Monday, January 17, 2011

AFC Championship Preview

Having dismantled the New England Patriots in a game that would prove their seemingly endless stream of trash-talk valid, the New York Jets are moving on the their second consecutive AFC Championship game under quarterback Mark Sanchez. They advance to face a daunting task - beating the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, where the Ravens saw Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers' defense mount an incredible comeback to win 31-24 and advance to the AFC championship after trailing 21-7 at halftime.

Expect to see a defensive battle in which each team will look to establish an efficient run-game immediately - the Jets splitting carries between Ladanian Tomlinson (who looks to advance to his first Super Bowl appearance in what has proven to be a storied career) and power-runner Shonn Greene, and the Steelers looking to their primary running back Rashard Mendenhall. While neither team is built to play from behind, the Steelers are significantly more comfortable and experienced in doing such, specifically due to the fact that their offense is run by Ben Roethlisberger, who is renowned for leading comebacks in late-game situations. Led by young, second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez, the Jets must establish an early lead and rely on a balanced offensive attack coupled with a defensive effort that forces the Steelers to throw at cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie.

Key matchups:

 Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie vs. Mike Wallace and Hines Ward -

Ben Roethlisberger will likely look to go deep early on, whether on a play-action fake or in a situation in which he recognizes man-to-man coverage. Will Darrelle Revis keep his assigned receivers on the famed "Revis Island", or will the Steelers do what few teams have in the past and find success attacking Revis individually? Will Antonio Cromartie again get beat on a deep route, as he did in the wild-card game, against the Colts? Or, as many fans and experts alike have speculated, will the Steelers be forced to establish a run-game before considering taking to the air?

Steelers' offensive line vs. Jets' "blitz-happy" defense -

Rex Ryan and the Jets' coordinators are renowned around the league for their blitz-first mentality. Will they find success against the Steelers once again, as they did in their week 15 matchup in which Ben Roethlisberger was sacked three times, and could rarely get comfortable in the pocket? The answer to this question, specifically in the early portion of the game, may be a significant factor that could determine the tempo for either team as the game goes on.

Led by electric safety Troy Polamalu, the Steelers' relentless defense will inevitably prove too much for Mark Sanchez and the Jets' offense. Expect the Jets to stray from their usual blitz-first defensive mentality as they fall behind early, and for them to become dependent on their pass-game. Coming off a game in which their defense stifled the formerly high-flying New England Patriots, I simply cannot see the Jets doing it again against a team with a significantly better defense then New England - the Pittsburgh Steelers, who I have advancing to their second Super Bowl in three years.

My prediction? 31-17, Steelers.