There was once a time when the AFC championship game for Steelers fans would be a nerve-wracking affair on its face. Going into '05, the team had lost in three consecutive appearances since reaching Super Bowl XXX and seemed incapable of making the leap into another Super Bowl, no matter how good the season that proceeded it.
Five years on, we know that to no longer be the case. The Steelers have already won two conference championship games in that span and can add a third on Sunday. To do so, they'll have to deny a Jets team that has appeared in and lost all three conference championship games the team has appeared in since winning Super Bowl III. Of course, one of those was last season, so the Jets aren't much lacking compared to the Steelers in experience with this game.
All things being even, the Jets don't have enough offense to beat the Steelers. I doubt it will be a mistake free game on both sides, but the Jets will need either another kick return, a plethora of turnovers or a defensive score to pull another win at Heinz Field. Mark Sanchez can make a couple good throws, but for every good one he makes, there are three or four routine ones he misses badly. The Jets had a respectable rushing performance in the Week 15 meeting, but I have a feeling with even with Troy appearing slightly less than 100 percent, his presence can bolster an already incredibly strong rush D. Just remember that aside from Ray Rice's TD run last week, he barely registered another respectable carry the rest of the way.
Let's put it this way - the Jets managed not to turn the ball over, kind of had the run game going and still managed only 13 points on offense in Week 15 in Pittsburgh. Any slip-up by them could prove to be fatal.
Polamalu lined up more deep in coverage last week against Baltimore, though LeBeau did send him in blitzes late in the game, especially on the final drive. Remember, of course, that Troy was supposedly hobbled the week before the 2008 AFC title game and that game turned out all right for him. Some are freaking out over him missing Thursday's practice along with Wednesday, though that follows his schedule for nearly the last two months.
Both teams are going to want to ramp up the pass rush over what materialized in Week 15. For the Jets, the pass rush has been something of a weakness on their defense, though they were able to get a lot of pressure from Shaun Ellis on Tom Brady last week. The Steelers only sacked Mark Sanchez once in the December meeting, though narrowly missed him a few more times. The Jets will make it a priority to protect him and will likely use max protect on most long pass plays. Still, the Steelers will get their opportunities to get at him. Sanchez has elusiveness to escape sacks, so it's just a matter of being able to get him down when the chance is there. If James Harrison has anything like the performance he has last week, that won't be an issue. The Steelers game was the only game after Week 6 in the regular season where Sanchez didn't throw an interception. Get him rattled and the mistakes will come.
Drew Coleman had a huge game for the Jets in the last meeting, which shows that it's important for the offensive line to recognize when extra pressure is coming, because New York's front seven can't make much on its own. As I said then, except for a bad shotgun draw from the goal line that was broken up by Jason Taylor (hampered as well this week) Bruce Arians had a fairly good day with playcalling against the Jets. I don't doubt that Rex Ryan will make adjustments going into this game, but a team that can't get tons of pressure without sending a ton of rushers is going to have the Steelers move the ball on them. Incidentally, the last strong statistical performance by Mendenhall against the Jets (he may not have had a ton of yards, but he made several great runs last week against the Ravens, including a grueling effort to secure the winning touchdown). Get Mendy around 100 yards rushing again, and I don't see how the Steelers would lose without a host of huge mistakes.
Darrelle Revis is in better condition now than he was in early December, but has still been limited in practice with his hamstring injury. He won't shadow Mike Wallace all game, but Wallace will likely get a lot of his attention. Probably doesn't mean great things for deep bombs, but if Revis has a weakness, it's on inside and slant routes. As we saw in the Carolina game, Wallace can be equally deadly on those. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Steelers test that. On the other side, let's just hope Dwight Lowery and Antonio Cromartie aren't allowed to get away with holding this time.
A month ago, the Steelers were able to walk away knowing they nearly pulled out a last second win on an admirable effort playing shorthanded against a likely playoff team. No such consolation will be enough this time. The Steelers fought through an incredibly array of setbacks to secure another AFC title game in homefield. The team has been playing some of its most inspired football since it last faltered. The Steelers are too good to fall again to a run-first team that matches up poorly against them. Don't allow any cheap scores and Pittsburgh will be playing for the right to win its seventh title in a few weeks.