Commentary

Jets' ticket to Big D depends on D

Cromartie will be under the microscope as Gang tries to stop Steelers' big-play QB

Updated: January 21, 2011, 9:16 AM ET
By Rob Parker | ESPNNewYork.com

It's too easy to look at New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and hitch the team's chances of making it to the Super Bowl to him.

If Sanchez plays well against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday night at Heinz Field, the Jets are in.

If he plays poorly, the Jets won't make it to their first Super Bowl in 42 years.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Cromartie
Stew Milne/US PresswireAntonio Cromartie should expect to be tested Sunday in Pittsburgh.

It's just not true.

Teams have won and won big -- we're talking Super Bowls -- without their young quarterbacks having banner days in such a huge spot.

When Tom Brady led the New England Patriots to their Super Bowl victory after the 2001 season, he threw a total of one touchdown in the entire playoffs, including the Super Bowl. He also had only one interception, maybe an even bigger number.

And when Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to their Super Bowl XL victory over the Seattle Seahawks in February 2006, he had no TD passes and two picks. In all, he had just 123 yards and a 22.6 quarterback rating. Not a pretty picture, but the Steelers still won.

Hence, the Jets can beat the Steelers as long as Sanchez doesn't make the big mistake. It's not so much that he has to have career numbers and play out of his mind. It's that he has to play smart and make the right decisions with the football.

In beating the New England Patriots this past Sunday -- and shocking NFL America -- Sanchez had three touchdown passes. More importantly, Sanchez didn't have a turnover. He didn't help the Pats at all, giving them a short field and setting up any easy scores.

That's what he has to do in Pittsburgh.

Still, Sanchez isn't the key. It's the defense.

This game pits two of the three best defenses in the league against each other. The Steelers are No. 1, and the Jets are No. 3. Many expect it to be a stingy football game in which one mistake, one big play will be the difference between going home or going to the Super Bowl.

The Jets -- who beat the Steelers 22-17 in December -- have to take advantage of Pittsburgh's leaky offensive line and get at Roethlisberger, bring him down and complete the play with a sack. In that much-needed victory Dec. 19, the Jets sacked him three times.

It's important because not only can Roethlisberger escape sacks, but he can turn a broken play into a big gainer downfield. Oftentimes, it's a back-breaker. Few have made more out of nothing than Roethlisberger over the past few seasons.

And most of the onus will be on cornerback Antonio Cromartie. Fair or not, it just will be.

Not because he opened his mouth and dissed the quarterback. That was last week, and, to his credit, Cromartie backed up his harsh words with stellar play.

The reason Cromartie will have to deliver in this big spot once again is that the Steelers are well aware of how the Jets beat the Pats in Foxborough. They stacked the middle of the field and took away all the underneath stuff. The Patriots -- lacking fast deep-ball threats -- didn't go up top.

The Steelers, however, throw the ball downfield. It's a part of their offensive game plan.

With cornerback Darrelle Revis on one side, probably defending star wideout Mike Wallace, there's a good chance the Steelers are going to throw deep, looking for a big play, and that the ball will come Cromartie's way.

If he can make some plays and stop the big play, the Jets will have an excellent shot to get to the Super Bowl in Texas.

Along with Wallace and veteran Hines Ward, the Steelers have two rookie receivers who can do damage in Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, who made the play of the game against the Baltimore Ravens this past weekend, a 58-yard reception to set up the game-winning TD.

In the previous four postseasons, only one home team -- the 2008 Green Bay Packers -- lost the conference championship game.

The Jets -- who have been a super road postseason team recently -- will need a lot more than just Sanchez to beat the Steelers and move on. They'll need their defense the most.

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