AFC Championship Game: Jets vs Steelers Preview, Prediction

On Sunday the New York Jets take on the Pittsburgh Steelers for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLV.  The Jets enter the game flying high off of victories over the Patriots and Colts, while the Steelers took care of the Ravens after a first round bye.  Lets take a look at some of the keys to the game which will be played at Heinz Field (6:30 EST).

Offense

Consistent Playcalling- New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has done an excellent job re-establishing the Jets “ground and pound” philosophy this postseason. On Sunday Schottenheimer must continue this trend against a tough, physical Steeler defense.  This game has the potential to be a low scoring, defensive battle that will put field position at a premium.  Brian must remain loyal to the running game, along with the short passing game that will keep the defense honest.  This is not the type of game where you start getting fancy with your formations and strategies.

Offensive line play- In order for the Jets offense to have success on Sunday the offensive line will have to play their best game of the year.  The Pittsburgh defense poses a variety of challenges as they play very aggressive against both the run and the pass.  The Jets offensive line must find ways to win the battles in the trenches in order to establish their running game.   There is a good chance that Pittsburgh will try to stack the box in order to force Mark  Sanchez to throw the ball, therefore Gang Green must come up with a scheme to handle the run blitz.

In terms of pass protection the Jets will have their hands full with James Harrison (10.5 sacks), LaMarr Woodley (10 sacks), and All-World safety Troy Polamalu.  Gang Green must remain consistent in protection and use max protect formations as needed.  In week 15 the Jets had a NYL Protection Index rating of 81.1 and that type of performance must be repeated on Sunday.  I would not be surprised to see the Jets use a variety of screen packages to try and slow down the pass rush.

Sanchez must shine- As mentioned earlier there is a very good chance that the Pittsburgh defense is going to stack the box and force Mark Sanchez to beat them with the passing game.  Sanchez must take what the defense gives him and not start to force throws down the field.  Mark has been very effective using the short passing game to open up the offense, and I expect  to see the same approach on Sunday. Look for Sanchez to target Dustin Keller and Jerricho Cotchery early on to get into the rhythm of the game.

Number one priority for Sanchez: 0 turnovers

Interesting stat: If the Jets win on Sunday quarterback Mark Sanchez will be the first quarterback in history of the NFL with 5 road playoff wins.  Not too bad for a second year quarterback.

Defense

Contain Big Ben- Even though the Jets defense has shut down the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady the last two weeks, they are going to face a completely different challenge defending Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday.   Roethlisberger is a strong, mobile quarterback that does an excellent job of escaping pressure and making big plays down the field.  The Jets defense must try to keep Big Ben in the pocket and finish off every chance they have to sack the Pittsburgh signal caller.  Roethlisberger is known to take some big hits and the Jets need to take advantage and try to generate some turnovers.

Pass coverage- The New York Jets secondary is going to be facing a dynamic Steelers passing attack that has several explosive weapons.  Wide receivers Hines Ward (5 tds) and Mike Wallace (10tds) have received the most attention, but rookies Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have started to emerge as well.  Add tight end Heath Miller to the mix and you can see how the Steelers could spread out the Jets defensive backfield.  Gang Green must come up with a solid defensive scheme that can disrupt the Steelers passing attack.

In terms of match-ups I would put Darrelle Revis on Mike Wallace and let Antonio Cromartie take on Hines Ward.  The key for all of the Jets defenders is to play physical and to not let the Steelers receivers get off the line easily.

Stop the run- The Steelers ground game features running back Rashard Mendenhall who had a breakout season in 2010 with over 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns.  The Jets defense must be able to contain Mendenhall along with the Steelers rushing attack in order to have success on Sunday.  If Pittsburgh’s ground game gets going, Gang Green could get exposed in the secondary with the play action pass.

Prediction

I think this is going to be a very close, physical game that is going to be decided by a turnover or a mental mistake in the fourth quarter.  Ok enough with the analyst talk.

As a long time Jets fan I could not be any more fired up for this Sunday’s AFC Championship game.  While there was plenty of excitement last year against the Colts in the AFC Championship game, I think in the back of our minds many of us knew that the Jets would come up short.  This year many, including yours truly, believe that Gang Green can get the job done and make their first appearance in the Super Bowl in over 40 years.

To me the New York Jets are on a mission as the team seems to be exorcising all of their football demons on the way to the Super Bowl.  Gang Green took care of Peyton Manning in the Wild Card round to wipe out the bitter post season defeat last year.  The Jets took care of the New England Patriots, their long time nemesis that routinely ruined their postseason dreams.  Now the team faces the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz field, a place where the playoff failures of Jets coach Herman Edwards and kicker Doug Brien still linger.

I honestly believe that the New York Jets are going to find a way to win this game and advance to the Super Bowl.  Whether it is with a huge special teams play, a defensive touchdown, or a touchdown strike by Mark Sanchez, Gang Green is getting the job done on Sunday.  Jets 17-14

The point spread shows the Steelers are favored, but check out these expert NFL picks to see if the Jets can pull the upset.

Side note: Recently I had a chance to interview former Jets great Victor Green and we discussed everything from the Jets vs Steelers match-up, to Rex Ryan, to Curtis Martin’s Hall of Fame bid. To listen to the interview click here. In addition check out Victor’s website www.classactsports.com where he posted an interview with Wayne Chrebet and will be breaking down the AFC Championship game.

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