Commentary

Ten key questions for AFC title game

Who'll be the hero? The goat? Who'll be stuck on Revis Island? Read on for answers

Updated: January 22, 2011, 8:38 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

PITTSBURGH -- It's the trash-talking upstarts from New York versus the laid-back, tradition-steeped franchise from Pittsburgh.

The Sanchize versus Big Ben.

Rex Ryan's sweater vest versus Terrible Towels.

So many storylines, but just one game -- and it could be a classic.

The New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers, who play Sunday for the AFC championship, are built the same way -- physical teams that rely on strong defenses and power-running games. In this matchup, "finesse" is a dirty word, akin to a Ryan F-bomb.

"How you play a physical football team like this is, you smack them in the mouth," Jets safety James Ihedigbo said. "You play physical from the first play and let them know what time it is the whole day. That's what we're planning to do."

[+] EnlargeJason Taylor
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPittsburgh native Jason Taylor was clutch when the Jets last visited the Steelers. Can he do it again?

Because you "Can't Wait!" anymore, here are 10 key questions:

1. If the Jets reach the Super Bowl, where would their playoff run rank from a historical perspective?

It would be an all-timer, without question. It would be their first trip to the Super Bowl since Broadway Joe in 1969, and they'd be only the second No. 6 seed from the AFC to make it since the current playoff format began in 1990. Considering the quarterbacks they will have defeated -- Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger -- you could argue it would be the greatest postseason run ever.

2. What can the Jets take out of their last meeting with the Steelers, a 22-17 victory at Heinz Field?

Actually, a lot. The victory was big from a confidence standpoint, but they didn't play well enough to be over-confident. The Jets allowed 378 total yards, needing a safety, a kickoff-return touchdown and a last-second deflection to secure the win. It was a humbling game for the front seven, which was gashed by the Steelers' rushing attack.

3. Are the Jets going to approach Roethlisberger differently than Manning and Brady?

In the first two playoff games, the Jets dialed back their pressure schemes, rushing four or fewer on 87 percent of the dropbacks -- a dramatic shift from their usual style. Why mess with a good thing?

Roethlisberger presents a different set of problems because of his ability to extend plays outside the pocket, but the coverage-based approach also should be effective against Big Ben. In straight man-to-man, the defenders' backs are turned to the quarterback -- not ideal against Roethlisberger. Don't be surprised if they deploy a "spy" in certain third-down situations.

4. Can the Jets run the ball against the Steelers?

It's hard to imagine them topping the 106-yard output from the previous meeting. That was a good day because the Steelers' top-ranked run defense yields only 63 yards per game. This time, Pittsburgh will have Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, who is back from an Achilles-related injury. Polamalu is hard to locate and hard to block, and he can wreck a running game. The Jets may have to rely on scheme over power, using spread formations to force the Steelers' second-level players to play in space.

5. Which player needs to have a monster game for the Jets to win?

Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold, who has to block mammoth nose tackle Casey Hampton. The Jets are No. 2 in the league in rushing first downs up the middle; the Steelers allowed only 2.9 yards per carry up the middle. In other words, something has to give. Mangold won the last battle against Hampton, as the Jets averaged 3.9 per rush behind their powerful center.

6. What is Mark Sanchez's biggest concern?

That's easy -- the dude with the hair, Polamalu. In the previous meeting, Sanchez was 9-for-9 on pass attempts between the numbers, as the Jets took control of the middle of the field. It was the first time in three seasons the Steelers allowed a perfect completion percentage over the middle in a single game. It's going to be hard to duplicate that feat with Polamalu roaming the area.

Privately, though, some Jets players wonder if Polamalu still is banged up. They noticed he was used primarily in deep coverage last week against the Baltimore Ravens, not as an "in-the-box" safety.

7. Which Pittsburgh receiver will be stranded on Revis Island?

From all indications, the Jets are going to employ the same matchups as last time: Darrelle Revis on Hines Ward and Antonio Cromartie on Mike Wallace. Why not change it up, considering Wallace's 102-yard game? Wallace is a perimeter player with vertical speed, ideal for Cromartie, who struggles against physical receivers who run in-breaking routes -- guys like Ward.

The receivers who concern the Jets' coaches are Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, both rookies who can fly.

8. How about a wild card?

Hello, Steve Weatherford. Lately, his directional punting has been the pits, with six touchbacks in the last two games. The Jets can't afford to give away that much hidden yardage, especially in a game that figures to be based on field position. For what it's worth, Weatherford punted very well in his last trip to Heinz Field.

9. Who might be an unexpected Jets hero?

He made the biggest defensive play in the previous meeting -- a safety -- and don't be surprised if Jason Taylor comes up big again. Taylor, playing in his hometown, will be matched against a turnstile left tackle named Jonathan Scott. (Calvin Pace also will get his cracks at Scott.) Taylor knows this could be the final game of his career, his one chance to reach a Super Bowl, and he will empty his tank.

10. What about a potential goat?

Most folks will say Nick Folk, who missed a short field goal last week, but it's easy to pick the kicker, especially in a stadium notorious for poor kicking conditions. (Doug Brien flashbacks, anyone?)

Let's go outside the box and say Santonio Holmes. The former Steeler has made so many clutch plays for the Jets, but he's also had a handful of drops and a few mental lapses. He's looking for payback against his old team, and sometimes that emotion can backfire.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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