AFC Title Game Breakdown: A Showdown in Steel Town
Sunday, marks round three of the NFL playoffs and features a week 15 rematch between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Jets.
For the Steelers this marks the 15th time they will play in the AFC Championship and the third time they’ve played in the game in the past five seasons.
After a tumultuous off-season that saw Santonio Holmes traded to the New York Jets and quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger suspended for the first four games, the Steelers headed into 2010 with a lot of uncertainty. Some 20 weeks later they find themselves on the cusp of the franchise’s eighth Super Bowl appearance.
The New York Jets are a tough puzzle to piece together. After a week one loss to Baltimore they went on to win nine of their next ten games and looked primed to take over the AFC. That’s when reality smacked the team square in the face. First, came a Monday night shellacking, in a 45-3 loss to the New England Patriots followed by a lackluster loss to the Miami Dolphins.
The Jets saved their season with a week 15 win in Pittsburgh. Five weeks later the Jets find themselves back in Pittsburgh with much more on the line; a chance to play in the Super Bowl.
After defeating Super Bowl champion quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive weeks on the road, the Jets will not be intimidated playing at Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Here is a breakdown of Sunday’s AFC Championship game.
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When it comes to the quarterback position there really isn’t much comparison.
Mark Sanchez is a second year QB with a playoff record of 4-1 heading into Sunday’s game. Sanchez has really matured in the post season and has three touchdowns to only one interception in two playoff games.
Ben Roethlisberger has a career record of 8-2 in the playoffs and is closing in on his third Super Bowl appearance with a win on Sunday. He was 19 for 32 last week with two touchdowns and no turnovers against the Ravens. There might not be a better quarterback in NFL history at extending a play than Big Ben.
The Edge: Not even close the Steelers get the nod here. Roethlisberger’s experience and toughness gives his team the advantage at quarterback.
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NYJ: 22.9 PPG, 351 total YPG, 202 pass YPG, 148 rush YPG
PIT: 23.4 PPG, 345 total YPG, 225 pass YPG, 120 rush YPG
Offensively these teams are nearly even in total yards and points per game. Neither offense will light up the scoreboard but they both make enough big plays to put points on the board.
New York relied heavily on the running game this season. In the regular season they ranked second in the league in rush attempts and rush attempts per game. So far LaDanian Tomlinson and second year back Shonn Greene have combined for three rushing touchdowns and 271 rushing yards in two playoff games.
Still, it may be the play of Mark Sanchez and the passing game on Sunday that will be key in moving the ball against the best run defense in the league.
Pittsburgh is slightly more balanced then the Jets. They are not nearly as effective in the run but still rank in the top half of the league in both rushing and passing.
Truth be told the Steelers offense has not needed to be spectacular with the league’s top scoring defense.
Last week they twice started in Baltimore territory and were able to score two touchdowns thanks to turnovers created by the defense.
The Edge: The Jets have lacked the ability to score at times during the season and that could be a concern on Sunday. The Steelers may not overwhelm you with a ton of points but they seem to always make the big plays at the right time. They get the offensive edge.
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Pittsburgh’s defensive prowess against the run is staggering. In the regular season opponents only managed five touchdowns and 1,004 yards for a total of 62.8 rush yds/G. They are also the stingiest defense when it comes to giving up points. The Steelers allow only 14.5 Pts/G.
The Jets are no slouches by any means. They feature arguably the most intimidating corner back duo in the league and rank third against the run. They might be overshadowed by the excellence that is the Steelers but in the playoffs the Jets defense has been the more impressive of the two.
Two weeks ago they held Peyton Manning and the Colts to 16 points and last week they battered MVP favorite Tom Brady and held the no. 1 scoring offense to 21 points.
The Edge: It is unfair to try and pick a favorite here. Both defenses are the strengths of their respective teams. Pittsburgh is slightly better statistically but the Jets have turned it up a notch in the playoffs. So I’ll push on Defense.
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In two seasons with the Jets Rex Ryan’s record is 20-12. In the post season he is 4-1 with two trips to the AFC title game. Ryan receives more attention for his tirades about other players and coaches but the results on the field show that the big guy knows a thing or two about x and o’s.
The confidence he’s instilled in his team is part of the reason that they find themselves one game from the Super Bowl for the second year in the row. One thing is for certain of the loquacious Ryan, no matter how absurd he can sound at times; he finds a way to get the most out of his team.
Rex’s counterpart Mike Tomlin is everything Ryan is not. He’s mild mannered, reserved and very workman like. It is Tomlin’s no nonsense approach to the game that have allowed his teams to succeed at such a high level.
Like Ryan, Tomlin is a defensive guy who takes pride on having the toughest football team on the field. Tomlin’s post season record is identical to Ryan’s at 4-1 but the main difference is Tomlin sports a Super Bowl ring.
At 38, Tomlin is two wins away from winning his second Super Bowl in three seasons.
The Edge: Tomlin managed to keep his team focused without its star quarterback for the first four games of the season. The Steelers went 3-1 without Big Ben. The defense is scary good and you get the feeling that like their coach, this team never panics or folds under pressure. It is for those reasons that he gets the edge here.
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The Jets X – Factor will be the play of Antonio Cromartie. It can be assumed that the Darrelle Revis will lock down one side of the field putting the pressure on Cromartie to not give up any big plays on the other. If Cromartie can keep Mike Wallace and the emerging Emmanuel Sanders from making any big plays the Steelers will become one dimensional and very predictable offensively.
Cromartie also figures to be instrumental on special teams. It was his 47 yard kickoff return two weeks ago in Indianapolis that setup Nick Folk’s game winning field goal. If the Jets hope to win he’ll need to be at his best.
For the Steelers it’s all about no. 43. Troy Polamalu missed the week 15 game with the Jets because of a nagging calf injury. Polamalu leads the team with 7 INT’s and is its most important playmaker. Just his presence on the field seems to make the Steelers D that much more ferocious. The Jets will have to account for him at all times and that should free up other Steelers defenders to make big plays.
The Edge: The Steelers win this one. When Polamalu plays they are on a whole other level and I don’t think the Jets will have any answer for him.
6. The Outcome
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Cromartie and Revis will make life tough for the Steelers through the air and there is no better run defense in the league than Pittsburgh. So, this game could come down to the Steelers ability to run the ball vs. the Jets ability to pass.
The Jets have proven to be a resilient team all season and have elevated their game the past few weeks but the Pittsburgh Steelers are a different kind of animal.
Expect Sanchez to struggle all afternoon and the Steelers to capitalize on his mistakes.
Pittsburgh is too experienced and disciplined on both sides of the ball and even when they fall behind early like they did last week in Baltimore; they are never out of a game.
The Steelers will hoist their 8th Lamar Hunt trophy on Sunday and will represent the AFC in Dallas in Super Bowl XLV.