For the second straight season and fifth time in team history, the New York Jets are in the AFC Championship game. It's been a long and somewhat surprising return for Gang Green, attempting to win its first AFC title in 42 years—the only time they won the Super Bowl. The Pittsburgh Steelers, meanwhile, have won seven AFC title games.
There is a lot to talk about for this matchup, one that the Jets won at Heinz Field back in Week 15. The Jets seem to be on a magical ride, destined for Super Bowl XLV, having beaten Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to get to this point.
The Steelers are in a very familiar position, trying to win their third championship in the Ben Roethlisberger era.
With that said, continue reading for a preview of the big game, along with opinions and a prediction of who'll be AFC champions.
The Jets really needed to win this game. They had just come off two straight demoralizing defeats to the Patriots by a score of 45-3—who would've known they'd get revenge?—and the Dolphins at home that involved "Tripgate."
They went into Pittsburgh needing to win to also secure a playoff spot, but it seemed highly unlikely with the way the Steelers were playing. It was a hard-fought game between two of the AFC's best and at the end, the Jets got a huge stop of Ben Roethlisberger to win it.
The Steelers have one of the best run defenses in history statistically, but that didn't stop the Jets from using their two backs to rush at times. In fact, LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene did a good job, combining for 89 yards on the ground to help keep the run defense honest.
The Jets, though, got Braylon Edwards' best effort of the season, going for 100 yards receiving on eight catches to lead the offense.
The Jets set the tone from the opening kickoff as Brad Smith ran back a 97-yard return to quickly give the team a 7-0 lead.
After finally relinquishing the lead to the Steelers in the third quarter, Mark Sanchez showed how clutch he can be, capping off a drive with a seven-yard touchdown run of his own.
Ben Roethlisberger tried to take it one step further by winning the game on the final drive but came up just short.
The Jets would add a field goal and safety to win the game, 22-17, leaving some people to believe they should be able to win this game.
It's what the Steelers seem to be using for motivation and it's what some people have said—the sore losers—as the reason why the Jets won in Week 15. Because Troy Polamalu didn't play in the game.
That really doesn't make sense. After all, the Steelers were one catch away at the end from winning it. The last time I checked, Polamalu isn't on offense. The Jets didn't even score 30 points in the game, but is there really a point to be made about Polamalu returning this week? Perhaps.
He is arguably the game's best safety and is like the Jets not having Darrelle Revis, although that didn't kill the Jets.
But, maybe if he were to play, Edwards doesn't have a 100-yard receiving game. There's a reason why Edwards didn't have a game that big before it or after.
At the same time, the Jets managed to put up 28 points on the Patriots, and although they aren't what the Steelers' defense is, Mark Sanchez is still a good playoff quarterback. He's proven now with four playoff road wins, that he's capable of having a fine game even if it's Polamalu he must throw against.
Who will Polamalu cover and will he have any interception returns for a touchdown? Perhaps Holmes or Cotchery and yes he could have a pick six.
But, is it going to make a big difference at this point? These games come down to who executes the better game plan. Just look at how the Jets beat the Patriots.
Brad Smith suffered a groin injury in the Jets wild-card win over the Colts two weeks ago. He sat out the divisional round game against the Patriots and there was one point in the game that called for him to be in.
The Jets attempted to run their signature Wild Cat play and with LaDainian Tomlinson running it, the play fizzled. Not that with Smith it works to perfection, but he's their best option when it comes to running it a half dozen times.
Not only the Wild Cat play, but especially on special teams. The biggest example coincidentally came against these Steelers in the Week 15 victory.
With everyone down on the Jets after their two losses, they needed a spark. They got one right off the bat as Smith returned the opening kick 97 yards for a big touchdown to start things.
It's still not official whether or not Smith will play in this game although it's leading towards a yes according to some.
If he doesn't play, it wouldn't kill the Jets because Antonio Cromartie did a good job returning kicks against the Patriots, but it would be nice to have another big play option in the game. If Smith does indeed play, the Steelers better watch out.
Without a doubt, the game's biggest one-on-one matchup is Darelle Revis covering Mike Wallace. In the Week 15 game, Wallace caught seven passes for 102 yards.
Unlike the game against the Patriots, you would figure Revis will stay on one man. Ben Roethlisberger is a great quarterback, but doesn't confuse you as much as Tom Brady.
The good thing is, Revis is playing great right now. He's still battling some hamstring issues, but he looks as good as ever. He completely shut down Reggie Wayne in the wild-card game and also shut down Deion Branch last week.
If you leave receivers open for Roethlisberger and don't get to him, he'll find the open man and Wallace is the go-to-guy.
Another guy to look out for is Antonio Brown. He didn't play a whole lot this season, but he was the Steelers' leading receiver against the Ravens last week and is dangerous as well.
Other than the man-to-man matchups, the Jets defensive front seven against Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall will be key.
When a team doesn't have a solid offensive line in the NFL, it's a major concern. When a team manages to make the playoffs with a poor offensive line, it's even a bigger concern.
Why? Because usually every team at this point has a good to great defense, and that never bodes well for an opposing quarterback who's protection is not there.
If you watched the Steelers' divisional round game against the Ravens, you know what I mean. Roethlisberger was sacked a whopping six times by the ferocious Ravens defense thanks to some hideous play by the Steelers linemen, and Rashard Mendenhall only rushed for a total of 46 yards—on 20 plays no less.
When a quarterback is sacked six times and a running back who averaged nearly four yards per carry in the season only averages 2.9 in the game, that's an issue.
Will the Jets be able to take advantage like the Ravens? They're more about their secondary opposed to the Ravens who are about their play up front. But, the Jets weren't to shabby getting to Brady, sacking him five times and pressuring him a bunch.
Shaun Ellis had the best game of his career on Sunday, and along with Jason Taylor, those two have to lead the way in getting to Roethlisberger.
To be fair to the Steelers offensive line for a moment, Roethlisberger does tend to take forever in getting rid of the football. Nonetheless, he doesn't get any help.
It seems like this topic is brought up before every Jets game, but it's a good problem to have. Who should get the majority of the carries in the game: LaDainian Tomlinson or Shonn Greene?
As previously mentioned, the Jets ran the ball quite a bit on the Steelers in Week 15, despite the Steelers great run defense. The carries leaned towards Tomlinson as he ran for 49 yards and Greene for 40.
It's been going back and forth all season between the two but against the Patriots, Greene was the man. He ran for 76 yards and Tomlinson only ran for 43 yards.
Just like in last season's playoffs, Greene is starting to take the load off the older running back, and making a positive impact. Last season, Greene helped out Thomas Jones before going down to injury in the AFC championship game against the Colts.
So, who should run it more this week? The answer should continue to be Greene. He made some clutch plays in Sunday's game against the Patriots, running in a 16-yard touchdown to seal the deal and give the Jets a 28-14 lead.
Mark Sanchez is going to have to be the key and make big plays, but running the ball wouldn't hurt and Greene should be the leader.
Sure, Santonio Holmes already faced his former Steelers team in Week 15, but now it's in a huge game for the first time.
After making a Super Bowl XLIII-like catch against the Patriots to extend the Jets lead to 21-11 on Sunday, Holmes now returns to Pittsburgh trying to beat his former team for the right to go to Super Bowl XLV.
He didn't have a great game against Pittsburgh last time around in the Braylon Edwards show. He only went for 40 yards receiving. But with some motivation and some more time having gone by to get accustomed to playing with Mark Sanchez, can Holmes have a big game? He certainly can.
He drops some passes in games and sometimes looks lost but in crunch time, he's money. No one expected him to make that great end zone catch against the Patriots on Sunday, but he came out of nowhere when the Jets were on the verge of giving back the lead. Tom Brady and company had scored a touchdown and two-point conversion to cut an 11-point deficit to three.
Assuming the Jets run more passing plays than rushing, look for Sanchez to connect a couple of times with Holmes for some big, and even clutch plays.
What's gone on with Jets kicker Nick Folk is weird, but true. Imagine this: successfully kicking a game-winning field goal with time expiring that was a must to send your team to the next round of the playoffs. Then the next game, miss a chip shot 30-yard attempt in first quarter of a scoreless game.
Isn't it supposed to be the other way around pressure-wise? Well, that wouldn't have worked because if he missed against the Colts, he wouldn't have the opportunity to kick against the Patriots.
Anyway, the Jets must stay away from this guy if they can. Just like most kickers around the league these days, he can't be trusted. His miss against the Patriots would've been talked about all spring and summer if the Jets lost by three points.
But, it's really the fault of the Jets. The reason he had the chance to attempt the field goal was because of the Jets lack of execution to score a touchdown after returning an interception to the 12-yard line.
Anytime the Jets get inside the red zone, they must find a way to score a touchdown. First of all, it gets you three more points, and it also ensures you'll get something out of your trip down field.
Yes, Folk is why the Jets are still playing thanks to his clutch kick against the Colts, but try and get touchdowns. It's the only guarantee in trying to score.
Let's see. Mark Sanchez has outplayed both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady this postseason and is one win away from having the most road playoff wins of any quarterback in history (five).
Yet, the only young quarterbacks you hear of are Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Joe Flacco. Rodgers has two playoff wins, Flacco has four playoff wins, and Ryan has zero playoff wins. Sanchez has four and all on the road, plus two AFC Championship game appearances.
The point is, this guy is extremely underrated for a second-year quarterback and now no one sees him outplaying Ben Roethlisberger.
That's fine and fair at that. Roethlisberger has a resume. He's won two championships and is a future Hall of Famer in all likelihood, especially if he gets a third ring in a couple of weeks.
None of that really matters on Sunday. If you've paid any attention to Sanchez, he does his talking on the field. The Jets as we all know have a lot of talkers. Sanchez is never one of them.
He outplays guys in the biggest of games and for the second straight AFC title game, he'll try and prove he can do it for the right to get to the Super Bowl. That's all that's left for him to accomplish as hard as it is to believe.
Roethlisberger is always going to be tough and he has his play makers. But the running game didn't get going against the Ravens and with Revis and Cromartie, it may be hard for the passing game to get going either.
If the Jets can run it a little like last time against the Steelers and Sanchez does his job throwing the ball, he could outplay yet another elite quarterback.
It hasn't happened since 1969, but for the first time in 42 years, the Jets will be in the Super Bowl. Really, they have to get there this season.
In a year in which they've knocked off both Manning and Brady in the playoffs, what else do they have to do to get to one? They've finally gotten past the Patriots. Rex Ryan finally got his revenge against Peyton Manning. The Jets already lost the AFC title game last season.
Meanwhile, the Steelers are 1-2 all time at home in AFC title games and they already have their rings.
Destiny aside, the Jets should win this game because they have the advantages. Let's not forget, they already defeated Pittsburgh in their home this season and after what the Jets did to a bad offensive line against the Patriots, they should do the same against the Steelers.
Everything is there for the Jets this season. The biggest teams are gone, all the challenges have been met, and now it's time for them to win one more game. If they don't make it to the Super Bowl this season, they may never get there again.
As long as Sanchez plays on the level he did against New England and the Jets defense steps up, they should be fine and head to Dallas.
Final score: Jets 24, Steelers 20