AFC Championship game, Jets Vs. Steelers: Sports Network Preview

(Sports Network) – The Pittsburgh Steelers hold membership in a very exclusive club, one they’ll be trying to prevent the New York Jets from joining when the two teams get together at Heinz Field for Sunday’s AFC Championship.

The Steelers are one of only three organizations, along with New England and Indianapolis, that have represented the AFC in the past seven Super Bowls, having claimed the conference crown under then-head coach Bill Cowher in 2005 and repeating the honor under current sideline boss Mike Tomlin in 2008. Cowher’s squad also became the first — and to date only - team to advance to the NFL’s showcase game as a No. 6 playoff seed, an achievement the battle tested Jets will be aiming to duplicate when they make their second stop in the Steel City in five weeks.

New York helped earn itself a spot in this year’s AFC postseason field with a gritty 22-17 win at Heinz Field on Dec. 19, and its remarkable success on the road under second-year head coach Rex Ryan has carried into the playoffs. The Jets knocked off the defending conference champion Colts in a 17-16 squeaker during the Wild Card Round, then backed up a week’s worth of bulletin-board chatter by downing the top-seeded and previously-rolling Patriots by a 28-21 count this past Sunday to reach the AFC title game in back-to-back years for the first time in franchise history.

Young quarterback Mark Sanchez helped the Jets survive by outplaying his more accomplished and heralded counterpart, Tom Brady, while an expertly-devised scheme by Ryan enabled New York’s defense to slow down a powerful New England attack that had put up at least 31 points in every game of a string of eight consecutive victories coming into last weekend’s showdown.

Sanchez completed 16-of-25 passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns without a turnover to register his fourth playoff triumph on the road, which ties the sophomore signal-caller with Hall of Famers Len Dawson and Roger Staubach and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco for the most by a quarterback in league annals.

Since Ryan took over prior to the 2009 season, the Jets have gone 4-1 on the road in the playoffs and 15-6 overall as the visitor, and are the first team to win twice in enemy venues during the postseason in consecutive years. New York made it to the 2009 AFC Championship as a fifth seed before coming out on the short end of a 30-17 decision to Indianapolis.

Now just one win away from ending a painfully-long 42-year gap between Super Bowl appearances, the Jets will next attempt to take down another conference powerhouse armed with a championship quarterback. The Steelers secured a fourth trip to the conference finals in seven seasons after rallying for a 31-24 verdict over Flacco’s Ravens in last week’s Divisional Round, getting another stout showing from their own formidable defense and some more late-game magic from triggerman Ben Roethlisberger to prevail.

Roethlisberger threw a pair of third-quarter touchdown passes to help Pittsburgh battle back from a 21-7 halftime deficit, then connected on a clutch 58-yard strike to rookie receiver Antonio Brown with two minutes left to set up the deciding touchdown.

The defense played an instrumental role in the comeback as well, forcing three Baltimore turnovers in the tide-turning third quarter and limiting its AFC North rivals to a minuscule 28 yards in the second half.

Pittsburgh yielded a league-low 14.5 points per game during the regular season and also topped the NFL in rushing defense (62.8 ypg), though the Jets did manage 106 yards on the ground in their Week 15 ousting of the Black and Gold. The Steelers were without difference-making safety Troy Polamalu in that contest, however, due to a strained Achilles tendon.

Polamalu will be present for Sunday’s rematch, and the Steelers will also have tight end Heath Miller back after sitting out the previous meeting between the teams with a concussion.

Jets return man Brad Smith, who took back the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in the earlier matchup, is tentatively expected to play this week after missing the New England game with a strained groin.

SERIES HISTORY

New York’s above-noted Week 15 win over the Steelers stands as its only positive result in eight lifetime visits to Pittsburgh. That includes the lone postseason encounter between the foes, a 2004 AFC Divisional Playoff at Heinz Field in which the Steelers came through with a 20-17 victory.

Pittsburgh has dominated the all-time regular-season series with the Jets, emerging triumphant in 15 of 19 non-playoff matchups. New York has taken the two most recent bouts, however, having posted a 19-16 overtime decision at the Meadowlands in 2007 in addition to last month’s breakthrough.

Tomlin sports a career 4-1 playoff record but has lost his two lifetime meetings with the Jets. Ryan is also 4-1 in the postseason as a head coach and won his only head-to-head clash with Tomlin and the Steelers back in December.

WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL

New York’s general philosophy on offense is to pound the ball behind a top- notch line anchored by a pair of Pro Bowl selections in center Nick Mangold and left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson. The Jets ranked second in rushing attempts (534) and averaged a healthy 148.4 yards per game on the ground (4th overall) during the regular season, with still-capable veteran LaDainian Tomlinson (125 rushing yards, 2 TD, 6 receptions in playoffs) and physical second-year pro Shonn Greene (146 rushing yards, 1 TD) both effective working behind the strong front wall. The pair managed a pedestrian 89 yards on 23 attempts against Pittsburgh’s sturdy front seven last month, however, meaning Sanchez (383 passing yards, 3 TD, 1 INT) is going to have to make plays for the Jets to move on. The poised 24-year-old did just that against the Patriots, finding Tomlinson as well as wideouts Braylon Edwards (6 receptions, 1 TD) and Santonio Holmes (7 receptions, 1 TD) for red-zone scores that helped trigger last week’s upset. No. 3 receiver Jerricho Cotchery (7 receptions) was also a factor, with the almost-forgotten veteran recording team-bests of five catches and 96 yards in the New England game, while Edwards came up with season-highs of eight grabs and 100 yards in the Week 15 win over Pittsburgh. Holmes, an ex-Steeler dealt to the Jets back in April, owns four touchdown catches in six career playoff outings and was the MVP of Pittsburgh’s victory in Super Bowl XLIII.

The Steelers excelled on defense throughout the regular season and brought their ‘A’ game into their playoff opener as well, holding Baltimore to a scant 126 total yards and producing three takeaways that were vital to the team’s comeback. Free safety Ryan Clark (90 tackles, 2 INT) had a forced fumble and an interception to lead the charge, and he and the playmaking Polamalu (63 tackles, 1 sack, 7 INT) are the stabilizers of a secondary that’s surrendered a mere 128.8 net passing yards over Pittsburgh’s last five games. The backfield is aided by a potent pass rush that amassed a league-leading 48 sacks prior to the postseason and added six more against the Ravens last week. Outside linebacker James Harrison (100 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 2 INT) had three of the club’s takedowns of Flacco, while counterpart LaMarr Woodley (50 tackles, 10 sacks, 2 INT) owns an eye-popping nine sacks in five career playoff tests. Second-year end Ziggy Hood (20 tackles, 3 sacks), who continues to fill in for injured mainstay Aaron Smith, has also been a factor of late, having delivered a sack in three straight games and contributing to the NFL’s best run-stuffing unit. Smith will sit out once again as he recovers from a torn triceps, while starting cornerback Bryant McFadden (81 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) is questionable after exiting last weekend’s win with an abdominal strain.

WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL

Pittsburgh’s in good hands at the all-important quarterback position, where Roethlisberger (3200 passing yards, 17 TD, 5 INT) boasts a 9-2 career record as a starter in the playoffs and enters Sunday’s tilt on a personal-best streak of 190 consecutive pass attempts without being intercepted. The two-time Super Bowl winner has a couple of quality complements on a well-balanced Steeler offense in game-breaking wide receiver Mike Wallace (60 receptions, 1257 yards, 10 TD) and running back Rashard Mendenhall (1273 rushing yards, 13 TD, 23 receptions), who powered his way to 99 yards and a touchdown on just 17 carries against the Jets last month. The dangerous Wallace had 102 receiving yards on seven catches in that game and averaged 21 yards per reception during the regular season, the best mark in the AFC. Rookie Emmanuel Sanders added season highs of seven grabs and 78 yards in the first meeting with New York, and the 23-year-old’s late-year emergence has provided Roethlisberger with another solid weapon to a receiving corps that also contains venerable veteran Ward (59 receptions, 5 TD) and Miller (42 receptions, 2 TD). Protecting the quarterback has been an issue at times, as the Steelers permitted 43 sacks over the 16-game schedule and five more in last week’s bout with the Ravens.

After keeping Peyton Manning in check by dropping extra men in coverage in the Wild Card Round, the Jets were able to frustrate the normally in-control Brady by blanketing his primary targets and forcing the star quarterback to either check down or alter his decision-making process. New York generated five sacks, including a pair by longtime end Shaun Ellis (6 tackles, 2 sacks), primarily due to the work of All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis (7 tackles) and fellow defensive backs Antonio Cromartie (3 tackles) and Drew Coleman (6 tackles, 1 sack). Expect Revis, a Pittsburgh native and one of the game’s premier shutdown cover men, to spend a lot of time shadowing Wallace on Sunday in an attempt to neutralize Pittsburgh’s best offensive threat. The Jets can hold their own against opposing ground attacks as well, finishing third in the league versus the run (90.9 ypg) and allowing only 3.6 yards per rush attempt in the regular season. Inside linebackers David Harris (21 tackles, 1 INT) and Bart Scott (5 tackles) possess both outstanding range and instincts as the team’s top two tacklers, and the duo gets ample support from a pair of grinders up front in nose tackle Sione Pouha (8 tackles, 1 sack) and end Mike Devito (7 tackles).

SPECIAL TEAMS

This area was crucial to the outcome of these teams’ first meeting, with Brad Smith putting the Steelers in an early hole by taking the initial kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. It was one of two such scores on the year for the ex- college quarterback, who finished second in the NFL in kick return average (28.6 avg.) and could be a key player again if he’s active on Sunday.

The Jets also have an impact punter in Steve Weatherford (42.6 avg.), who topped the league in kicks place inside both the 20-yard line (42) and 10-yard line (20), noteworthy numbers in a game where field position could be a factor. Kicker Nick Folk was a shaky 30-of-39 on field goal attempts prior to the playoffs and missed a 30-yard try against the Patriots, but did knock home a 32-yarder on the final play in the win over Indianapolis. Cotchery averaged a decent nine yards on punt returns after replacing the injured Jim Leonhard in early December.

Pittsburgh kicker Shaun Suisham did a fine job after supplanting struggling predecessor Jeff Reed at midseason, converting 14-of-15 three-point kicks and going 8-of-9 from beyond 40 yards. The Steelers also made a change at punter during the year, with boomer Daniel Sepulveda (45.5 avg.) sustaining a torn ACL in December and journeyman Jeremy Kapinos filling in. The one-time Jets averaged a modest 41.1 yards per kick, but did sent five of his 14 attempts within the opponent’s 20. Brown (23.4 avg.) had a touchdown as the Steelers’ main kick returner early in the season, but the rookie averaged a lackluster 6.1 yards on punt runbacks.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

A strong argument could be made that the Steelers were the better team despite their end result to the Jets last month, as Tomlin’s troops outgained Ryan’s charges by over 100 yards (377-276) and were done in by a kick return touchdown and a safety. Then again, many believed New York was up against it in each of its two previous playoff games, but still managed to survive because of excellent game-planning as well as sheer determination. The Jets do seem to have important advantages both in the trenches, where Pittsburgh’s offensive line has been a crutch at times and New York’s blocking group handled the Steelers’ fierce front seven as well as any team this season, and in special teams. But most importantly, Ryan has this team believing it can win. With a tremendous defense and a proven big-game quarterback in Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh’s not going to make it easy. However, the Jets do seem to match up well here and have been able to meet similarly daunting challenges in the recent past, and there’s no reason to believe they can’t do so again.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jets 27, Steelers 24

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