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NFL Playoff Predictions, Jets Vs. Steelers: Returns Of Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller Should Lead To Pittsburgh Victory

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Don't read too much into Week 15. The Steelers should stop the Jets in the AFC Championship.

Expect better results from LaMarr Woodley and the rest of the Pittsburgh defense in Steelers-Jets, Round Two.
Expect better results from LaMarr Woodley and the rest of the Pittsburgh defense in Steelers-Jets, Round Two.

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:

  • Two of the Jets' three sacks and both of their forced fumbles came from nickelback Drew Coleman. While New York brings pressure from their secondary more than most teams, it would be tough to count on such pass-rushing success again. Surprisingly, the Steelers' offensive line actually did a decent job handling the Jets up front in Week 15.
  • The play of the game was Sanchez's naked bootleg on 4th-&-1 (video), a brilliant call from offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer that fooled every Steelers defender (and the CBS cameraman!) and tied the game late in the third quarter. It was a savvy, well-executed play, but not exactly the prototypical, reliable way to score on a team.
  • Rashard Mendenhall was an absolute beast against the Jets, notching 100 yards on the ground at 5.9 yards per carry. This is encouraging news, especially considering New York's success against the run in the regular season: third in yards allowed per game (90.9) and yards allowed per rush (3.6).
  • 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:

  • Do you think lightning will strike twice and Sanchez will succeed in protecting the football for a second game against the Steelers? Will the Jets be able to limit James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and the rest of the Pittsburgh pass rush to just one sack again?
  • How much of a difference does Polamalu's presence make on defense? What about Miller on offense?
  • Will the Jets be able to count on their special teams and defense for nine points (a return touchdown and a safety) in the conference 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.

    Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.