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Saturday May 15 2021
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AFC Championship Preview

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Sunday night at 6:40, the temperatures will reach single digits, the winds will whip off the three rivers, and the Steelers and the Jets will meet at Heinz Field for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

The Chess Match between Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Steelers defensive guru Dick Lebeau could be the most interesting aspect of the AFC Championship Game. Schottenheimer has thrown everything—including the kitchen sink—at opposing defenses down the stretch and in wins over the Colts and Patriots. The Jets have run bootlegs, two-tight end sets, direct snaps, Wildcat, you name it. Schottenheimer's offense kept LeBeau's defense off-balance in New York's Dec. 19 win over the Steelers at Heinz Field. New York's Brad Smith—who Steelers linebacker James Farrior called   “a quarterback with some special skills”—returns to the Jet's line-up after missing their win over the Patriots. LeBeau also gets his X-Factor, safety Troy Polamalu, back for this game, a luxury he didn't have in the December match-up.

Troy Polamalu gives the Steelers defense a dimension they didn't have in their December loss to the Jets. He makes Pittsburgh's entire secondary better—witness Ryan Clark's Game of His Life last weekend—by his ability to freelance and make plays all over the field. But No. 43's presence may not be enough for the Steelers if No. 20—cornerback Bryant McFadden—is not able to play at close to 100 percent. McFadden has been dealing with hip and abdomen injuries and while he is not a Pro Bowler by any means, his presence is crucial to the Steelers' pass defense. The Jets trio of wideouts—Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery—plus tight end Dustin Keller will put serious pressure on the Steelers secondary. Without McFadden, William Gay becomes the starter, Anthony Madison the nickel and Keenan Lewis or Crezdon Butler the dime back. That's not a scenario that favors the Steelers.

The Steelers offensive line has been absolutely decimated by injury this season. By the time the fourth quarter of their playoff victory over the Ravens rolled around, Doug Legursky and Trai Essex were manning the tackle spots – essentially their fifth and sixth options at the position with starters Willie
Colon and Max Starks having been lost for the season and replacements Jonathan Scott and Flozell Adams sidelined temporarily due to injury and illness. Scott and Adams will be back this weekend, but the Steelers line is what it is. Adams is old and is a shadow of what he used to be; Scott is best-served as a back-up who can give you a dozen snaps here or there at various points over the course of a season. Yet the Steelers survived everything the Ravens threw at them. While the Jets love to blitz and do so with extreme efficiency, Pittsburgh won't face a stiffer test than Baltimore's front seven the rest of the way.

Rex Ryan loves to blitz and has earned his living constructing defenses that are very good at doing so. Yet the Jets dressed 11 defensive backs against Tom Brady and the Patriots, often rushing no more than four, with seven backs and linebackers backing off and sitting in coverage. The uncharacteristic maneuver didn't exactly confuse Brady, but he didn't have open receivers and the front four eventually forced him from the pocket and caused the play to break down. The longer their receivers are covered, the less dangerous quarterbacks like Brady and Manning become. The pocket collapses and the defense wins.

When the pocket collapses on Ben Roethlisberger, however, the battle is just beginning. It's not enough to pressure Big Ben. It's not enough to hit Big Ben. Pass rushers must bring Ben Ben to the ground, and as Jets defensive lineman Trevor Pryce said, "How do you prepare to tackle a guy as big as a polar bear?”

The longer a play lasts, the more dangerous Ben Roethlisberger becomes – and with veterans like Heath Miller and Hines Ward on the same page with their quarterback, the pressure shifts from the o-line to the d-backs.

Who gets sentenced to three hours on Revis Island? In December—with no Heath Miller on the field—Revis covered Hines Ward for most of the game. The Steelers' deep threat is Mike Wallace, who would likely struggle against Revis because of the cornerback's ability to play physical. Antonio Cromartie's turn-and-run ability makes him a good candidate to cover the speedy Wallace; with Revis's strength better-utilized against the more physical Ward. All four of the aforementioned players are All-Pro caliber, but it might be the match-up between Steelers' third receiver Emmanuel Sanders and Jets' nickel back Drew Coleman that affects the game the most. Sanders caught seven passes for 79 yards in the last match-up without tight end Heath Miller; he becomes more dangerous with Miller in the game.

Brad Smith returned the opening kick-off for a touchdown when these two teams last met. But that was hardly the only special teams advantage the Jets had over the Steelers. Three of Steve Weatherford's four punts pinned the Steelers deep in their own territory, while the Steelers Jeremy Kapinos had a net average of just 25 yards on four punts – a major reason the Steelers' 100-yard advantage in total yards was rendered negligible. The Steelers coverage units struggled against the Ravens as well, but were bailed out by penalties on the opening kick of the game and on Lardarius Webb's punt return late in the fourth quarter.

The combined records of the two quarterbacks in the AFC Championship Game is 13-3. Roethlisberger is 9-2 with two Super Bowl rings and is playing in his fourth conference title game in seven seasons in the league. Mark Sanchez is already 4-1 in his postseason history and is preparing for his second title game in two years. A look at how these two massively underrated quarterbacks rank among the winningest active quarterbacks in the postseason:

1. Tom Brady 14-5 (3)
2. Brett Favre 13-11 (1)
T3. Ben Roethlisberger 9-2 (2)
T3. Peyton Manning 9-10 (1)
T3. Donovan McNabb 9-7
T6. Matt Hasselbeck 5-6
T6. Jake Delhomme 5-3
T8. Eli Manning 4-3 (1)
T8. Drew Brees  4-3 (1)
T8. Mark Sanchez 4-1
T8. Joe Flacco 4-3

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