In Sunday’s late game, the AFC Championship pits the road warrior New York Jets (11-5) against the home favorite Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4).
The Jets pulled off a great upset last week against the Patriots proving once again that the Belichick/Brady combination remains beatable (maybe New England should consider bring Adam Vinatieri back). The Jets came out with more energy than the Pats and carried the momentum of the game to the very end. The Steelers had lost all momentum after the first half of their divisional game against the Ravens. But like all championship teams, Pittsburgh proved to be patient, capitalized on turnovers, changed the momentum and emerged victorious.
Like the majority of the playoff games this year, Sunday’s AFC championship is a rematch a regular season game. In Week 15 New York defeat Pittsburgh 22-17. However, the Jets previous win shouldn’t be positive indication that this team can triumph again in the Steel City.
Entering the Week 15 game New York had just come off of two embarrassing performances against New England and Miami. The Jets needed this game not just to stay in the playoff hunt, but to prove to themselves that they were playoff contenders. Thus an emotionally charged and determined New York team caught Pittsburgh flat-footed and squeaked out the win.
Circumstances are different this time around. Pittsburgh is prepared for the Jets and should be determined to redeem their previous performance. Additionally, the Steelers are healthy at two keys positions with Troy Polamalu returning at safety and Heath Miller at tight end.
The primary factor in determining the outcome of this game will be the Jets offensive ability to move the ball and score more than the 13 points they did in Week 15 ( Brad Smith returned the opening kick-off for a touchdown and Jason Taylor sacked Big Ben in the end zone for a safety to account for the Jets additional points).
New York’s game plan should be simple, keep a balanced attack of running and throwing the ball. The Jets surprisingly had success rushing the ball in the previous meeting against the Steelers, accumulating over 100 yards and averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Even though it is important for the Jets to have success rushing the ball, it’s crucial that they get Mark Sanchez into an early rhythm as the Steelers will surely to key on the run and force the game into Sanchez’s hands. Sanchez has shown to perform at a much high level in games where he develops an early rhythm and trust with his receivers.
Even though I am a believer in the still developing Sanchez’s future, I’m concerned about the match-up against the Steelers defense. In the previous game, Sanchez threw for only 170 yards and no touchdowns. On Sunday he will be facing Polamalu for the first time and you can expect Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau will be blitzing and pressuring the second year quarterback all day.
A key aspect of Sanchez developing an early rhythm is the Jet receivers’ ability to catch the quick passes that will be needed to overcome the Steelers blitzes. As of late, the New York receiving corps has done a good job of catching the ball. However, this could be the week where the wheels come off and they resort back to their all too familiar butter fingers personality.
Concerning the Steelers offense statistically they performed well against the Jets in Week 15 with Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 264 yards and one touchdown, Rashard Mendenhall rushing for 100 yards and Mike Wallace with 102 yards receiving. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, they were unable to put points on the board a third of their drives that ended in New York territory, including a final drive which concluded with two failed passing attempts in the Jets’ end zone.
The Jets defense has played outstanding “bend but don’t break” football over the past two weeks, limiting the effectiveness of Peyton Manning (perhaps not that much of an accomplishment given Manning’s playoff record) and the golden boy Tom Brady. Both Darelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie provide a distinct advantage for the Jets pass defense on the outside. But it will be interesting to see if they can contain the Steelers passing attack down the middle of the field, especially with the return of one of Big Ben’s favorite targets, Heath Miller.
Nonetheless if Pittsburgh’s Mendenhall has another solid day rushing, it’s not unlikely that Rex Ryan’s vaunted defense might find themselves scrabbling to contain a motivated Steelers offense and the nearly unstoppable force which is Big Ben in the playoffs (9-2 life time in the playoffs).
In the end I’m not convinced that we know how good either of these teams truly are. The Jets have been up and down this season, but have continually found ways to win games. The Steelers themselves have been all over the map and may not have found themselves in the AFC Championship game if it wasn’t for a monumental implosion by the Baltimore Ravens.
Still I tend to believe that the Jets Week 15 defeat of the Steelers had more to do with circumstance than New York actually being the better team. Even though Mark Sanchez has tremendous grit and has made big plays at the right times, he and the Jets receivers haven’t played well against tough blitzing defenses this season. Therefore I’ll take a proven commodity like Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers to win decisively in a low scoring game.
Steelers win, take the Steelers minus 3.5 and the under