Sunday's AFC Championship game will be a rematch of a week 15 matchup between the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers. New York won the week 15 matchup, but as the old saying goes "that was then this is now". Pittsburgh will look to defend their home turf and add another Superbowl appearance to an already impressive resume of excellance. New York meanwhile will try to make their first of what Rex Ryan hopes will be many upcoming Superbowl appearances. The game will feature two of the leagues stingiest defenses and will also be a battle of wills between two mentally tough teams. I like many can't wait until Sunday to watch this game play out, but until then I will offer up 10 predictions about the game to hold us over in the meantime.
Polamalu missed the first matchup between these two teams on December 19 with an Achilles Tendon injury. His absence was huge as Braylon Edwards racked up 100 receiving yards and Mark Sanchez had a rushing touchdown late in the 3rd quarter. It is widely accepted that Troy is the anchor and captain of the Steelers defense and I expect his return to be a huge storyline to watch in the rematch. Polamalu has recorded seven interceptions thus far this season and I wouldn’t be shocked if he comes away with number eight on Sunday night.
Mark Sanchez had a fantastic performance in last Saturday’s divisional matchup against New England throwing 25 times for 189 yards and three touchdowns. I don’t expect a repeat performance this Sunday rather I expect the Jets to rely on the rushing attack of LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene. This game will be played between the crosshairs and I don’t expect the Jets to air the ball all over the field especially considering there will probably be inclement weather conditions on Sunday night.
The Jets and Steelers both have built their reputation on being stingy on defense. The number of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball for both of these two teams is staggering: Troy Polamalu, Darrelle Revis, Lamar Woodley, Antonio Cromartie, Ike Taylor, Bart Scott etc etc. I don’t expect these units to give up too many big plays and subsequently points should not come easily. Two of the more important players in the game just might be place kickers Nick Folk and Shaun Suisham.
The former Missouri quarterback has settled into a solid role on this New York Jets team. Smith is used at quarterback in the Jets “Wildcat” package and also returns punts and kickoffs. Pittsburgh fans may recall that Brad Smith returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown during these two teams first meeting. Brad Smith’s name sometimes gets lost in the shuffle amongst personalities such as Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez and Bart Scott but he is definitely a player to take notice of. I’m aware that he was inactive against New England because of a groin injury, but I expect him to play on Sunday against Pittsburgh and have an impact.
“Big Ben” threw it 44 times in the teams’ first matchup so clearly Head Coach Mike Tomlin has no reservations about putting Roethlisberger in control. I think that the Jets talented cornerback tandem of Cromartie and Revis will snatch one away from Ben this week if he throws it up that much, especially with Rex Ryan cooking up some good blitz packages. Despite all the kind rhetoric the Jets have preached this week about respecting Ben, I think they are going to come after him on Sunday and force him into a mistake.
New York has already dealt with raucous home crowds at Lucas Oil Stadium and Gillette Stadium this postseason. Yes, I know just how passionate and diligent the Steelers faithful are in waving those damn yellow towels around (the Cincinnati Bengals fan in me coming out), but after going on the road for the first two rounds I don’t expect the Jets to get shaken up. I realize that Mark Sanchez is only in his second year in the league, but Sunday’s game will be the sixth playoff start for the “Sanchize”. Mark has already played at Pittsburgh once this year so he should be somewhat prepared for the home crowd at Heinz field.
The second year speedster out of Ole Miss got loose in their first meeting and racked up 102 receiving yards. That game was just one of many great performances by Wallace in a season where he has caught ten touchdown passes and accumulated 1,257 receiving yards. Mike has clearly asserted himself as the homerun threat in Pittsburgh’s offense and the second year wide receiver’s star is on the rise in the Steel City. Unfortunately for Mike, Baltimore honed in on Wallace tight last week and limited him to 20 receiving yards on three catches. I expect the Jets to follow the Ravens’ blueprint and keep a close eye on Wallace during Sunday’s game. Steelers’ fans should expect Mike to meet up with Darrelle Revis on many occasions throughout the ballgame. I wouldn’t expect an encore of Mike’s 102 yard week 15 performance.
Mark Sanchez completed 64% of his passes against New England last week and looked masterful in running the Jets offense. The offensive game plan is something to take note off though; New York set things up by handing the ball off to LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene 27 times. Sanchez then threw manageable passes to the running backs and tight end Dustin Keller. Only later in the game did Mark Sanchez connect on a big play with Jericho Cotchery. I expect the Jets to utilize the same strategy this week against Pittsburgh. Look for New York to try to establish the running game early and then put Sanchez in manageable situations.
Pittsburgh only gave up an average of 214 yards per game during the regular season and as I mentioned earlier the Jets game was one of only two games that Troy Polamalu didn’t play in. I think Polamalu’s presence along with the fact that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is getting a second crack at this Jets offense bodes well for Pittsburgh. Once again weather conditions may be dicey at best on Heinz field on Sunday which is another advantage for the Steelers defense.
Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez knocked on the Superbowl door last season only to be upended by Peyton Manning and the Colts. Unfortunately, I think Rex and the Jets will once again fall short of the big game this season. Pittsburgh is ultimately too tough at Heinz field and I expect Pittsburgh to win what will be a thrilling AFC Championship matchup 17-10.