Jets might think they're invincible against Steelers
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It has been 42 years, almost to the day, since a mop-haired, glamour-boy quarterback from Beaver Falls sat poolside in Miami and brashly predicted a Super Bowl victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. Historians recall it as the time the fledgling American Football League finally rose up and punched the big, bad National Football League in the nose.
New York Jets fans remember it as the only time their team has been in the Super Bowl.
Perhaps there is a bit of theatrical irony that the Jets (13-5) will get their fourth chance to return to the Super Bowl at 6:30 p.m. today when they meet the Steelers (13-4) in the AFC championship game at Heinz Field. They will be trying to recapture Camelot approximately 40 miles from where Joe Namath -- Broadway Joe -- was born and raised and began his career as their Hall of Fame quarterback.
This time, they are hoping their Hollywood quarterback, Mark Sanchez, can slay the big, bad Steelers, who are playing in the conference championship for the 15th time since 1972 and are seeking a return to the Super Bowl for the third time in six years. Unlike Namath, Sanchez didn't boldly predict a victory.
But, after beating the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots on the road to reach the conference championship, who would blame him if he did?
"I'm sure the Jets are saying, 'If we can go into Indy and beat Peyton Manning and the Colts, we can do anything,'" said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has won his past four playoff starts and is 9-2 in the postseason. "Then you go beat Tom Brady and the Patriots there, it's like, 'Who can stop us?' I would assume that's the mentality they have."
Sanchez already has produced one victory in Heinz Field this season -- Dec. 19 when the Jets beat the Steelers, 22-17, with the help of a 97-yard return of the opening kickoff for touchdown and a fourth-quarter safety on running back Mewelde Moore. Curiously, the safety came on the same running play that produced Willie Parker's 75-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks -- Counter 34 Pike.
It was the last time the Steelers lost this season on their way to the AFC North title and the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
If Sanchez produces another victory, the Jets will be one step closer to duplicating what the Steelers did in 2005 when they became the first No. 6 seed in history to win three consecutive road playoff games and the Super Bowl.
"That's the biggest thing when you get beat and make mistakes -- you have to go and look at yourself and correct the things that you did wrong because you know they are going to try and exploit that again," said defensive end Brett Keisel.
The Jets are making a return appearance in the AFC championship game after losing to the Indianapolis Colts, 30-17, last year, and they would appear to have some historical karma on their side.
The previous three times a team has made back-to-back appearances in the AFC championship, the losing team the first year came back to win the conference title and advance to the Super Bowl the second. Curiously, the Steelers did it in two of the three instances -- 1994-95 and 2004-05.
"They went to the AFC championship last year; they are looking at it as they are one game away [from the Super Bowl]," said wide receiver Hines Ward, one of 17 players on the roster with two Super Bowl rings. "For us, we have got a lot of guys who have been a part of championship week. We really pride ourselves on having a great week of preparation. Hopefully, that carries over into the game."
For one of the few times this season, Sanchez was near-flawless in his execution in the first meeting with the Steelers, throwing for 170 yards with no interceptions and also scoring on a 7-yard bootleg run on a fourth-and-1 play in which he completely fooled one of the best rushing defenses in NFL history.
The Jets rushed for 106 yards on 27 carries at Heinz Field, the most an opponent managed all season against a defense that set a franchise record for rushing yards allowed in a season (1,004) and rushing yards allowed per game (62.8). Only two other teams have allowed fewer rushing yards in a season since the league expanded to 16 games -- the 2000 Baltimore Ravens (970) and the 2006 Minnesota Vikings (985).
But, 64 yards came in the second half, including 46 on 12 carries in the fourth quarter, allowing the Jets to stay away from third-and-long situations and keep the Steelers' pressure off Sanchez. After leading the NFL with 48 sacks during the regular season, the Steelers sacked Sanchez just once -- and that was on third-and-18 in the first quarter.
"Clearly, 106 yards against us is different than getting 106 against other teams," said safety Ryan Clark, one of the heroes in last week's 31-24 divisional playoff victory against the Baltimore Ravens. "They're a big challenge, but we like that. We like the fact they did well in first game so we know they're going to come back to it. And if we know where to find you, we usually get you on the ground."
Believe it or not, the Steelers defense has been even more bullish against the run in the past three games, allowing an average of 50.6 yards per game. The Ravens managed just 35 yards rushing on 18 attempts, despite scoring their first touchdown on a 14-yard run by Ray Rice.
"It's the playoffs -- win or go home," said inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons. "With those odds, you have no choice but to play like that."
The Steelers also like their odds with six-time Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu in the lineup. He did not play in the first meeting and one of the key moments came when his replacement, Ryan Mundy, whiffed on a sack attempt on Sanchez on third-and-9 in the fourth quarter. Sanchez completed a 16-yard pass to Braylon Edwards, keeping alive a drive that led to the go-ahead field.
"They just ran the ball on us," said Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison. "We were expecting them to run the ball, but, at the time, [Sanchez] wasn't playing as well as he is right now and we thought they would lean more into the run. They picked and chose the right spots."
First Published January 23, 2011 12:00 am