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Throw Down in the Steel City: Pittsburgh Last, Daunting Obstacle Standing in New York’s Path to Dallas

Getting to this point was expected for both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Jets.  Getting to Super Bowl XLV is also expected and anything less will be deemed disappointing.  But on Sunday, Feb. 6th only one of them will be representing the AFC in the big game. 

Let’s consider for a moment how thrilled the Steelers have to be just to be able to be in position again to head to their seventh Super Bowl.  There’s no team left in the playoffs that’s dealt with more adversity this season.  They had to play without Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season after Big Ben was slapped with a suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.   Both starting tackles, Willie Colon and Max Starks, were put on injured reserve.  Behind a shaky, patch work offensive line, Roethlisberger has endured a broken nose, a broken foot and a barrage of defenders chomping at the bit to take his head off.  Defensive end Aaron Smith suffered a big time injury for the third time in four years.  Troy Polamalu has been gimpy all season with ankle and calf injuries.  James Harrison’s been bombarded with hefty fines for violent hits. 

And despite losses at home to three of the AFC’s playoff teams (Baltimore, New York Jets and New England), the Steelers managed to go 12-4, win the AFC North and lock up the No.2 seed in the AFC.  The road for Pittsburgh has a been littered with obstacles and adversity.  And the result is they’re a better football team for it.  The defense has long been the lifeblood for the Steelers;  it was never more evident this season when the Steelers held opponents to 17 points or less 11 times. 

After a tumultuous offseason and a four-game suspension, Roethlisberger and the Steelers are all smiles returing to their fourth AFC Championship game in seven years

Roethlisberger has the Steelers back in the AFC title game for the fourth time in the past seven years, a feat few envisioned 10 months ago when Big Ben was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student in a nightclub bathroom in Georgia.  At the biggest turning point of his life, he was working on his last straw as a member of the Steelers.  Repairing his image and the damage done in the eyes of the fans and organization, Roethlisberger’s ongoing redemption in 2010-11 continues as he tries to avenge an earlier loss in the regular season against the Jets.

Round one belonged to the Jets.  Back in Week 15 at Heinz Field, the Jets left Pittsburgh with a 22-17 victory, aided by the absence of Polamalu, a mistake free afternoon from Mark Sanchez, an opening kick off return for a score by Brad Smith and a 100-yard team rushing effort.  

Riding the higest they’ve been all season, in successive weeks the Jets have beaten two of the game’s greatest quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, on the road.  Not many teams can boast about that.  Boasting has become a hallmark calling card of Rex Ryan and the Jets.  They might have big mouths and perhaps they may like the sound of their own voices too much, but they back it up with big play.  After Ryan’s personal conquests over Indianapolis and New England, do the Jets have enough moxie and emotion left to win another playoff game on the road, joining the 2006 Steelers as the only No.6 seed to reach the Super Bowl.

Jets-Steelers II.  This time might be different, if Polamalu has any say in the matter.  The first time around he was on the sidelines, helpless as the Jets broke the 100-yard rushing barrier and Sanchez made enough plays to put the Jets in position to claim victory.  Now, the game’s best difference maker is back and that’s not good news for the Jets’ offense.  Sanchez will have to deal with Polamalu’s mind games, whether he’s walking up to the line of scrimmage or 25 yards off the line of scrimmage pacing back and forth in the secondary.  Where’s he going?  What’s he doing?  Where’s he coming from?  That’s what Sanchez must decipher in a matter of seconds.  LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene won’t find the same running holes in the rematch.  There’s no better safety in the NFL at playing the run  and excelling at stopping it like Polamalu.

Flying high again: Sanchez has guided the Jets to their second consecutive AFC Championship game

In just two years, Sanchez has the Jets in consecutive AFC Championship games, tallying four road wins in the playoffs.  But if  the Jets have success for a third straight week, they’ll have to create a steady dose of pressure and some takeaways against Roethlisberger.  Ryan is one of the NFL’s best at disguising and camoflauging coverages and schemes.  Playing against the Jets’ defense, the most difficult thing is to breakdown formations, how many the Jets are sending at the quarterback or how many players they decide to drop into coverage.  Against Brady last week, the Jets frustrated and confused Brady, getting five sacks, an interception and plenty of knockdowns on Brady.  Big Ben didn’t get his nickname because he’s eye level with Doug Flutie. 

The Jets will have to wrap, hold and tackle Roethlisberger, and can’t allow him to get out of the pocket and make big plays out of nothing.  Steelers RB Rashard Mendenall rushed for 99 yards and a touchdown in the Week 15 loss to the Jets and it’s likely the Steelers will committ to the run more than the Patriots did a week ago.  A strong rushing effort from Mendenhall takes the pressure off of Big Ben and will limit the blitzes from the Jets’ defense.

Pittsburgh offensive philosophy:  New York’s dynamic cornerback duo of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie will be very physical with the Steelers’ receivers, especially on the outside in man-to-man coverage.  They don’t get beat deep, which could make Roethlisberger’s focus to attack the middle of the field, utilizing a variety of slants, crossing routes and underneath passes. Big Ben is working on 190 pass attempts without an interception.  Revis is going to matched up on Hines Ward, leaving Cromartie to deal with speed extraordinare Mike Wallace.  In the first meeting, Wallace and rookie wide out Emmanuel Sanders combined for 14 catches and 180 yards and a touchdown by Wallace.  Pittsburgh rushed for 146 yards in the loss to New York, their fourth-best total of the season. The Steelers will need a similar outing again to prevent the Jets from clogging up their secondary by dropping players back into coverage.

Jets’ offensive game plan:  Sanchez played mistake-free in their win, although he only threw for 170 yards.  He’s been very effective in the playoffs with 3 touchdowns to one interception, 338 yards passing while completing almost 61 percent of his passes.  Edwards is having a nice postseason with six catches for 114 yards and a touchdown last week against New England.  He was problematic for the Steelers back in Week 15, hauling in eight passes for 100 yards.  But the Jets’ game plan won’t feature 40-plus pass attempts from Sanchez.  Their style is ground and pound.  They rushed for 106 yards against Pittsburgh the first meeting, the most the Steelers allowed on the ground in the regular season.  New York’s running game has reahed another gear in the playoffs, averaging 144.5 yards per game.  The Jets will attempt to duplicate that blueprint again, to try to release some of the pressure off Sanchez.

X-factors:  Big Ben has plenty of big game experience.  At 23, he became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl.  He’s 9-2 in his career in the playoffs.  Sanchez is coming into his own with a 4-1 record in two seasons in the playoffs, with all four of his wins coming on the road.  Whichever quarterback stands up and outlasts the pressure from the opposing defense will be a huge deciding factor in who wins.   Jets KR Brad Smith got the Jets started quickly just :12 seconds into the first game, returning a kick off against the Steelers 97 yards.  Can Wallace best Cromartie again?  Ward was quiet working against Revis the first meeting.  Wallace had seven catches for 102 yards and a score working on Cromartie.  The speed of Wallace, along with Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown will be interesting to see if the Jets’ secondary can keep up.

Key Stats:  The Jets are playing in their second straigth AFC title game, their fifth overall in franchise history;  they’re 1-3 in those games.  It’s been almost 42 years since the Jets played in a Super Bowl…New York is 1-7 all-time against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, their only victory coming this season in Week 15…The Jets are 8-2 this season on the road…This will be Pittsburgh’s 15 AFC Championship game;  The Steelers are 7-7 overall and 5-5 at home in conference title games.  Pittsburgh is 16-4 all-time against the Jets, including the playoffs….The Steelers won the only playoff meeting in 2005, a 20-17 overtime win in the Divisional Round.

Prediction:  Steelers 21, Jets 17.   This would be a monumental win for the Jets in a few ways.  They would become the only team since the 2006 Steelers to reach the Super Bowl as a sixth-seed.  New York would be only the second team to beat the Steelers twice in Pittsburgh, the other team being the 2007 Jacksonville Jaguars.  And they’d beat Manning, Brady and Roethlisberger in three straight weeks on the road.  The Steelers have everything needed to combat the confident Jets.  They boast a big time quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger who’s 9-2 in the playoffs with two Super Bowl titles.  They have the one of the league’s best defenses.  And they love to play a physical, nasty style of football, something Indianapolis and New England aren’t known for.  That plays right into the hands of the Steelers.  Giving Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau another crack at Sanchez, this time around I don’t think Sanchez will have a comfortable, flawless evening.  Look for Big Ben and the Steelers’ defense to carry the black and yellow deep in the heart of Texas and make their seventh Super Bowl appearance.

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