AFC Championship Game 2011: Why This Game Will Decide the Super Bowl Winner
We've made it through the first two weekends of the playoffs. After some entertaining games, the dust has settled, and the matchups for championship weekend are finally set. It'll be Green Bay at Chicago, and the New York Jets visiting Pittsburgh.
Looking into the crystal ball, I find the AFC title game as the more compelling matchup, both in terms of storylines, and in looking forward to the Super Bowl. Whatever team comes away from Heinz Field on top has the best chance of also leaving Cowboys Stadium two weeks later with a large, silver, football shaped trophy in tow.
Here's why the younger conference is the one to watch this weekend.
10) Fearless Coaching
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Both Jets head coach Rex Ryan, and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, have shown an ability and a willingness to make the tough calls in the tight spots, and it has paid off for them.
Going into any potential Super Bowl matchup, I'd have to give either the Jets or the Steelers the edge from a coaching standpoint. Tomlin's been there before, and Ryan at least acts like he has. Or even if he doesn't, he acts like he knows how to get there.
And his players believe in him. Above all else, that's something that really matters, especially this time of the year. They're buying what he's selling, and the end product is a unit that's greater than the sum of its parts.
9) Hungry Players
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On the New York side, LaDainian Tomlinson has to be one of the hungriest players for any of the four remaining teams, and I'm not talking about eating dinner.
Tomlinson came close so many times over the years with some very good Chargers teams, but could never quite get over that hump. A Super Bowl title is the one thing still missing in the sure Hall of Famer's resume, and he'll savor the chance to do whatever it takes to get it.
As for Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger has to be cherishing the opportunity to prove that, despite an offseason full of turmoil, he still has the ability to be the leader of this team and take them where they want to go. Another title would perfectly cap his season of redemption.
8) An Expectation of Success
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For the Steelers, they've developed such a championship culture that winning is not just desired, it's expected. They're not going to be fazed by the bright lights or the big stage, this or any other week. Many of the current team has been there already once, or even twice, and they know what it takes.
As for the Jets, they've at least been to this stage before, and will be expecting themselves to improve upon last year's championship game failure to be able to call this season a success. But if and when they reach that next level, you know Rex Ryan will whip up some motivational magic and have them all drinking the Kool-Aid once they arrive in Arlington.
They come at it from different angles, but these are both teams that came here to get a job done, and they won't be deterred from that path.
7) Battle Worthiness
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It's difficult to dispute the assertion that the road has been tougher for both the Steelers and the Jets to get to this point, and so they'll be that much more tested and prepared come the final chapter.
The Steelers had to get through a difficult regular season where they didn't have their field general for the first four games, and they were pushed to the wire by a very good Ravens team, who gave them all they could handle in a hard fought Divisional game last weekend.
The Jets also overcame their fair share of adversity, and similarly, overcame their toughest divisional rival to get to this point. That victory had to be a cathartic experience for Ryan and his charges, and their confidence must be at an all time high.
If they get to the Super Bowl, they will have defeated Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, all on the road, in three straight weeks. Is that battle tested enough for you?
6) They're Built For This
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Both Pittsburgh and New York are engineered for playoff success.
They boast tough, gritty players on their rosters who aren't afraid to get down and dirty, and play up to the moment. Hines Ward in particular for the Steelers has developed a reputation as a big game receiver who takes almost as much pleasure in executing a block on a running play as he does in catching a touchdown pass.
It's all for the good of the team, and an all-for-one, one-for-all Three Musketeers-type mentality, like the Jets most certainly have, is key to insulating yourselves from the pressure and navigating this treacherous path called the playoffs.
5) Us Against The World
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The coaching staffs in both locker rooms have done a masterful job of crafting the mentality of their respective clubs.
Both teams feature the same cohesive spirit, where no one person, no star, is greater than the unit, and the greatest good is that which serves the team. It has even worked for players who haven't exactly been pictures of selflessness before.
Santonio Holmes was cast away from the Steeler family because he was causing too much drama, and it didn't fit in with the team-centric vibe they were trying to maintain. But after catching on with the Jets, he's fit in perfectly there, and has identified with Rex Ryan's rogue image and mentality.
Braylon Edwards has had a similar path, jettisoned by the Browns for being, among other things, too selfish. With the Jets, his skills have shone as bright as ever, and he's been embraced by Ryan as a leader.
On the Steeler side, Troy Polamalu is the voice of coach Mike Tomlin on the field for the defense, and everyone rallies around one another so well and so consistently, it's become almost unremarkable. It's just what they do. Never mind that other teams don't.
4) The Logical Next Step
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Basketball coach Pat Riley predicated the idea of the 'Perfect Painful Progression'. The concept was that as a team got better, it reached new goals and conquered new obstacles in turn. You had to go through the pain to reap the reward at the end. That's what's happening here for both remaining AFC contenders.
The Jets were a cast of misfits that made the AFC title game last year. Then they were one of the favorites throughout much of this season. And now they find themselves back where they were, looking to continue that progression.
The Steelers are more on a journey of reclaiming their rightful place on the throne. After a year that for most teams would be considered average, finishing 9-7, missing the playoffs was nothing short of a disaster in Steel Town. Now they're trying to reestablish where they belong.
3) A Balanced Attack
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At this stage in the postseason, where you're going to be facing nothing but good teams with talented players and prepared coaching staffs, there aren't going to be too many surprises.
You're not going to luck into something, or gimmick a team into submission. You've got to go with simple, straightforward, smashmouth football, and try to shove the ball down your opponent's throat.
Few teams have done that better all year than the Jets and the Steelers. Both teams rely heavily on their running games, and whichever team emerges from this tilt will be able to have something to fall back on if things aren't clicking. Power running attacks aren't prone to slumps.
The Steelers ranked 8th in the league in rushing attempts this season and 11th in yards. The Jets were even more prolific, ranking 2nd and 4th, respectively. They like to shorten games and control the football, wearing down their opponents' defense into submission.
High flying pass heavy attacks (read: Packers) are more often than not grounded.
2) Nothing to Lose
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Perhaps the Steelers have more to lose at this point than the Jets, but both teams should be loose and playing with confidence.
The Steelers' season this year is already a major improvement over last season, and has firmly re-established them as one of the AFC's true elite. The Jets, of course, have already exorcised their demons from last year (defeating the Colts in Indy), as well as their backyard tormentors (defeating Bill Belichick and the Patriots in Foxboro).
It's generally the teams that can just go out there and play football that play the best during this time of year. And both of these teams should be able to do just that.
1) Defensive Dominance
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It's been said a million times before, but what's the truest way to win in January in the NFL? Defense.
Luckily for the Steelers and Jets, that's the way they've both been winning games all season long. Pittsburgh's teams have always been built around a fearsome defensive unit, and this year has been no exception. The Steelers have given up the fewest points, and the second fewest yards, of any team in the NFL this year. They also easily led the league, allowing an average of just 62.8 yards per game on the ground.
The Jets, meanwhile, gave up the sixth fewest points and the third fewest total yards, and their rushing defense ranked third, as well.
For two teams who rely heavily on the run in their offensive games, the defense who stays true to holding that part of an opponent's game down will have the edge in the AFC Championship. But for all the reasons I've gone through, whichever of these two great teams that ends up being, should be able to hold that edge in Super Bowl XLV, as well.