Sometime late Sunday evening, either the Jets or Steelers will be crowned champions of the AFC.
The two teams are evenly matched, and because they so much mirror one another in terms of personnel and playing style, it's genuinely hard to identify one glaring advantage for one side or the other, excluding that of the home field.
I, like anybody else, have no idea how the game will play out. I can only pretend I know, by doling out some brash predictions that have limited statistical support.
Here we go—five predictions for Sunday's AFC Championship.
Scott, the Jets’ loquacious linebacker, played the disrespect card to perfection moments after his team defeated the Patriots on Sunday, calling out several named ESPN analysts and chiding those who said he and the rest of the New York defenders “couldn’t stop a nosebleed.”
He finalized the tirade by saying he “can’t wait” to get to Pittsburgh, where the Jets will play in their second AFC Championship in as many seasons.
Scott will surely have something to say following the game, but it won’t be as motivational. As was the case in Week 15, the Steelers will rack up close to 400 yards and keep Scott and Co. off-balance. Unlike that game, however, Pittsburgh will finish the deal.
The Pro Bowl receiver is seldom flashy. He’s not blessed with top-end speed and he certainly isn’t an imposing specimen. But Ward gets the job done, especially in the playoffs.
In 15 career postseason games, the 13-year veteran has caught 79 balls for 1,089 yards and nine touchdowns. Five of those catches and 123 of those yards earned him a Super Bowl MVP.
Ward, who makes a living as the safety net in the Steelers’ passing game, will turn in another notable performance this Sunday, reeling in nine passes for 127 yards to lead both teams in each category.
Hats off to Mark Sanchez, who is managing the game with effective simplicity nowadays, much like the manner in which he led New York to the conference title game a season ago.
Not supported by eye-popping stats—Sanchez hasn’t completed more than 66 percent of his passes or thrown for more than 300 yards in a game since late November—he isn’t making mistakes when the Jets need him to be at his most discretionary.
The trend will continue in Pittsburgh Sunday, as Sanchez throws for 207 yards to complement two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) but can’t overcome the ineffectiveness of the Jets’ running game, which is stymied by the Steelers’ top-ranked rush defense.
The Jets have been workmanlike on offense during each of the first two playoff rounds, but the defenses in Indianapolis and New England are a bland vanilla flavor compared to what Pittsburgh will offer.
After a shaky first half in which the offense put them between a rock and a hard place, the Steelers’ defense played an inspired final 30 minutes last week, holding the Ravens to just three points in the second half and 35 rushing yards for the game.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, 73 years young, is as good as they get, and he’ll be bringing pressure from every conceivable angle in an attempt to confuse Sanchez. He may twist his ends and tackles, drop them into zone coverage, or both. He may bring both corners off the edge. He may even present a look that features two down linemen.
More likely, he’ll do it all, rendering New York’s running game not nearly as punishing and flummoxing the young Sanchez into making one mistake too many.
The Jets’ 22-17 win at Heinz Field on Dec. 19 was a clean game. Neither team turned the ball over. Only six flags were thrown. And New York won in Pittsburgh for the first time since the merger in 1970, despite getting outgained by more than 100 yards and being held under its regular season rushing average by nearly 50.
The Steelers ran 72 plays that day, 15 more than the Jets, so what Rex Ryan and his team did was something of a rabbit-and-hat magic trick. This time will be different.
With so much at stake, both teams will exit the gates tight, but another entertaining game takes place. Sanchez plays well again, but he gets little help from Shonn Greene, LaDainian Tomlinson, and the running game, which finds few cracks in the Pittsburgh front seven.
Scott and his comrades will again cite disrespect as a motivating factor, but the story is a tired one. The Jets play well on defense, holding the Steelers to less than 80 yards on the ground, but Ben Roethlisberger throws for 284 yards and two touchdowns on 25 completions.
Which are two more than he threw in that Week 15 loss, when he misfired on two consecutive passes in the end zone after leading the offense to the Jets’ 10 in the final minutes of the game.
Prediction: Pittsburgh, 23-17