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AFC Championship Preview

Posted By Michael Waterloo On Jan 22 2011 @ 8:58 pm In Pittsburgh Steelers | No Comments

When Sports Illustrated writer Peter King predicted at the beginning of the season that it would be the Steelers and Packers that would make it to the Super Bowl, people thought he was crazy.  The Packers seemed reasonable as they were the sexy pick going in to the season.  But the Steelers?  Of course people around town didn’t think he was crazy, since they always think the Steelers will win every game.  Many of those same people also thought that Dennis Dixon would unseat Ben Roethlisberger as the starter.  With a team that doesn’t have their starting quarterback for the first four games of the season, it seemed crazy to think they could overcome such a loss in what looked like a division sure to be won by the Bengals or Ravens.  Well, wouldn’t you know? This weekend has the chance to deliver the very scenario that King predicted.

It says here that the Packers will beat the Bears 21-10 this weekend and cement their spot to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.  But since this is a Pittsburgh column, let’s concentrate on them.  The Steelers have a week 15 rematch with the New York Jets, another team at the beginning of the year that was thought to be capable of making a Super Bowl run.  In the first contest between the teams, the Steelers had 378 yards of offense, compared to 276 of the Jets, and only had 3 penalties for 35 yards.  Pittsburgh held the edge in time of possession as well.  It’s safe to assume that the Steelers won that game right?  Thanks to a 97 yard kick return to open the game and a Jets safety on a controversial trap play from the Steelers’ end-zone, the Jets were able to pull out a win, 22-17.

All the talk going into this game is that the Jets have no chance and Steelers fans are already planning their trip to Dallas.  It seems as if people are thinking that the Jets are the Seahawks of the AFC, the feel good story.  While I do believe that the Steelers will beat the Jets, I do believe it will be closer than most people think.  The Jets and quarterback Mark Sanchez, have defeated Peyton Manning and the Colts, and then Tom Brady and the Patriots on their way to the championship game.  The public is making it about Sanchez defeating the top two quarterbacks in the game.  That’s a cute story but Sanchez defeated two sub-par defenses, not the quarterbacks of those teams.  The run that the Jets are making seems similar to the Steelers’ 2005 season when they were the number 6 seed and went on a historic run to the title.  With a young, second-year quarterback who lost the AFC Championship game the previous year.  With a stout defense.  With asolid running game.  Going on the road for all the games.  Sound familiar?  While it is a good comparison, it’s sad to say for Jets fans, that their team isn’t going to repeat the Steelers’ 2005 run.

Though the Steelers lost to the Jets the first time around this season, they were without the presence of Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller.  People point the finger of blame for the loss to backup tight end Matt Spaeth for a dropped ball as time expired (even if Heath were in the game, it would have been a difficult catch), but they forget that he did have the lone receiving touchdown of the game.  The bigger absence was that of Polamalu.  Sanchez had to face Ed Reed in the season opener and looked horrible against him.  Watching him face Polamalu will make him look, as Mike Tomlin likes to say, like a “lawn deer”.  During the last matchup, the Steelers barely dialed up any pressure on the young quarterback from Southern California.  The fact of the matter is, the Jets were in a desperate situation last game, coming off back-to-back losses to the Patriots and Dolphins.  While I won’t say the Steelers didn’t care about this game, I will say that they knew it wasn’t as important to them since they would finish off the season against the Panthers and the Browns.  Dick LeBeau will be sure to throw things at Sanchez that he never saw before.

While Sanchez has had an impressive 4-1 postseason record in his first 2 years under center, this will be another learning step for him.  Can we give him his credit though?  He has never had a home playoff game and is in only his third year as a starter since high school.  The future looks promising for Sanchez and the Jets.  In his second year, he has an overall season passer rating of 75.3.  Compare that to Brady (86.5), Manning (90.7), and Roethlisberger (98.6) in their second years, Sanchez still has some vast improving to do, but he has done everything that the Jets have asked of him thus far in his career.

The Steelers will need to take advantage of the Jets’ decision to put Darrelle Revis on Hines Ward by exploiting Antonio Cromartie on the opposite side covering Mike Wallace.  Wallace put up 102 yards on 7 catches last time out against Cromartie.  With Ward being taken completely out of the game, look for Miller and Rashard Mendenhall to become a big part of the offense.  The Jets defense is tough and they had Tom “Bieber” completely confused last week, but Roethlisberger has the mobility that those other quarterbacks don’t have.  I’m sure Rex Ryan will come up with a scheme for Ben, but will it be enough?

All in all, I expect a very close and very hard fought game for the Super Bowl berth.  While the Steelers have been known to blow the AFC title game at home in the past, this is a different regime.  Look for the Steelers to win this, their 15th AFC Championship game, 24-17.  Stairway to Seven, here they come.

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