NEW YORK JETS AT PITTSBURGH STEELERS
DATE: Sunday, Jan. 23
TIME: 6:30 p.m.
SITE: Heinz Field
Jets' record: 13-5
Steelers' record: 13-4
Series record (including playoffs): Steelers lead, 16-4
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Jets: Defeated New England, 28-21
Steelers: Defeated Baltimore, 31-24
As Muhammad Ali once said, "It ain't braggin' if you can back it up." As late as last Sunday morning, Rex Ryan might have been perceived as nothing more than the mouth that roared, but by the time the clock struck 8 that night, he was the coach whose team had eliminated Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on back-to-back weekends in the AFC Playoffs.
Ryan had begun these playoffs by declaring that he saw the matchup with Manning as "personal," and he reiterated the challenge in the run-up to the rubber match against the Patriots. There was a lot of vitriol associated with Jets-Patriots, even more than there was for Ravens-Steelers, but the Jets backed it all up with a performance that relegated Tom Brady to mortal status.
"We acknowledge that they're a good team," said Coach Mike Tomlin before the Steelers hosted the Jets on Dec. 19. "Really, there's not much difference between us and the New York Jets in the big scheme of things. We're 10-3 and they're 9-4. We barely got out of Miami with a win, and they weren't able to do it. And that's about it."
NEW YORK JETS OFFENSE
As late as the opening kickoff of the game against the Patriots, Mark Sanchez was seen as a quarterback who had to be overcome by his own team rather than a player in the Brady-Manning category who is capable of carrying his team to a victory. The Jets supposedly were an offense that had to rely on its physical offensive line to carve openings for running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, and then when it came time to throw the ball, maybe Sanchez wouldn't do anything foolish.
But against the Patriots, and to a lesser extent in the Jets' Wild Card game against the Colts, Sanchez was much more than that. Clearly, Sanchez out-played Brady in the upset of the Patriots, and his three touchdown passes and no interceptions in that game stuck a pin in the notion that Bill Belichick is a defensive mastermind who would devise schemes to paralyze this second-year quarterback.
"I see a very talented young guy who's going through the natural maturation process and what comes with it," said Tomlin about Sanchez before the Dec. 19 game at Heinz Field. "There are highs and lows, lulls in the action. This is a talented guy. He went to a high profile university, and he's got some quality veteran leaders around him like Tony Richardson."
With Sanchez looking more poised in these playoffs, it has allowed the team's offseason acquisitions of late – wide receivers Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes – to have more opportunities to do the kinds of things that made them high-profile acquisitions in the first place.
NEW YORK JETS DEFENSE
This unit is the heart of this team, and Rex Ryan really wouldn't have it any other way. The Steelers know all about Ryan from his days as the defensive coordinator of the Ravens, but the group he has in New York is different from the one in Baltimore that the Steelers had to deal with on a home-and-home basis every season.
"It's probably a little more similar to the early 2000s Baltimore teams than the Baltimore teams of late," said Tomlin by way of comparing Ryan's defensive units. "That early 2000s Baltimore group had Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, and he has similar animals in terms of this top-flight cornerback tandem he has in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie."
Revis has been one of the best cornerbacks in football for the past couple of seasons, while Cromartie was seen as somewhat inconsistent. He would go through some stretches of high-quality play only to follow that up with some performances that made it clear why the San Diego Chargers gave up on him.
With all due respect to Tomlin's analysis, these Jets seem to be a team with a better secondary than the ones he had with the Ravens, but this front seven is not as dynamic and punishing as Baltimore's. The 2010 Jets finished with 40 sacks, with Bryan Thomas leading the team with six. By comparison, the Steelers had three players – James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and James Farrior – who finished with six or more sacks on the season.
NEW YORK JETS SPECIAL TEAMS
The Steelers learned about this phase of the Jets team the hard way – when Brad Smith returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown to kick-start a game at Heinz Field that ended with a 22-17 defeat for the home team. Smith was inactive against the Patriots because of a groin injury, but there can be no argument about the impact he had on the regular season meeting between these teams.