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Tomlin Report - AFC Championship

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For the second time in three seasons, Heinz Field will host an AFC Championship Game. After rallying to beat the Ravens in last week's slugfest, the Steelers get a chance to avenge their regular season loss to the New York Jets. The Road to Dallas goes through Pittsburgh this Sunday at 6:40.

Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4) vs. New York Jets (13-5)
Sunday, January 23 – 6:30 PM on CBS
Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA

 
LAST WEEK
Jets: Beat the Patriots 28-21 in New England
· New York backed up a week’s work of confident trash-talking by knocking off the top team in the AFC in the New England Patriots.
· The Jets were riding the rollercoaster early. New York picked off Tom Brady, something no team has been able to do since mid-October, yet failed to cash in when Nick Folk missed a field goal.
· Instead, it was New England that put points on the board first, settling for a 34-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
· While the defense pressured Brady, the Jets offense started cashing in on solid starting field position. New York took the lead in the second quarter when Mark Sanchez found
· Late in the half, New England made a crucial mistake, gambling on a fake punt that failed to gain a first down. Four plays later, Sanchez found Braylon Edwards on a 15-yard connection that gave the Jets a 14-3 halftime lead.
· The Patriots finally executed on a drive at the end of the third quarter with Brady hitting TE Alge Crumpler for a two-yard touchdown, followed by a two-point conversion by RB Sammy Morris., bringing the Pats within three points down 14-11.
· The Jets answered five players later when Santonio Holmes hauled in a seven-yard pass in the corner of the endzone.
· New England looked to answer on a drive of its own but bypassed a long field goal and failed to convert a fourth-and-thirteen. The team would wait until after the two-minute warning to get that field goal.
· However, the Patriots failed to recover the onside kick and watched Shonn Greene rumble into the endzone for a 16-yard score two plays later, setting the score at 28-14 in favor of the Jets.
· Brady would add a late touchdown to Deion Branch but it was too little, too late and the Jets moved on to the next round.
· The Jets defense sacked Brady five times and intercepted him for the first time since week five.
· WR Jerricho Cotchery had a solid outing working out of the slot, catching five passes for 96 yards.

Steelers: Beat the Ravens 31-24 in Pittsburgh
· Pittsburgh endured a poor first half performance but came out firing in the second, rallying past the Ravens en route to the AFC Championship game.
· Each team picked up a touchdown early thanks to penalty-aided drives. Rashard Mendenhall cashed in from a yard out to open the scoring for Pittsburgh with Ray Rice dashing 14 yards for an answering score for the Ravens.
· The Ravens took the lead on a strange play on the next drive. Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs sacked Ben Roethlisberger, forcing the ball to the turf, where it sat until DT Cory Redding alertly realized it was a live ball. Redding returned it for a touchdown before either team figured out what happened and the Ravens took a 14-7 lead.
· A fumble by Rashard Mendenhall in the second quarter allowed Baltimore to take a 21-7 lead when Joe Flacco hit TE Todd Heap for a four-yard touchdown. That score would stand at the half.
· In the second half, the Pittsburgh defense stepped up with Ryan Clark forcing a fumble. Roethlisberger turned that fumble into points by hitting TE Heath Miller for a nine-yard score.
· An interception by Clark set up the tying score as Big Ben found Hines Ward for an eight-yard touchdown, pulling the teams even at 21-all.
· A third turnover by the Ravens in the third quarter set up a 35-yard field goal by Shaun Suisham, giving Pittsburgh the lead at 24-21.
· The Ravens appeared to take the lead later in the fourth when Lardarius Webb took a punt return to the house, but it was called back by a holding penalty. Instead, Baltimore settled for a tie game with a 24-yard Billy Cundiff field goal.
· On the ensuing drive, Big Ben took over with a little help from sixth-round rookie Antonio Brown. On third-and-nineteen, Ben found Brown streaking down the field for a 58-yard pass play, leading to a game-winning two-yard run by Mendenhall.
· After one more defensive stop, Pittsburgh hit the showers with a 31-24 win that will send them to the AFC Championship Game.
· The defense picked up five sacks on the day, with James Harrison contributing three. LaMarr Woodley and Ziggy Hood also had sacks.

BEHIND ENEMY LINES
A Look Around the AFC North
Baltimore
(13-4) came up short again in the playoffs and fell to the Steelers in the postseason for the second time in three years. Offseason acquisitions Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh came up small in the biggest game of the season, dropping a number of catchable passes that doomed the offense throughout the game.

With their season over, the Ravens dove right into the offseason and started working towards keeping valuable assets. The team plans to give head coach John Harbaugh an extension in the coming weeks and Harbaugh plans to keep offensive coordinator Cam Cameron on staff for another season. NFL kickoff-leader Billy Cundiff is also negotiating a contract extension. There is a bit of uncertainty surrounding two members of the team as WR Derrick Mason and C Matt Birk are both contemplating retirement.

Cleveland (5-11) finally named its head coach for the 2011 NFL season (if there is one) in former-Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Shurmur will likely assume play-calling duties for an offense featuring a second-year quarterback in Colt McCoy. Shurmur oversaw the impressive rookie season of Sam Bradford in St. Louis and could help McCoy take the next step as a passer.

Things are a little murkier on defense with the departure of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan (brother of Rex). Rob departed to fill the same role for the Dallas Cowboys under Jason Garrett. The rumored favorite to replace Ryan as defensive coordinator of the Browns is former-Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt.

Cincinnati (4-12) is moving slowly this offseason with Marvin Lewis taking an extended look at his personnel, both on the field and off. The Bengals currently have no assistant coaches under contract, though it is likely that offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski will return to the team. As far as on the field, TE Jermaine Gresham is the only pass catcher signed beyond the 2011 season. The team did pick up an option to keep WR Chad Ochocinco this season, but he and Lewis feuded often in 2010 and the question is whether or not the two can coexist on the same team anymore.

ROAD TO THE SUPER BOWL
With both No. 1 seeds out of the tournament, the NFL will feature a pair of 2 vs. 6 matchups this weekend. The Jets and Steelers will meet after knocking off their biggest division rivals.

The NFC is a week late on the divisional theme as two teams from the NFC North, the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers, square off with the winner earning a trip to the Super Bowl. The Bears ended the Cinderella hopes of the Seattle Seahawks with a strong performance on defense and a solid game from QB Jay Cutler. The Packers are looking especially dangerous after knocking off top-seeded Atlanta on Saturday. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers played lights-out against the Falcons, putting up the fourth-best playoff performance by a quarterback in the last 18 years (according to Football Outsiders).

MIKE LIKED…
The performance of second-year DE Ziggy Hood against the Ravens. When asked if it was his best game, Tomlin responded by hoping that his “best” game was yet to come.

Hood made five tackles and picked up a sack against Baltimore.

STEELERS INJURY UPDATE
LT Jonathan Scott (undisclosed) left the Ravens game with an injury and did not return. Tomlin said that “he is going to be all right,” and he’ll be PROBABLE for Sunday.
CB Will Allen has a knee sprain and will be limited in practice early in the week, but should be PROBABLE against the Jets.
CB Bryant McFadden will also be limited with an abdomen injury and is also PROBABLE.
S Troy Polamalu will continue to sit out of early practices but should be good-to-go this weekend and is PROBABLE.
DE Aaron Smith (triceps) will practice this week, though it is unclear whether he will return to live action this weekend. His participation will be based on how he practices and he is likely QUESTIONABLE to play. If he does play, Tomlin said he will be held to a set number of snaps.

JETS INJURY UPDATE
WR/KR Brad Smith did not play against New England on Sunday, but is expected to suit up against Pittsburgh. Smith returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown the last time these two teams met. Expect Smith to be PROBABLE for this contest.

MAIN STORYLINE FOR SUNDAY
How much of an impact will Heath Miller and Troy Polamalu make against the Jets in the Championship Game? Neither was active when the two teams met in the regular season, when New York snuck out of Pittsburgh with a 22-17 win.

JETS TO WATCH
QB Mark Sanchez; RBs LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene; FB Tony Richardson; WRs Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and Brad Smith; TE Dustin Keller; LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson; C Nick Mangold; DE Shaun Ellis; ILBs Bart Scott and David Harris; OLB Calvin Pace; CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie

LOCAL CONNECTIONS
* WR Santonio Holmes was originally a first-round draft pick of the Steelers in 2006 and was the MVP of Pittsburgh’s 2008 Super Bowl win. Holmes was traded to the Jets during the offseason.
* CB Darrelle Revis is from Aliquippa High and played collegiately at Pitt.
* DE Jason Taylor is from Pittsburgh and played at Woodland Hills High.
* Quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh was born in Youngstown (OH), played at Pitt and twice coached at Pitt (1991-93, 2005-08).
* Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine coached at Pitt from 1993-94.

ACCORDING TO TOMLIN
“Oftentimes when you get to this leg of the journey you say that you are into the AFC Championship. I wanted to make that point clear to our team yesterday. I told them that the game was Sunday at 6:30 p.m. This is the week of the game for us. We need to take an opportunity to make really good use of this time, this preparation time and prepare ourselves for what is going to be an exciting football game versus the Jets.”
– Talking about the mindset of the team during Championship week.

“Defensively a myriad of looks, a bunch of people, boy they suited 11 defensive backs last week versus the New England Patriots. And they probably used just about all of them. But that is a signature of Coach Ryan’s football. Different personnel groups, they are capable of blitzing you, capable of dropping eight or nine into coverage, and you are going to see just about all of that and everything in between from these guys.” – Discussing the unpredictability of New York’s defense. The Jets, one of the more aggressive blitz teams during the regular season, primarily used three or four-man rushes and focused on coverage against the Tom Brady and the Patriots.

“They’re executing at an extremely high level. They’re a big volume team, they have a unique menu. The range of things that you could see from them defensively is great.  They can all-out (blitz); they can bring a myriad of people. They can play coverage. That is and has been their personality even dating back to when Coach Ryan was in Baltimore.  So it was an execution-oriented performance, and to say anything other than the fact that they executed at a high level would be to discredit their performance.” – When asked if the Jets’ recent success defensively has been about better execution or a better gameplan.

“We need to stop Brad Smith from going 97 yards. That would be a good start.” – When asked what the Steelers need to do on special teams this time around. Smith opened the regular season matchup with a 97-yard kickoff return, putting Pittsburgh in an early 7-0 hole.

“That was an ugly scene, wasn’t it? But a beautiful one at the same time. We appreciate Flozell. We appreciate his intentions. His intentions are very pure. This guy wants to win. He wants to be a part of a winner. He’s put his hand in the pile and been a great contributor to our journey thus far, and we look forward to continuing that this weekend.” – On Flozell Adams’ wish to re-enter the game when LT Jonathan Scott was injured. The coaching staff prevented him from going back onto the field. Adams started the game but left with an illness and did not return, but is feeling better this week and is likely to play on Sunday.

“It is.  I love Rex. Rex has a lot of fun with [the media], but when you see past all of those things, this is a great football coach. He has the pulse of his football team. He does a great job of motivating them, is very sound schematically in all three phases, and his glass is always half full. I appreciate that.” – When asked if the feeling is mutual concerning comments made by Rex Ryan saying the Tomlin is one of his favorite coaches.

“Win.” – On what it means to be a Steeler.

LOOK FOR…
A less hostile atmosphere than last week’s matchup -- for both teams. There is mutual respect between the coaches and players of the Jets and Steelers, much like there is between the Ravens and Steelers. However, there isn’t the added rivalry/hatred shown in the Ravens-Steelers and Jets-Patriots matchups.

SPLASH TALK
“Santonio is Santonio. He is a great red-zone threat. He has great hands. He is extremely difficult after the catch because of his vision and broken-field running ability.”
– On former-Steeler Santonio Holmes, who was traded to the Jets during the offseason for a fifth-round pick.

I’ve been in the league 10 years. I haven’t been around a receiver who didn’t think he was open.” – On comments apparently made by Hines Ward suggesting that he was open against Darrelle Revis in the two teams’ regular season contest.

“I think when you’re at home you appreciate the fact that you’re at home, sleeping in your own bed if that’s an option, driving to the stadium, being home 20 minutes or so after you walk out of the stadium. Those are things that I enjoy about being at home. We enjoy the support of our crowd, but in terms of what goes on inside the white lines, the team that makes the critical plays at the critical moments is going to win. Home or away is a factor; it’s not the ultimate or deciding factor.” – When asked if the team’s preparation changes between when they’re home or away.

THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO HMM…
Courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau: The Steelers ignored the percentages and came back from a 21-7 halftime deficit to defeat the Ravens, 31-24, to advance to the AFC Championship Game. The percentages? Coming into Saturday's game, teams leading by exactly 14 points at halftime had won 94 percent of NFL postseason games, and teams leading by 14-or-more points at any time during the second half had won 96 percent of those games.

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