"The road to easy street goes through the sewer" - John Madden
John Madden knew what he was talking about. There was a time, before Monday Night Football, before the aerophobia and the distracting man-crush on Brett Favre, when Madden was the young head coach of the Oakland Raiders. That team never had a losing season under Madden, and they were not afraid to travel the sewers to get to the post-season.
The New York Jets will meet the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday (6:30 EST, 5:30 CST) for the AFC Championship and a Super Bowl berth, and whoever the eventual winner is won't be leaving Heinz Field with a clean uniform.
Rex Ryan is something of a modern day John Madden; he's certainly charged his Jets team with the "Just Win, Baby" spirit of the Raiders of the 70's. Ryan comes across as sort of goofy, he looks a little like Mr. Haney from Green Acres, a glib, disheveled huckster, part snake-oil salesman, part hayseed.
But Ryan's no rube, and he's fresh off a victory against Bill Belichick, one of the most inventive minds in the game. And he wasn't afraid to splash around in the sewers a little to do it. A steady stream of taunting during the week leading up to the game, a Jets defender on the ground halting play every time the Patriots got rolling. Ryan definitely cares more about winning than what he gets on his shoes on the way.
He used those tactics, plus a whopping 11 defensive backs active on his game-day roster, to defeat the New England Patriots. But none of that will work against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Mike Tomlin, the Steelers head coach, doesn't engage in a lot of extraneous pregame back and forth. He and his team are almost all bite, and no bark. They may snarl some if they're left on the chain too long, though. They've won this season the way they always win, coming in swinging and being the last guy still standing.
The Steelers are built to outlast you, to be tougher than you are, to hit harder. I wouldn't call them dirty, but the league surely seems to think so, with the number of penalties and fines they've been given over the course of the season. The Steelers have succeeded this season despite the blizzard of yellow flags they've seen, as the NFL attempts to force defenses to play with more finesse, and less physical force.
The Pittsburgh Steelers seem to have adjusted by absorbing those penalties, as the cost of doing business.
The New York Jets have been a defensive force this season as well. But they're built for the fast track, with speedy linebackers and secondary being everywhere in coverage; that's how they defeated Peyton Manning's Colts, and Brady's Patriots -- playing fast off the ball on offense.
They will have to scheme much differently for the Steelers than they did for their first two playoff games. Pittsburgh's Heinz Field is, almost literally, the trenches. The playing surface there is second only to Chicago's Soldier Field in complaints voiced about its poor quality. The footing isn't ideal for a track meet. You can't sprint over it in sneakers; you have to dig in with cleats.
Ryan and the Jets know this well, because they beat the Steelers in Heinz Field just a month ago, 22-17. The difference in the game was a 15-yard penalty and a Brad Smith 97 yard kick return. The Steelers probably won't let Smith get free this time.
Rex Ryan isn't trying to get into Ben Roethlisberger's head, like he did with Tom Brady. He's not using the week to try to bait Mike Tomlin into committing mistakes. The tone (so far) has been mutual respect. Last week he talked the talk, this week he and the Jets have to walk the walk.
And you know the path they'll have to take isn't going to smell like a garden stroll.