How splendid: the second half of Sunday’s NFL championship double-header features two teams that don’t exactly shy away from live mics. There’s plenty of controversy for one and all, as one side has the league’s most outspoken head coach and his merry band of trash talkers like Bart Scott and Antonio Cromartie.
On the other side, you have a quarterback who narrowly escaped legal Hell, and a linebacker whose questionable hitting style has burned a hole in his checkbook. Both teams won hard-fought games last weekend over their respective arch-nemesis, and now find themselves with but one ticket to Super Bowl XLV sitting at their feet. I think you can do away with the idea of a high-finesse game taking place, and just prepare yourself for a lot of verbal blow-ups that will turn ugly. It won’t be so much a football game as it will be a battle of attrition.
Bill Simmons of ESPN.com likes to use the phrase in describing an improbable victory: “Eff you, we’re not losing”. After going into halftime down 21-7, and letting a few costly turnovers go the Ravens’ way, the second half couldn’t have gone any better for Pittsburgh. When you put up 24 points to Baltimore’s 3 over the latter half of the game, and you disrupt Ray Rice and Joe Flacco to the point where you’ve eroded their confidence, then you’re not losing. Even better, look at the costly drops by Anquan Boldin and TJ Houshmandzadeh. Do they make those catches in any other game? Of course they do. Something about Pittsburgh’s defense adds about 300% more pressure to a player’s already unsteady nerves. Speaking of pressure, Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t feeling any. How come nobody talks about his ability to lead fourth quarter comebacks? It’s an amazing trait hardly anyone else possesses.
2. How did the Jets pull off the upset in New England?
Was it really an upset? Before the dumbfounding 45-3 loss in December, the two teams were dead even in the AFC East, with the winner taking over the driver’s seat. Semantics aside, the Jets didn’t throw any first half interceptions, unlike the December game, and thus were able to run their best offense: run, run, run, run, run. Keeping Tom Brady off the field for extended periods of time prevents New England from being able to run up the score. New England’s run defense isn’t exactly championship material, and Mark Sanchez took the pressure off himself by letting LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene do the back breaking. When Brady happened to be out there, he was never comfortable until late when the Jets let up in coverage. That weird interception that David Harris picked off tells the story: Tom Brady wasn’t Tom Brady out there. The Jets simply outplayed them.
3. Is Rex Ryan being a little too low key this week?
The biggest verbal tete-a-tete this week has been from Steelers defensive back Ike Taylor, who promised to lay out former teammate and current Jets receiver Santonio Holmes if he crosses his path. The statement was even laced with a tongue-in-cheek connotation, as the two are still friends, so it’s a bit unusual that the war of words has been almost non-existent. Ryan’s at his best when he backs his players into a corner with his mouth, and then gives them the all-clear to lash out and take control. After all, making the games with Indianapolis and New England “personal” seems to have worked wonders in getting the best out of his players. Though the Jets have no real issue with the Steelers as they did the Colts and Patriots, you’d still have to believe there’d be more grenades than what we’re seeing. Maybe Rex Ryan is that confident this week?
4. Is Ben Roethlisberger the best clutch quarterback in football?
Roethlisberger may be a hard-partying ninny that may or may not have broken laws in human ethics, but for my money, he’s a go-to guy in the fourth quarter. Watching him power the Steelers to a 24 point second half (with a little help from his defense) and then find Antonio Brown on that 58 yard missile on third down makes a strong case for “Big Ben” as being infallibly clutch. Remember, this is the same Roethlisberger that had to lead Pittsburgh downfield against Arizona two years ago after Larry Fitzgerald punked out the defense, and then found Santonio Holmes for the catch of the year to win Super Bowl XLIII in the winding moments. Don’t forget, Ben’s second-half heroics from Saturday evening came against a Ravens defense that tends to seal games with timely fumbles and picks, so for Roethlisberger to have total command should make a good case.
5. What can we take from Mark Sanchez’s great game vs. New England?
You can say that, with enough confidence, Mark Sanchez is capable of controlling a game. The numbers from Sunday may not jump out at you (16 for 25, 194 yards), but Sanchez did throw three touchdowns and didn’t turn the ball over once. A lot of this has to do with his defense simply shutting down New England’s offense, namely making Tom Brady play on edge. When the Jets racked up those sacks early (particularly two momentum shifters from Shaun Ellis), Sanchez had more time to find his rhythm and sustain drives. Sanchez did throw a few off-target wobblers, but was smart enough to not come out on the next play and take a risky chance to try and make up for his mistakes. Instead, he continually deferred to his advanced running game, and used the lack of pressure (not one sack given up) to concentrate and complete his throws.
6. Can the Jets break Pittsburgh’s run defense?
Now we come to the ultimate push-vs-shove battle in this AFC Title game. The Jets, as mentioned, have LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, plus wildcat quarterback Brad Smith. Together, they account for the majority of the 148.4 yards a game that the Jets incur on the ground. Across the field, Pittsburgh’s run defense, thanks mostly to their veteran linebacking corps and Dick LeBeau’s knack for containment, give sup 62.8 yards a game, 28 yards less than the second place best run defense (Chicago). The Jets running game comes on strongest in the third quarter, generally if they can control time of possession. Keeping the Steelers defense on the field and keeping them guessing makes it easier as time elapses to turn 4 yard gains in 8 yard sprints. But if Pittsburgh shuts down the Jets runs early and force Sanchez to pass more, you may see a pick or two.
7. If the Jets can’t run, can Mark Sanchez take control?
What helped kill New England was the fact that the Jets’ offense was completely balanced, so there was few instances where New York was forced to favor run over pass and vice versa. After Baltimore, for the third time this season, generated little push in the running game (18 carries, 35 yards, two lost fumbles), the Steelers made Joe Flacco try to win it himself (especially after Roethlisberger gained command of the defense). That’s what Mark Sanchez may have to look forward to. This is Pittsburgh, and no team in football takes away the outside like them. The Jets broke 100 yards rushing on Pittsburgh on December 19 (106 yards on 27 carries as a team), so the Jets aren’t going to be afraid to keep running at them. In that previous meeting, Sanchez had a respectable line (19/29, 170 yards, 0 INT), so there’s still hope yet for him.
8. Can Ben Roethlisberger find stable ground on the Jets’ defense?
We just got done talking about how Roethlisberger is the guy you’d want driving the car in the fourth when you’re down a score, because the man seemingly has no butterflies in his stomach. Almost robotic in his delivery, Roethlisberger shows little adverse emotion when faced with the prospect of trying to pull out the win. However, going back to the December 19 game, where the Jets won 22-17, guess what happened? Roethlisberger tried to lead the Steelers downfield in the waning seconds, had several shots at the end zone, and couldn’t pull it off. The defense simply buckled down and, by sheer force of will, kept the two time Super Bowl winner from sealing the deal. In the very same game, Roethlisberger went 23 for 44, which means there were 21 incompletions. The Jets kept Peyton Manning and Tom Brady from finding consistency, and Roethlisberger sure isn’t immune either.
Man, if you thought Pittsburgh had a championship caliber team before, imagine if they hadn’t traded Santonio Holmes to New York. Just as Roethlisberger might be the best clutch quarterback in the game today, Holmes might be the best clutch wide receiver. After watching Anquan Boldin and TJ Houshmandzadeh blow possible game-changers the previous day, seeing Holmes have to spin around and slide on a knee just to haul in that crushing touchdown gives Mark Sanchez a cure for his sometimes erratic throws. Wallace, on the other hand, garners over twenty yards a catch on average, and is the perfect three-step drop receiver that would catch most defenses napping. So who would you take: the timely play maker, or the speedy streaker? Holmes can make Sanchez’s throws catchable, and Wallace can trump zone coverage with an accurate pass. It’s a toss-up, and neither man can afford to have an off-night on Sunday.
10. Which team will turn the ball over more?
Pittsburgh was facing a grim scenario on Saturday when Ben Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall coughed up fumbles that handed Baltimore a sizable lead. Just as sure as that, Pittsburgh topped Baltimore in the second half with a Ryan Clark pick and two fumble recoveries of their own. The Jets have been marvels lately at ball control, almost disguising Mark Sanchez’s lack of experience with a safe, smart, conservative offense. So, really, something’s gotta give. Turnovers are hard to predict, like any intangible, so this question is impossible to answer. But looking at the styles at hand, Pittsburgh prefers to force turnovers, whereas the Jets like to merely prevent completions with tight coverage. The former can make an offensive hesitant; the latter frustrates that offense. Pittsburgh may be more prone to coughing up the ball due to a brazen offensive style, whereas the Jets prefer quality control and complete clock management.
This might be the hardest game I’ve had to pick thus far in the postseason. I can envision a scenario where either team wins, and figure out how they’re going to do it. If Pittsburgh wins, it’ll be because they forced Sanchez to make bad throws and quickly capitalized on them for maximum points. If the Jets win, it’ll be with a slow-burning offense that isn’t afraid to smack Pittsburgh in the mouth, and challenge them around the outside. I don’t see this one being a blowout in either case, but rather a fourth quarter nail biter. Roethlisberger had to pull off a comeback to beat the Ravens, and Sanchez led an astonishingly polished drive to beat the Colts. Both teams, at their best, can convincingly beat the other. Both teams, in a battle filled with injuries and hard hits, could outlast the other. It’s a toss-up, but here goes nothing.
SCORE: Steelers 24, Jets 21
Join ESPN Insider today for the best sports analysis online, plus ESPN The Magazine!