AFC Championship Preview

Posted: January 20, 2011 in News
Ben Roethlisberger

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have his hands full with a difficult Jets defense. If he wishes to run off the field in victory, he must have a strong pocker presence (NFL.com).

In one of the most exciting games of the second half of the season, the New York Jets defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field 22-17 back on Dec. 19. The game, which came down to the final play to determine the outcome, was action-packed and filled with drama.

How appropriate that a rematch will determine a Super Bowl berth.

The Steelers, who have won more Super Bowls than any other NFL franchise, hope to get the better of the Jets, who haven’t been to a Super Bowl since the infamous Joe Namath promise of 1969.

In the first meeting, the Jets held on to the win as Steelers quarterback led the offense from its own 8 yard line to the Jets 10 inside of the final 3:00, only to throw two incompletions on the game’s last two plays.

New York received the opening kickoff but did not hold the ball for very long. Kickoff return specialist Brad Smith ran the opening boot back 97 yards for the game’s first score. Roethlisberger found tight end Matt Spaeth from 9 yards out a quarter later to even the battle at 7-7. Both teams exchanged field goals to make the contest 10-10 heading into halftime.

Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall scored a short 2 yard touchdown with 5:57 to go in the third quarter to give the Steelers a 7 point lead. Jets signal caller Mark Sanchez scrambled into the end zone minutes later for the Jet’s first offensive touchdown in its last 12 quarters of play.

The game was decided by the fourth quarter. A 34 yard Nick Folk field goal gave New York a 20-17 lead. Pittsburgh had the ball inside its own 5 yard line, looking to drive the field down by just a field goal, when running back Mewelde Moore was stuffed in the Pittsburgh end zone for a Jets safety with just 2:38 left in regulation. That score made it 22-17, eliminating the possibilities of Pittsburgh tying the game on a field goal.

Roethlisberger had the length of the field to go with 2:08 and three timeouts. The drive seemed impossible when the Steelers were faced with a third-and-24 and two third-and-10 plays. Pittsburgh converted all three, compliments of receivers Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace, and Antonio Brown respectively. The drive reached the Jets 10 yard line. Roethlisberger tried to make difficult throws but was only allotted for two plays because of the clock. Neither was caught and the Jets won 22-17.

The Steelers, the conference’s no. 2 seed, defeated the division rival Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round Saturday night 31-24. They knew going into Sunday’s action that they would either go to New England or host New York, pending the outcome of the final Divisional Round game of the weekend. After the Jets 28-21 defeat of the Patriots, the stage was set.

“I told our players after that game, hey – make your mark because we’re coming back here,” commented Jets head coach Rex Ryan in his postgame interview Sunday, knowing his team would be traveling to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship. “We’ll take it. We’ll take it man. I’m proud of our guys.”

Things should be no different the second time around. Both teams, with respectable 3-4 style defenses, will look to repeat their strong performances Sunday.

The difference maker for the Steelers in December was Mendenhall, who finished a hair below 100 yards and scored a touchdown. In order to keep the Jets very aggressive defense from blitzing too much, the Steelers must maintain a balanced offense by running and passing the ball. Back in week 15, the Steelers ran 44 pass plays and only 25 run plays. While Mendenhall must pace the running attack, Roethlisberger will need a repeat performance from Wallace as well who had 7 catches for 102 yards in week 15.

New York has rediscovered its running attack this postseason, taking significant pressure off of Sanchez to throw. Running backs LaDainlian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene have split the load thus far, keeping both healthy and not overworking either. Wideout Braylon Edwards turned in an 8 grab, 100 yard performance in the regular season meeting, similar numbers to Pittsburgh’s Wallace.

The Jets-Steelers game will be filled with plenty of storylines. The Jets will win if they can force Roethlisberger to stay in the pocket and make bad throws. They forced two fumbles back in week 15, while the Steelers didn’t force one. Pittsburgh should win if they can confuse Sanchez with their unique zone blitzing schemes. Linebacker James Harrison is coming off a 3.0 sack performance against Baltimore. If New York can’t keep him out of the pocket, the Jets may be punting quite often.

The New York Jets meet the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, January 23, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. The game will be broadcasted on CBS at 6:30 EST. The winner of Jets-Steelers will meet the winner of the Green Bay Packers-Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, TX on February 6 on FOX.

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