this season. But Mendenhall is one of the few running backs who's had great success running against New York this season. Mendenhall rushed for 99 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per carry in the first meeting (Week 15). In the rematch Sunday, he averaged 4.5 yards per carry.
"The offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage all day," Mendenhall said. "They did the first time we played them. So we knew coming in we had a chance to run the ball well and we did that."
As Wallace alluded, New York appeared very concerned about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh's passing game. The Jets did a good job of covering receivers and knowing when to drop extra players in coverage. As a result, Roethlisberger had one of his worst playoff games in recent years, throwing for 133 yards and two interceptions.
But the running game and Mendenhall bailed out Roethlisberger, which is something that wasn't possible two years ago during the Steelers' previous title run. Pittsburgh rushed for 166 yards as a team as its offensive line dominated New York's front seven again. The Steelers combined for 312 rushing yards in their two games against the Jets this season.
"You know me, I'm the biggest fan of our offensive line regardless of how much bad stuff is written about them and how supposedly terrible they are," Roethlisberger said. "They are a great group. They are a very close group."
Some players never get a chance to win a Super Bowl, which is why Mendenhall should consider himself fortunate. That's also why I asked Mendenhall if he thought he'd get another shot at the Super Bowl this soon.
"Yeah, I thought so," a confident Mendenhall said. "But you really never know."
For most players a ring is a ring. But for Mendenhall, his journey toward a second championship is drastically different from the first now that he has a chance to play on the NFL's biggest stage in Super Bowl XLV.