Let’s get one thing out of the way right off: I’m hearing a lot of people on blogs and talk shows saying things like “I don’t know if it really means anything that the Jets beat the Steelers (22-17) five weeks ago. It’s tough to beat a good team twice in one season.”
Well, sure, it’s tough to beat a good team twice in one season, but would you feel better about the Jets’ chances in the AFC championship game if they had been beaten by the Steelers?
Of course it means something that the Jets won that game.
It was a clutch win, one they absolutely needed heading into the playoffs, and it certainly should give them more confidence for Sunday’s game than if they had lost. And it points out once again that the Jets, for some peculiar reason, are a whole different team on the road: following their spectacular upset of the Patriots they are 8-2 outside the Meadowlands this season and just 5-3 at home.
Yes, styles make for a great games, and the Steelers are a much different team than the Patriots. But no matter how you cut it, the Patriots were everyone’s favorite to go all the way before they played the Jets, and if the Jets can beat New England, they can certainly beat Pittsburgh. And that’s not a prediction, it’s an evaluation.
Some points of interest for Sunday’s game. First, yes, it’s going to be very tough for New York to run on Pittsburgh’s third-ranked run defense, but the Jets have perhaps the best running game in the league. It may be even tougher for the Steelers to effectively run the ball on the Jets – Pittsburgh’s offensive line has had problems all season and New York, playing as they played against New England, could easily smother the Steelers’ ground game.
What does that mean? Just what you think: the best quarterback will win. Or, as Sports Illustrated‘s analyst Peter King puts it in the current issue: “This game will be all on Sanchez” throwing to “the league’s best boundary receiver in Santonio Holmes.” I might add that in Jerricho Cotchery, who made the big play against the Patriots with a 58-yard catch and run, and in Braylon Edwards, who dragged two New England defensive backs into the end zone with him on the TD that made it 14-3 at the half, the Jets might have the best trio of clutch wideouts in the game.
By the way, exactly how much of this game is “on Sanchez” is something most football writers haven’t grasped yet. After five playoff games, Sanchez’s passer rating is 92.2, better than both Ben Roethlisberger (88.7) and Tom Brady (85.7). No, he isn’t yet close to where they are in terms of career accomplishment, but he’s well on the way.
The real questions for the Jets in this game is not, I think, whether Sanchez will show up, but whether Rex Ryan can motivate his entire team for Pittsburgh the way he did for New England. On ESPN.com Gene Wojciechowski makes a telling observation: “He [Ryan] finds a motivational pressure point. He creates a specific reason to play that game and to despise that opponent. Then, he invents belief. By the time the kickoff arrives, Ryan has players convinced that the other team not only needs to be crushed, but that it deserves to be crushed. Doesn’t matter if it’s Mesa State or Bill Belichick’s Patriots.”
Ah, but what if it’s Mike Tomlin’s Steelers who, wise to Ryan’s tactics, have been relatively closed-mouthed all week and almost gentlemanly in their comments about the Jets? Can Ryan create hate where it doesn’t exist? All I can say is that I was cheered by Bart Scott’s tirade to ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio right after the Jets-Patriots game. After listening to Scott rant for nearly a full minute, Sal just smiled and said to Scott, “See you in Pittsburgh.” “Can’t wait!!” was Scott’s parting shot, and I’m betting he can’t.