In a thoroughly vindicating development for those of us who still believe in old school, execution-based, physical, power football built first and foremost on a dominant defense, the New York Jets will travel to Pittsburgh this weekend to take on the Lombardi-hogging Steelers at Heinz field. If you love football, this one is for you (it’s funny how often you will find me saying that about a high-profile matchup involving the Pittsburgh Steelers. Guess where I’m going with this…).
On the surface, the Jets and Steelers are similar squads in many regards. Both employ an aggressive base 3-4 defense that shuts down the run and constantly moves personnel around to limit pre-snap information available to the opposing quarterback. Most offenses are eventually rendered one-dimensional, allowing two of the brightest, most accomplished defensive minds in NFL history to focus their attention on the unfortunate opposing QB. More than one signal caller has stumbled off the field after a beating at the hands of a Dick LeBeau or Rex Ryan defense wondering where the hell that guy came from. And by “that guy,” I mean whichever guy (a) blasted the QB without the QB ever seeing him; OR (b) the guy who suddenly burst into the passing lane just as the QB released the ball and snatched himself a pick 6. These are dominant, physical defenses with the worst of intentions. Anyone stepping lightly into this game will be quickly exposed.
Unheralded but incredibly strong D-lines make these teams tough to run on. Each has defensive ends, like Shaun Ellis and Brett Kiesel, who do a lot of dirty work in the trenches. With the likes of Bart Scott, David Harris, Lawrence Timmons, Lamarr Woodley, James Farrior, and James Harrison we’re going to see smart, fast linebackers who hit the ball carrier like heat-seeking missiles. We’ll get some of the best defensive backs in the game, Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, matched up against ultra-talented receivers. We’ll see quarterbacks ruthlessly smacked. Maybe Big Ben’s nose will even be put back in place. Whatever happens, rest assured that the defenses in this game will be prepared, fast and physical.
The main contrast, if there is one, is on offense. The Jets have been much more committed to the running game than have the Steelers this season, for any number of reasons. Chief among those reasons on both sides is the play of the offensive line. New York’s outstanding offensive line, led by monster mash pivot Nick Mangold, had another strong season. Despite a few speed bumps, the Jets have been largely successful on the ground, and extremely successful when it matters most: grinding out clock and demoralizing opponents in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh, having lost both starting tackles before the season, has struggled to run the ball as consistently, and has allowed far too many sacks and hits on the quarterback.
Which brings us to one more key similarity. Both teams have the most important component of all: a quarterback for whom the moment is never too big.
Say whatever you will about Mark Sanchez, but make sure you say the following, because it is true: the kid is a winner and is at his best at the biggest moments, and has absolutely no fear. You doubters need to stop. He was born with these traits. I know this because I’ve seen him do it since he was literally a kid, quarterbacking the powerhouse Mission Viejo High School squad just down the road. He did it at USC, and he’s been doing it in New York. His Jets team won several games this year on the arm of the Sanchize in a fourth-quarter or overtime drive. All those plays Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards make? The ball is there, almost every time (no quarterback experienced more dropped passes this season than Sanchez, by the way, so make sure to note that if you blame him for the team’s occasional struggles to sustain drives).
Meanwhile, no further evidence of Big Ben’s greatness should be required at this point, but since there still seem to be those who don’t quite get it, let’s present some. Already a two-time Super Bowl champion only six years into his NFL career, Big Ben is often overlooked among the great QB’s because he plays for the Steelers and put up somewhat pedestrian early-career statistics. But as I remind anyone who will listen, the Steelers did not win a Super Bowl between Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger despite having some damn fine football teams in the intervening two decades. He brings unique abilities to the table, particularly in the “extend the play and make something out of nothing after it breaks down” department. Yes, his tendency to hold the ball behind a suspect offensive line gets him hit too much, but Mike Tomlin is going to live with that given all the big plays and wins that follow. Ben is enormous, so even a sizeable linebacker latching on for a sack looks like a housecat trying to bring down a wildebeest. And, in case you haven’t noticed, the Steelers have gone all-in with Ben as the centerpiece of their offense. They are now a pass-first team, and it’s working. Check the numbers.
When it comes down to it, these are both outstanding, deserving teams, and either would be a worthy representative of the AFC in Dallas. I can see either team winning. The Steelers are at home, have the playoff pedigree and experience, and as I always say: they just know how to win. Those 6 Sticky Lombardis prove it. The Jets are a brash young bully that has already largely proven its chops, making this AFC Championship Game in each of the first two years of the Rex-Sanchize Era. Moreover, they’ve just put sleeper holds on Peyton Manning’s Colts and Tom Brady’s Patriots in very impressive back-to-back road playoff wins. Both defenses are playing extremely well, both quarterbacks are playing well, and both coaches continue to get the most out of top-shelf talent. Like I said, there really are a lot of similarities.
Before the season, I wrote a guest preview of the Jets for a fantastic but now-defunct Jets blog, the Jets Kvetch. I predicted in there that the Jets would be back here as one of the final four, so it comes as no great shock to me. The Steelers don’t surprise me now, but I did not see this coming before the games began. Pittsburgh struggled mightily in 2009, their offensive line was a sieve, Big Ben was in more trouble and was going to miss the first four games…and yet, here they are, 12-4, AFC North champs, and the hosts of the AFC Championship Game. This is just what they do, people.
And that’s why I’m taking them to win what I expect to be a fantastic and crazy-physical football game this Sunday. I expect to see both teams land a haymaker or two- perhaps a Mike Wallace deep ball or Hines Ward touchdown pass for the Steelers, or a Brad Smith reverse (if he plays) or a bomb to Santonio, who will certainly be prepared to make one of his vintage Hydro catches, for the Jets. I think we’ll see both quarterbacks playing well as they float precariously on a sea of pressure. And I think the game will come down to one big stop on defense for the Steelers, perhaps one of those uncalled, supernatural Troy Polamalu blitzes off the edge. I guarantee you we’ll see a healthy number of shudder-inducing hits. I will not be remotely surprised if the Jets win. But ultimately, I just have too much faith Tomlin, Roethlisberger, LeBeau, and in the killer instinct and finishing ability of the Pittsburgh Steelers at home in a game to go to the Super Bowl. STEELERS 20, JETS 17.