ESPN's Bottom Line - Version 2.0

Sunday, January 23, 2011

AFC Championship Preview: Jets vs. Steelers

Bart Scott leads the Jets' Defense now and he CAN'T WAIT to get reacquainted with Ben Roethlisberger

Today's late game is the AFC Championship between the New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Both teams feature punishing defenses and big name QBs with a lot to prove.  No other team has embraced and played in the image of their coach this season quite like the NY Jets have with coach Rex Ryan, they are loud and they demand respect.  The Steelers meanwhile played the first quarter of the season (going 3-1) without QB Ben Roethlisberger who was suspended to begin the year.  Each team has looked both dominant and easily beatable at times throughout the year but they have to play like the former today to get to the Super Bowl.

Roethlisberger has played great this year but it hasn't been easy playing behind possibly the most injured Offensive Line in the league.  At one point last week they had their season opening 4th and 5th string offensive tackles in the game. Ben led the Steelers to a 12-4 record along with winning their division despite getting routinely knocked around.  Second year WR Mike Wallace had a breakout season proving that his deep speed could get him open against almost anyone in the league.  Wallace has had at least a 40 yard catch in half of their regular season games to go with his 10 TDs this year.  He will have possibly the toughest matchup today when he'll face one of NY's great Cornerback tandem, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie.  Much has been made about this matchup and the question of who will face Wallace this weekend already.  Will it be Cromartie who has the better top end speed or Revis who has been the best CB in the NFL over the last few years?  If Wallace is nullified by their presence this game is going to come down to WR Hines Ward and RB Rashard Mendenhall.  Both of whom will still be in for a tough challenge as the Jets' defense ranked 6th against the pass and 3rd against the run this year.

The Jets offense is led by second year QB Mark Sanchez.  Although Sanchez has looked much better over the past few games, he really struggled at points this season.  Mark has a tendency to overthrow his targets at the beginning of games but fortunately he's had that great defense to hold other teams within reach.  New York's offense has a plethora of playmaking options for Sanchez to deliver the ball to.  He has star WRs in Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Jerricho Cotchery who are accompanied by Tight End Dustin Keller.  Out of the backfield the great RB LaDanian Tomlinson has looked like his old self lately and Sanchez's fellow second year man, Shonn Greene has finally started to show over the past few games why the Jets traded up to get him.  They'll be facing a fearsome Pittsburgh defense today led by last years' defensive MVP James Harrison and the ubiquitous Troy Polamalu.  The Steelers were #1 in the league against the run this year so look for a lot of Tomlinson catching screen passes out of the backfield much like the Ravens tried to do last week with Ray Rice.  This game could come down to Sanchez being accurate with his passes.  The Jets' WRs have the edge on Pittsburgh's Corners but not by much.  The ability of Polamalu and the rest of their linebackers to drop back into coverage means that Sanchez is going to have very little room for error this afternoon.

In my opinion today comes down to Sanchez's accuracy and Pittsburgh's Offensive Line keeping pressure off of Big Ben.  If those guys can be successful their team will stand a much greater chance of winning today's battle and getting to the Super Bowl.  At this point, I don't trust Sanchez to be able to make the clutch throws that he is going to need to make today.  He has showed flashes of being a great QB throughout the year and has often done so at the most critical times in a game (right at the end) so we could be in for a fantastic finish.  I just think that the Steelers are going to make him pay for any of the early in the game mistakes he's been prone to.  Steelers win today 24-20.

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