6:30 PM ET, January 23, 2011
Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
Three teams -- and three of the NFL's highest-profile quarterbacks -- have represented the AFC in the past seven Super Bowls, a trend that can continue Sunday at Heinz Field with a victory by Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Don't expect the New York Jets to be intimidated.
The sixth-seeded Jets have gotten through Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to punch a ticket to their second straight AFC championship game, leaving Roethlisberger's Steelers as the last obstacle to their first Super Bowl appearance in 42 years.
With rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez and rookie head coach Rex Ryan, New York was a surprise participant in last season's conference championship game, a 30-17 loss in Indianapolis.
The Jets were among the favorites to win the AFC heading into this season, but the same couldn't be said as they entered the playoffs as the No. 6 seed -- a path only the 2005 Steelers have taken to a Super Bowl victory.
That road started with a rematch against the Colts that Ryan called "personal" between himself and Manning. New York won 17-16, leading to a game with an even more significant revenge factor.
The Jets (13-5) didn't let a 45-3 drubbing by Brady and the Patriots in Week 13 diminish their confidence. After Ryan and many Jets players spent the week needling New England in the media, they backed up their words last Sunday in a 28-21 upset of the NFL's top team behind Sanchez's three touchdown passes.
"We don't care what people say or whether they like us," All-Pro cornerback and Pittsburgh native Darrelle Revis said. "We just focus on what we need to do to win games."
The Jets aren't just winning -- they're threatening to shake up a conference that's been dominated by three teams for much of the last decade. Manning's Colts, Brady's Patriots and Roethlisberger's Steelers have represented the AFC in every Super Bowl since 2003.
After getting past Brady and Manning, it's only fitting what's standing between New York and its first appearance on the league's grandest stage since Super Bowl III.
"Big Ben, he's next on our list," receiver Braylon Edwards said.
Roethlisberger has the Steelers (13-4) in their fourth AFC championship game in his seven years in the league after it looked like his team might be one-and-done at halftime last Saturday against Baltimore.
Two turnovers helped put Pittsburgh in a 21-7 hole, but Roethlisberger led it back. The two-time Super Bowl winner threw two third-quarter TDs to tie the score, then completed a 58-yard pass to rookie Antonio Brown on third-and-19 late in the fourth, setting up Rashard Mendenhall's score to punctuate a 31-24 victory.
"(Ben) may not be Brady or all those other guys, but when I see him in the huddle I know we've got a chance to win," receiver Hines Ward said. "He's a proven winner."
Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie seems to agree. A week after calling Brady an expletive, Cromartie had nothing but praise for Roethlisberger, who's 9-2 in the postseason.
"I love Ben, man," said Cromartie. "Ben's a competitor."
Ryan says facing the 6-foot-5, 241-pound Roethlisberger is hardly the same as preparing for Manning or Brady, the latter of whom the Jets sacked five times Sunday.
"(Manning and Brady) approach things a little different," said Ryan, who lost the 2009 AFC title game in Pittsburgh as Baltimore's defensive coordinator. "Roethlisberger will beat you up. ... I've never seen a guy take the hits he can take and also make people miss the way he does and be as accurate on the run."
The speedy Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace give Roethlisberger plenty of chances to make plays down the field, but the Jets largely eliminated those options in Week 15 at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger averaged a season-low 6.0 yards per attempt in a 22-17 loss.
"They're a really good defense," Roethlisberger said. "They try and confuse. That's the big thing they do. ... You don't know where people are lining up and how to identify them.
"The Jets' defense beat the two best quarterbacks in the game at their place. I don't know how I'm going to do it."
With Cromartie and Revis likely shadowing Ward and Wallace, that could leave some room in the middle for tight end Heath Miller, who missed the regular-season meeting with a concussion.
Also sitting out that game was All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, who's now playing despite a strained Achilles'. Pittsburgh is 31-8 with Polamalu in the lineup since 2008 and 6-7 without him.
Jets wideout and former Steeler Santonio Holmes called Polamalu the "greatest player" he has ever seen play in person.
With plenty of game-changing players in the secondary, running could be key even though Pittsburgh and New York finished first and third, respectively, in rush defense. The Jets ran for 106 yards behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Green in the regular-season meeting while Mendenhall had 99 of Pittsburgh's 146.
Both totals were the most either defense has allowed.
While many doubted Sanchez's ability to win a game through the air, he didn't look like a quarterback who's merely a caretaker Sunday. Sanchez is 4-1 on the road in the postseason, and his playoff passer rating is 92.2 -- 22.0 higher than in the regular season.
One Jet who may be more motivated than most Sunday is Holmes, the Super Bowl XLIII MVP who Pittsburgh traded for a fifth-round pick in April following his repeated off-field troubles.
Holmes insists he's not out for revenge.
"I got a chance to beat those guys the first time around," Holmes said. "I don't care about the Steelers right now. ... If we win the Super Bowl, that's a slap back in (their) face for trading me. But right now it's not a focus of mine."
Pittsburgh, which is 5-5 in conference championship games at home, will certainly be monitoring the health of Jets return man Brad Smith. Smith returned the opening kickoff for a score in Week 15 but missed last week's game with a groin injury.
Special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff said Smith "absolutely" will return kicks Sunday night, barring a setback.
More from ESPN.com
Bruschi's Breakdown: Patriots-Jets
Pats have to be ready for anything against nothing-to-lose Rex Ryan.
O'Connor: Belichick's exit was Jets' worst day
Bill Belichick's exit was the worst day in New York Jets history.
Jets' Richardson: I'm on same level as Watt
One year after being named the NFL's top defensive rookie, New York Jets standout Sheldon Richardson believes he's just as good as any defensive lineman in the league, including J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans.
CB Thomas rips Jets for hands-off approach
On his first day with the Detroit Lions, former New York Jets cornerback Josh Thomas said coaches there didn't really engage with him while he was a player, either.
Jets-Steelers: 10 observations
After breaking down film of both teams, Scouts Inc. offers 10 things to watch in the Jets-Steelers AFC Championship Game on Sunday.
1. Creative play calling by Brian Schottenheimer: In the teams' Week 15 matchup, the Jets' offensive coordinator was dialed in and seemed to make all the right calls. We saw naked bootlegs. We saw QB Mark Sanchez fake a bad snap out of the shotgun as RB LaDainian Tomlinson took the snap. We saw three-tight end, two-back sets that the Jets threw out of. The Jets used an extra TE on 22 snaps to improve pass protection, and it seemed to keep Pittsburgh off balance. In the Jets' win over the Patriots at Foxborough on Sunday, we even saw some Wildcat plays with Tomlinson and a heavy run set with two TEs. Sanchez knows he will see pressure and a lot of pre-snap movement from Pittsburgh, and he must locate safety Troy Polamalu before every snap. But this is the ultimate chess match between Schottenheimer and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
Recent Blog Posts
|Avg Points Allowed||20.3||21.5|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||NYJ|
|Rush Yds Allowed||NYJ|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Pittsburgh leads 4-3|
|Dec 19, 2010||NYJ 22, @PIT 17|
|Nov 18, 2007||NYJ 19, PIT 16|
|Jan 15, 2005||NYJ 17, @PIT 20|
|Dec 12, 2004||NYJ 6, @PIT 17|
|Dec 14, 2003||NYJ 6, PIT 0|
|Dec 9, 2001||NYJ 7, @PIT 18|
If the Jets beat the Steelers Sunday, they will have 8 postseason road wins, the 2nd most by any franchise in the Super Bowl era.[+]
Most Postseason Road Wins - Super Bowl Era (Since 1966)
Big Ben is not stranger to AFC Title games as this will be his 4th in just his 7th year in the league. After losing to the Patriots in his second season, Roethlisberger has been near-perfect in conference championship games as he has not thrown a pick in 62 attempts leading the Steelers to Super Bowl 40 and 43.[+]
Ben Roethlisberger - Career in AFC Championship Games
With a win against Pittsburgh on Sunday, Mark Sanchez could become just the 5th quarterback to start in the Super Bowl within the first 2 seasons of his NFL career. To do so he will have to defeat the last man to accomplish the feat, Ben Roethlisberger who started Super Bowl XL against the Seahawks in just his 2nd season in the league. Each of the last 3 QB's to start in a Super Bowl in one of their first 2 seasons led their team to victory, with Tom Brady and Kurt Warner both being named Super Bowl MVP.[+]
With a win Sunday the Jets would become just the 9th team since the NFL merger to defeat the Steelers in both the regular season and the postseason in the same season. However New York would become just the 2nd team during that span to win both games on the road in Pittsburgh. One good omen for the Jets is the only team to accomplish the feat is the 2007 Jaguars who defeated the Steelers in at Heinz Field in the Wild Card round after winning there during Week 15. The Jets won in Pittsburgh in Week 15 of this season. The one bad omen for the Jets is only one of the previous 8 teams able to defeat the Steelers in the regular season and postseason in the same year went on to win the Super Bowl, and that was the 1976 Raiders, the first team to have done so.[+]
Teams To Defeat Steelers In Regular Season and Postseason
From Elias: Big Ben will become the 8th starting quarterback since 1970 to start in at least 4 conference title games in his 1st 7 seasons.[+]
Most Conf Title Game Appearances - By Starting QB in 1st 7 Seasons, Since 1970
Dick LeBeau returned as Pittsburgh defensive coordinator in 2004. In 7 years, LeBeau's defenses have ranked in the top 3 in points allowed 5 times and in the top 5 of yards allowed 6 times. In 4 of those years, the Steelers advanced to the AFC title game.. on Sunday, they try to advance to the Super Bowl for the 3rd time since LeBeau returned.[+]
Steelers Defense - Under Dick LeBeau (since 2004)
From Elias: Will this be a different game with Troy Polamalu in the lineup? The numbers say yes. The Jets defeated the Steelers without Polamalu in the lineup but over the last 2 seasons the Steelers are 16-4 when he plays... allowing just 15 points per game and just over 60 rushing yards per contest.[+]
MAN OF STEEL - STEELERS WITH AND WITHOUT TROY POLAMALU, SINCE 2009
Both the Jets and Packers are the 6th seed in their respective conferences... this is just the 4th and 5th occurrences of a 6-seed advancing this far in the playoffs. In 2008, this same thing happened when the Eagles and Ravens made the championship game - both teams lost. The 2005 Steelers, who went on to win the Super Bowl, are the only 6-seed to ever win a conference title.[+]
6-Seeds in Conference Championship Game
With both top seeds losing in the Divisional Playoffs, we are guaranteed just the 4th Super Bowl under the current playoff format (since 1990) that will not have one of the top seeds. Each of those previous 3 Super Bowls were a 2 seed vs a 4 seed. Which means that since 1990, there has not been a Super Bowl between both of the 2 seeds, something that could occur if the Steelers and Bears win.[+]
SUPER BOWLS WITHOUT A TOP SEED - UNDER CURRENT PLAYOFF FORMAT (SINCE 1990)
The Jets head to the Conference Championship for the 5th time, having lost their last 3 appearances (all 3 since the AFL-NFL merger), after winning in 1968. However, the Jets have never trailed at halftime in any of those previous 4 conference championships, leading in 3 at halftime, with a scoreless tie in the other.[+]
New York Jets - All-Time in Conference Championship
ESPN Stats & Information