Matchups for the AFC championship game between the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field:
When the Jets
have the ball
Don't be fooled by the Jets' claims they need to pound the ball on the ground to win. For one thing, nobody pounds the Steelers, who allowed the fewest yards rushing, a mere 1,004, this season. For another, the Jets have thrown the ball well recently, particularly in last week's shocker at New England. QB Mark Sanchez (6) has completed 60.7 percent of his passes, had three TDs against the Patriots, and his 91.6 rating is nothing to ignore.
He also has dynamic receivers in former Steelers star Santonio Holmes (10), the MVP of Pittsburgh's February 2009 Super Bowl triumph, and Braylon Edwards (17), and reliable ones in Jerricho Cotchery (89) and TE Dustin Keller (81).
New York's offensive line is a strength even without injured RT Damien Woody (Achilles' tendon). Nick Mangold (74) is a Pro Bowl center and RG Brandon Moore (65) probably deserved to go to Hawaii.
Still, the defense New York faces is far more fierce and formidable than what it saw in Indianapolis or New England the last two weeks. Neither the Colts nor the Patriots have playmakers like S Troy Polamalu (43), who could wind up anywhere on the field at any time, and LBs James Harrison (92) and LaMarr Woodley (56). The Jets must get solid performances from tackles D'Brickashaw Ferguson (60) and Wayne Hunter (78), plus dependable blitz pickups from RBs Shonn Greene (23) and LaDainian Tomlinson (21), along with steady veteran FB Tony Richardson (49).
Tomlinson has had a rebirth in New York. He and Greene have combined for 271 yards rushing in the two postseason games. If they get anywhere near their playoff averages Sunday, it bodes well for the Jets.
Regardless, Sanchez must remain consistent and throw in some big plays such as the TD pass to Holmes last week or the one to Edwards that set up the winning field goal in Indy. Keller should expect to be rocked by Polamalu and S Ryan Clark every time he touches the ball, but Pittsburgh's cornerbacks are beatable.
When the Steelers have the ball
Don't be fooled by the Steelers' claims they need to pound the ball on the ground to win, either. The running game might be a bit more critical for them, and Rashard Mendenhall (34) can be a beast; he rushed for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns during the season, but managed only 46 yards against Baltimore.
Pittsburgh's offensive line, banged up all year, will be tested by a resurgent Jets defense that pressured Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Rookie C Maurkice Pouncey (53) has more than held his own, but QB Ben Roethlisberger (7) doesn't always get the same support from the rest of his blockers. Of course, few quarterbacks can manufacture something out of chaos the way Roethlisberger does - and has done in winning two Super Bowls. He masterfully led the comeback from a 14-point deficit against Baltimore last week.
Although Hines Ward (86) is the key receiver in big spots, Mike Wallace (17) figures to get the Revis Treatment. Shutdown CB Darrelle Revis (24) will be a huge challenge for Wallace, Ward, Emmanuel Sanders (88) and Antonio Brown (84), one of the heroes of the win over the Ravens. Just like Manning and Brady, Roethlisberger probably will go after CB Antonio Cromartie (31), and look over the middle for TE Heath Miller (83). New York doesn't cover tight ends over the middle particularly well.
Even if the Jets get penetration similar to what they got against the Patriots from Shaun Ellis (92) and Calvin Pace (97), that doesn't mean Roethlisberger will be stymied. His ability to take hits, avoid the rush and thrown on the run make him dangerous everywhere.
A strength of the Jets under coordinator Mike Westhoff, with Brad Smith (16) the main threat. Smith ranked second in the league with 1,432 yards on kick returns, a 28.6 average, and two touchdowns. The Steelers very well remember the 97-yarder Smith had to open New York's 22-17 victory at Pittsburgh on Dec. 19.The Steelers counter mostly with Brown on returns. Brown had one kickoff runback for a score during the season. Both teams are solid on kickoff coverages in particular.
Pittsburgh changed placekickers in midseason from Jeff Reed to Shaun Suisham (6) and it worked out nicely. The turf at Heinz field can be problematic, but Suisham went 14 for 15 on field goals. New York's Nick Folk (2) isn't quite so reliable, even missing a 30-yarder at Foxborough. He did hit the 32-yarder that lifted the Jets past the Colts.
Steve Weatherford (9) gets good hang time and can punt directionally. Having kicked in the Meadowlands all year should prepare him for tricky winds, the kind that Steelers P Jeremy Kapinos (13) knows well.
All the kidding aside about their personalities being so dissimilar, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin and Jets head man Rex Ryan have much in common.
Both are superb defensive coaches, albeit with different styles. Tomlin, who won a championship in 2008, is blessed with the likes of Harrison and Polamalu - and coordinator Dick LeBeau, possibly the best the NFL has seen. They get the most out of everyone on D.
Tomlin is a terrific evaluator of talent and a strong motivator.
Ryan might be bombastic, but he gets results, in great part by letting assistants such as Westhoff and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have freedom. His roster fits the personality Ryan wants for his team: brash, rugged, clutch.