JETS-STEELERS: AFC CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW

Ryan and Jets look to erase last year’s title game nightmare, seize second chance in Steel City

A second chance.

All too often in professional sports, the window of opportunity for attaining the transcendental goal of a championship is cracked open for only a few short hours.  In the egalitarian National Football League, an association defined by its peerless parity, that window is even more diminutive.

5 weeks ago, Mark Sanchez and the Jets celebrated a statement victory in Pittsburgh. Sunday they aim to rejoice again by punching their ticket to Super Bowl XLV in Arlington. (JetsInsider.com Photo)

Winning a Super Bowl is by far the most difficult achievement in all of sports.  The requisite recipe of talent, execution, health, and luck is a rare combination that has only been consummated by 18 of the league’s 32 teams since 1967.

Players and coaches alike can go careers without tasting Super Bowl glory or having even one legitimate opportunity to play for it.  It takes far more than individual greatness.  Ask Dan Marino.  Ask Barry Sanders.  Or Dick Butkus.

Legends in sports lore are ultimately defined by championships, with rings and trophies transcending any individual accomplishments as the barometer for true greatness. For all the Canton fanfare and NFL Films immortalization, all of the aforementioned hall of famers would undoubtedly sacrifice their personal records and historical milestones for that ever elusive ring. Or the second chance to return to their prime to obtain it.

On Sunday night, 24-year-old Mark Sanchez, in only the second season of his professional career, will get what Hall-of-Famers Marino and Sanders never got, a second chance as the New York Jets play in their second consecutive AFC Championship.

For Sanchez and the Jets, Sunday’s title game is far more than simply redemption for last year’s second-half meltdown in Indianapolis at the hands of Peyton Manning.

Sunday marks a second chance to end a 42-year Super Bowl drought for a championship-starved fan base. A second chance to finally exorcise the ghosts of John Elway,Vinny Testaverde’s Achilles tendon, Mark Gastineau’s late hit, Rich Kotite, Doug Brien, and Brett Favre. A second chance for the bombastic Rex Ryan and neophytic Sanchez to prove their diatribic naysayers wrong. A second chance to rectify nearly a half century of misfortune and embarrassment as the long-time running joke of the National Football League.  A second chance to finally liberate themselves from the dark, burdensome shadow of their fellow Jerseyan tenants, the New York Giants.

A second chance at history.

The setting, Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, is a place all too familiar to the Jets.  It was here seven years ago, that it all came crashing down for Gang Green in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, at the right foot of kicker Doug Brien.  But it was also here, that little over a month ago, Rex Ryan’s group posted their most impressive performance of the regular season, an emotional 22-17 victory over Ben Roethlisberger and company.

A victory that seemingly everyone in America aside from the Jets themselves, has chosen to conveniently forget about.  Just like a week ago, when football pundits across the nation misremembered the fact that New York had indeed handed the New England Patriots their first loss of the season back in September.

Minor details.

The blueprint (or shall we say green-print) for a Jets win on Sunday and a trip to Arlington, Texas for Super Bowl XLV, lies within that Week 15 victory in the Steel City.

Three words. Ground. And. Pound.

A second chance to execute that winning formula on Sunday in Pittsburgh.

KEYS TO AN AFC CHAMPIONSHIP FOR GANG GREEN

  • AL-CRO-TRAZ: Back in March, Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum sent a then third-round draft pick to the San Diego Chargers in exchange for cornerback Antonio Cromartie.  In his first four years in the National Football League, there was never any question of the 26-year-old Cromartie’s freakish length, speed or athleticism.  Conversely, his character and effort on the field were definitely up for debate.  Despite the baggage the young corner came with, Jets head coach Rex Ryan believed he could make a winner out of Cromartie.  In the search for the Robin to Darrelle Revis’s Batman, Tannenbaum and the Jets brain-trust firmly believed that ‘Cro’ was their man.  Antonio Cromartie was brought here precisely for Sunday, to propel the Jets to the next level–a Super Bowl.  With Revis set to be matched up against the physical Hines Ward and aid in stopping the Steelers rushing attack, Cromartie will be asked to fly deep with the speedy Mike Wallace.  In their Week 15 matchup, Wallace went off for 102 yards with seven receptions.  While Wallace didn’t burn Cromartie deep, he came close on two occasions.  Cromartie must bring his A-game Sunday and negate Big Ben’s speedy deep-threat.  The Jets must also bring safety help over the top to cover Wallace. The Steelers were 7-1 this season in games where Wallace had a touchdown reception.

  • DINK ‘N’ DUNK/GROUND ‘N’ POUND: Mike Tomlin’s second-ranked defensive unit will not give up the big play.  Just like last time, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer must dial up short passing routes for Sanchez and the receivers–they’ll be available all day to move the ball down the field.  Look for tight end Dustin Keller to be a big facet of the gameplan on Sunday.  The Jets have already demonstrated they can run against this vaunted Steelers defense, rushing for 106 yards in their Week 15 meeting, the most allowed by Pittsburgh this season.
  • TONE TIME: Playing against the team that traded him just seven months ago for a mere fifth-round pick, Santonio Holmes will be out for revenge Sunday–and blood.  Holmes, who hauled in six receptions in Week 15, must be utilized as a big part of the gameplan on Sunday.  Sanchez should look often to Holmes, who has the game-breaking speed to be the deciding factor in a high-stakes game like this.
  • KEEP HEATH IN CHECK: Absent from the Week 15 matchup between the two teams was Steelers TE Heath Miller.  Miller is particularly effective in spearheading the running game with his blocking and has emerged as one of the most dangerous receiving tight ends in the NFL.  The Jets must do a solid job of shutting down the middle of the field, and taking away Miller, who acts as Roethlisberger’s safety valve in Pittsburgh’s passing attack.  Last week, the Jets linebackers and secondary did a phenomenal job of taking away Patriot tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, so they should be up to the task of limiting Miller.
  • THE SANCHISE: It all begins and ends with the kid from Long Beach, California.  His lights out, turnover-free play in the postseason must continue on Sunday.  If Sanchez can play a smart game and hold onto the football in the frigid conditions, the Jets will conquer and advance to Dallas.  If not, they will be in for a long night.  The success of Sanchez is strongly predicated on how well his offensive line can protect him. Nick Mangold and his band of merry men must keep Steelers linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley out of the backfield and off of Sanchez.

PREDICTION: JETS 20, STEELERS 10

Round 2 in the Steel City promises to be eerily similar to the pilot episode, a hard fought, grind-it-out battle.  Ultimately matched up against their mirror image, the deciding factor on Sunday will be who can get that elusive turnover or big play to swing the momentum of the game.  Gang Green’s running game is in top-form and will be able to impose their will on Pittsburgh’s stubborn defensive line.  On the other side of the ball, the Jets will be able to get into the backfield against the Steeler’s banged up and depleted offensive line and keep Big Ben in check. Roethlisberger and company have been here and beyond before.  The Jets, fueled by last years disappointment and the emotion of their win in Foxboro a week ago are hungrier than ever before.  The ghost of Doug Brien finally dies Sunday night.

Broadcast Info: Sunday 6:30 P.M. ET, TV: CBS (Jim Nantz/Phil Simms) Radio: 1050 AM ESPN Radio (Bob Wischusen/Marty Lyons), Westwood One (Dave Sims/James Lofton)

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