AFC, NFC, it doesn't matter anymore. This weekend is all about the Super Bowl.
Sunday afternoon will play host to two tight affairs between the remaining four teams in the league. The Green Bay Packers will take a trip to Soldier Field for only the third time, postseason wise, in the rivalry's 90-year history. Meanwhile Rex Ryan's enthusiastic New York Jets prepare for a dangerous clash with the Pittsburgh Steelers away at Heinz Field.
In 2009, the Jets were in this exact same situation, only last time around New York found themselves matched up against a bulletproof Indianapolis Colts team, that also featured none other than Peyton Manning.
When it was all said and done the Jets left with a "close but no cigar" type feeling. Indianapolis steamrolled New York 30-17, a scoreline quarterback Mark Sanchez hopes to avoid this upcoming weekend.
Unfortunately, though, the mere thought of a Jets victory this Sunday night is both unimaginable and downright unthinkable in the grand scheme of things.
Mike Tomlin's Pittsburgh Steelers are fresh off an upsetting victory over the Baltimore Ravens last week, and although the Jets felt the benefits of defeating a deflated New England Patriots, many factors still point towards a Jets loss.
Therefore, here's a few components that may seriously limit New York this Sunday.
Witnessing head coach Rex Ryan stumble down the sidelines as Shonn Greene placed the dagger into the hearts of New England Patriots fans, is a moment to savior for each and every Jets fan.
But as every fan of Ryan's know, New York's outlandish head coach can be the teams best or worst enemy at the drop of a hat.
Taking a swing for the fences, both the Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers have been remarkably civil all week long. Wide receiver Santonio Holmes took the opportunity to discuss the respect he has for Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, stating that "(he) is probably the greatest player I've ever played with".
Not to be outdone, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also had a few choice words to say about Ryan. According to the Steelers main man, Tomlin considers himself to be reasonably similar to Ryan, in both attitude and the way in which he coaches.
Call me crazy, but isn't this supposed to be a good old fashioned AFC shootout?
I certainly thought so.
Last week against the Patriots, Ryan was intent on creating a stir in the media, more or less resulting in some mental second guessing on the part of Bill Belichick. Needless to say, this resulted in a Jets big time win.
Therefore, to see Ryan expressing some calmness one week away from the Super Bowl is surely a mildly concerning sign. The Jets head coach likes to talk smack to instill confidence in his team, so now it is a wonder as to why Ryan is now taking his foot off the gas.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall has been the shining light of 2010. Finally Mike Tomlin has a ground game he can rely on since the departure of Willie Parker, and with strength and speed to his name, Mendenhall compliments Ben Roethlisberger nicely on offense.
Against the New York Jets during Week 15, Mendenhall tortured Rex Ryan's defense, running for 99 yards and one touchdown. More to the point however, this weekend is a favorable game for the Steelers rushing attack.
In the confines of Heinz Field, Mendenhall is likely to excel. The Jets run defense has been stellar for most of the season, and with New York's aerial coverage also in tip-top form, expect the Steelers to utilize Mendenhall on short yardage situations.
The most telling factor?
Just over a month ago Mendenhall recorded 17 carries against the Jets defense. To some running backs this is a mediocre statistic, but against a Darrelle Revis/Antonio Cromartie led system, 17 runs is quite a days work.
Mendenhall missed out on the Steelers 2008 Super Bowl run due to an injured shoulder -- this time around he is making up for lost time.
"Just trying to keep everything as normal as possible," Mendenhall stated after practice. "That's how I am with everything. Just preparing for what you can control."
Against the Baltimore Ravens last week Mendenhall was in control, rushing for 46 yards and two touchdowns. With the Jets on tap, don't expect anything different.
Most folks who follow the NFL closely have heard of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace. Emmanuel Sanders on the other hand? Well, he is a totally different story.
Those of you who are unaware of what Sanders is all about, allow me to illustrate. With 376 yards and two touchdowns on the season, Sanders has experienced a decent rookie year in Pittsburgh — something that many upcoming wide receivers can't relate too early on.
From a Pittsburgh vantage point, Sanders is perhaps a player that may replace Hines Ward one day. Although the two are totally different, Sanders possesses a rare knack for getting open, relevant in his 46 yard effort against the Baltimore Ravens last week.
And what about Mike Wallace?
Most of us know what he is all about. To reiterate, though, Wallace is also one of the Steelers younger players who has slipped into Pittsburgh's second receiver role behind Ward this season.
So what do we get when we combine the two?
By undergoing a simple mathematics procedure, both Sanders and Wallace should act as key players for the Steelers this Sunday.
In a combined effort both players have accumulated 1633 yards this season. They have also taken some of the attention away from opposing teams that have become fixated on shutting down Ward on any given Sunday.
Sanders and Wallace must be watched closely this weekend, as either is expected to have a big game.
Pittsburgh's mentality heading into Sunday's match up against the New York Jets, is that they have done this all before.
This weekend will mark the fourth AFC Championship appearance for the Steelers in the past seven years, a serious record not to be tampered with if you are an opposing team stepping into the unwelcoming Heinz Field.
What makes the Steelers experience truly bliss, however, is the fact that they continue to find ways to win when it counts. Last week against Baltimore, the Steelers found themselves in a serious hole, only to rally back thanks to a Ray Rice fumble that cost the Ravens dearly.
This Sunday, the same story may unfold.
Two years ago Pittsburgh were in this situation, but instead took on the team just mentioned, the Baltimore Ravens.
The Steelers went on to win that game 23-14 and ultimately defeat the Arizona Cardinals 27-23 to earn their sixth Super Bowl ring. Experience counts for a lot, and Steel City has an abundance to rely upon.
Defense wins championships? Well, so does a good stripping team.
As if the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn't kill a teams hopes in a number of ways, Dick LeBeau's defense now has now found its turnover button -- right in the nick of time to face the New York Jets.
To any Baltimore Raven fan out there, watching running back Ray Rice cough the ball up last weekend had to be painful. Then again, watching quarterback Joe Flacco muff a snap from center Matt Birk threw salt on an already open wound.
Overall, turnovers cost the Ravens a win last week. A comfortable lead was sustained at half time, but the Steelers hard hitting defense led by Troy Polamalu was too strong for Baltimore to overcome as the game drew on.
But as much as the Ravens squandered opportunities, Pittsburgh capitalized on some precision offense and quite frankly, some luck, on the back end of Baltimore's turnovers.
Along the sidelines quarterback Ben Roethlisberger expressed his fondness of throwing the ball deep.
"Let's just chuck it deep," Roethlisberger told offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "If they pick it, it will be a pick way down there, just as good as a punt. ... I just throw it as far as I can.'"
Luckily, Big Ben was right.
Turnovers will cost the Jets this weekend against such a cunning Steeler offense. If Roethlisberger doesn't get you, then expect a Rashard Mendenhall run up the gut resulting in a first down or two.
The Jets have been reasonably solid as of late when it comes to cough ups. Yet at the same time, nothing can be taken for granted when taking on the Steelers "rough as guts" defense away at Heinz Field.
Week 15's showdown between New York and Pittsburgh continues to highlight the problems still remaining on the Jets offense.
Among other notables, the biggest issue for head coach Rex Ryan right now is third down efficiency, as his team was mediocre last time these two met. For the record, the Jets had a conversion percentage of only 46%. Throw in the fact that New York went 6/13 on third downs, and you have yourself a legitimate problem.
Against the New England Patriots last week the Jets were the very same team. New York once again clocked in at 46% on 13 attempts, yet somehow walked away with a close 28-21 victory in Foxboro last week.
Overall the Jets have been lucky enough to not see this statistic do too much harm. In both instances New York have walked away with the win, more or less proving that this factor may be irrelevant on Sunday.
Still, a team that can't convert on short yardage situations can be vulnerable, and with Mark Sanchez still a question, who knows which Jets team will show up.
Speaking of Mark Sanchez, Sunday's game at Heinz Field doesn't exactly spell out a big time show from the Jets franchise quarterback this weekend.
Referring back to Week 15 for one moment, Sanchez threw for 170 yards against the Steelers 12th rank pass defense in Pittsburgh. While the Jets did walk out with a victory, New York did have to rely on a prominent defensive stand throughout many moments of the game.
So what will change this week?
Unfortunately there isn't much to indicate that a drastic change will occur. Mind you, Sanchez was one of the main reasons for the Jets remarkable upset against New England last week, playing for 194 yards and three touchdowns.
It is no secret that Sanchez will rely on both running back Shonn Greene and wide receive Santonio Holmes heavily this week. Each player has carried the workload this postseason, and if the Jets are to steal their second victory in Pittsburgh this year, a team effort will be required.
People are still waiting for the real Sanchez to show up, the quarterback who threw two postseason interceptions last year. The Jets haven't carried Sanchez like they did in 2009, but there is plenty of time left.
Ranked first in rush defense toward the end of the regular season, Pittsburgh's relentless secondary has been responsible for the Steelers deep playoff run this year.
Starting off with the basics, Mike Tomlin's defensive line will be the main factor this weekend. Defensive end Ziggy Hood will look to be a force on the left hand side of the line, along with nose tackle Casey Hampton who is expected to pressure Mark Sanchez heavily.
Realistically don't expect defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to blitz frequently on Sunday. Constant "In your face" pressure isn't necessary when taking on a team like New York, although a few all-out rushes never hurt anyone (except the quarterback).
Next, the linebacker corp will also be pivotal to the Steelers chances. Outside linebacker James Harrison recorded three sacks against Joe Flacco last week, along with LaMarr Woodley's single hit on the day.
While blitzing won't be frequent, keeping an eye on the Jets' many receivers is a must. The biggest man that acts as a threat to the Steelers defense is tight end Dustin Keller, who has caught for 57 yards this postseason.
Many teams tend to forget about Keller in the playoffs and pass him off as a blocking presence. However, knowing Rex Ryan, Keller will be utilized on the weekend, especially when New York try and convert on third downs up the middle.
Last but not least, there is of course the secondary. Troy Polamalu leads the way, along with cornerback Ike Taylor — someone who is quick enough to blitz from the outside. Sanchez will be aware of Taylor, but don't be surprised if speed gets the better of No.6.
Pittsburgh rush defense has placed them where they are right now, and it isn't looking likely to let them down anytime soon.
Normally home field advantage ranks fairly low on preview lists. When it comes to recognizing Heinz Field one game ahead of the Super Bowl, though, the Steelers home ground becomes a serious factor to consider.
After the Baltimore Ravens complete meltdown last week, the Steelers home crowd is ready to be rowdy. Ray Rice's fumble energized a previously unenthusiastic crowd during the Divisional Round, something that is likely to spill over into Sunday.
The 12th man?
It sure will be a force in both games this weekend.
The New York Jets by far have an uphill task heading toward Heinz Field, and seeing as though the Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens in this exact same building two years ago, expect an electric crowd.
Terrible Towels weren't invented for just show. They were invented for a true playoff atmosphere.
The number one factor that plays against the New York Jets this week is Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
Posting 226 yards and two touchdowns last weekend against the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers main man has been on fire all season long. Touchdowns have been flowing, and after the Jets acknowledged how hard it is to bring Big Ben down, there is no doubt No.7 will have a head full of confidence.
During the week, Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis spoke briefly on his feelings toward facing Roethlisberger.
"He puts a bigger stress on our defense" Revis said on Monday.
Stress is certainly the right word.
The area where Roethlisberger will manhandle a team is on the deep ball. Capitalizing off turnovers has already been mentioned, but when Big Ben decides to load up and go deep to Hines Ward, everyone tends to hold their breath a little.
Then there is the third dimension to Roethlisbeger — his brute strength.
In the pocket Big Ben is relentless. Often referred to as an apartment block, tackling Roethlisberger is a task in its own right when preparing to face the Steelers.
"I've never seen a guy who can take hits like he can take and also make people miss the way he does and be so accurate on the run" Jets head coach Rex Ryan stated.
New York has dealt with this task once already this season. In Week 15 the Jets sacked Roethlisberger three times, in a very successful 22-17 win.
Still, defensive lineman Trevor Pryce asked the question of "How do you tackle a guy who is as big as a polar bear?", with serious intent. Only few teams know, and if there is a secret to taking down the Steelers immortally strong quarterback, the Jets need to know now.