Before we talk about this weekend's AFC Championship game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Jets, let's stroll down memory lane to Week 15, when Rex Ryan's squad bested Ben Roethlisberger and company 22-17 at Heinz Field.
The Jets sacked Roethlisberger three times, forcing two fumbles (both recovered by Pittsburgh), and held him to just a 52 percent completion rate and six yards per attempt. What's more, the Steelers defense failed to rattle second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez, sacking him just once and registering zero turnovers.
Sounds like it was a pretty convincing win, doesn't it?
Well, not especially. Steelers fans will remember that the game began with a 97-yard kickoff return (video) from Brad Smith, New York's Swiss army knife - some of you probably had PTSD flashbacks to last season, when this was the norm for Pittsburgh. This basically spotted the Jets a seven-point lead straight out of the gate.
Smith sat out of New York's victory over the New England Patriots last week and is still dinged up. Even if he plays - and it seems like he will, based on Ryan's comments early this week - it's tough to truly count on him scoring the Jets seven points. Return touchdowns are a bit fluky by nature, and you can bet Pittsburgh will be better prepared with their lane assignments in kickoff coverage.
Steelers fans will also recall that the final play in Week 15 was an end zone drop by backup tight end Matt Spaeth, a play that could've decided the game in Pittsburgh's favor. It was a tough catch, no doubt, but one I'm confident Heath Miller, the Steelers' starter, could have made had he not been nursing a concussion. Miller, of course, is healthy now, and the Jets will have to account for him this Sunday, especially on third down.
Another player the Steelers were missing the last time around was safety Troy Polamalu. You may have heard of him before. Polamalu is known for his game-changing plays (video), but even in games where he isn't lighting up the stat sheet or the highlight reel (like last week's victory over the Baltimore Ravens), he's a sideline-to-sideline menace whose mobility can confuse and frustrate opposing signal-callers, especially relatively inexperienced ones like Sanchez.
A couple more nuggets from Week 15:
So, my aim going into this weekend is not to "make excuses" for the Steelers' Week 15 loss, or to "disrespect" a quality team like the Jets - the sooner the sports world is rid of both those clichés, the better. But let me ask you some questions regarding the AFC Championship:
For what it's worth, I think the "correct" answers to those questions are no, no, a tremendous, almost immeasurable difference, a big difference, and no. While it's a little inaccurate to call the Jets' offense "an Aston Martin with no driver," I think this is the game where Sanchez's carriage finally turns into a pumpkin. If you disagree, let me have it in the comments.
My prediction: The Steelers win a close one, 23-16, punching a ticket to their third Super Bowl in the past six seasons.