The Pittsburgh Steelers expect to go to the Super Bowl every year, and since Rex Ryan became coach of the New York Jets two years ago he has led his team to the conference championship game in both years.
The Steelers tend to be a quiet group that lives by the "We do our talking on the field" motto. The Jets do their talking during the week, then back it up on the field. In the Ben Roethlisberger era, the Steelers have already played six of their nine playoff games at home. The Jets have yet to play a home playoff game under Ryan, but this team has defeated two all-time great quarterbacks -- Peyton Manning and Tom Brady -- in back-to-back playoff games.
Here are four key questions heading into Sunday's AFC Championship Game:
1. How much does home field matter?
The Steelers were only 5-3 at home this year, with one to the Jets, who were 6-2 on the road. In that game on Dec. 19, Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller and Aaron Smith didn't play for the Steelers, but neither did Damien Woody or Eric Smith for the Jets. Most people would think home-field advantage is a critical factor, and it might be in this case, but so far in the playoffs five road teams have won and only three home teams got the advantage they were hoping for.
Since Roethlisberger has been the team's quarterback, the Steelers are 4-2 in home playoff games (9-2 overall, including Super Bowls) and average 28 points a game. This time, the Steelers are up against a Jets defense that gives up just 19 points in road playoff games. A look at the other side of the ball, and the Steelers' defense might be the key to the home-field edge. Dick LeBeau's defense, over six home playoff games, averages nearly four sacks and appears to be getting better with each year. In the last three home playoff games, the Steelers' defense has given up an average of 41 yards rushing, forced nine turnovers, had 12 sacks, and held opponents to an average of 20 points.
The noise at Heinz Field will impact the Jets' offensive line, and the pressure calls by LeBeau should be tough to handle. The Jets are looking at the first game tapes and are confident, because they allowed just one sack and did not commit a turnover against the Steelers' defense. The Jets respect the Steelers' defense at Heinz Field but don't fear it.
2. Will Polamalu make a difference?
Polamalu missed the last Jets game. He can be a quarterback's worst nightmare, as we all know. Identifying where the safety lines up is only half the problem; identifying where he's going after the snap is a bigger issue. Polamalu has just a half sack and three interceptions in nine playoff games, but he changes protection calls, takes receivers away, hurries a quarterback's decisions and sets other Steelers up for big plays.
A look back at the first Steelers game might lead some Jets fans to think the team should run the ball more against Pittsburgh after LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene combined for 23 carries and 89 yards. In fact, so far in the playoffs, Tomlinson and Greene have 62 carries for 271 yards at 4.4 yards per rush. Be on the lookout for Polamalu to be a factor in the run game, just like he was last week when the Ravens' Ray Rice and Willis McGahee combined for 16 carries and 36 yards.
3. Will Sanchez have time to make plays?
Sanchez has been nothing short of brilliant in his five road playoff games. He has only been sacked twice in 126 postseason pass plays, which is impressive. A touchdown pass every 17 attempts is something LeBeau has to look at closely. That postseason interception video tape is going to take one minute to watch, because Sanchez has just three picks in 124 throws. The Steelers have their work cut out.
LeBeau is not going to sit back and let this 24-year-old kid have his way against the Steelers' defense. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley had four sacks combined against the Ravens last week, and there will be more pressure calls than coverage calls in this game. Sanchez is pretty good outside the pocket, and both outside linebackers have to be aware of containing the quarterback when they rush him. Sanchez won't look to run (he has only 3 rushing yards in eight playoff carries), but he will try to reset the pocket and buy time for Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards to get open.
The last time these two teams met, Edwards and Holmes combined for 14 receptions and 140 yards on 20 targets. There is little doubt that Sanchez wants to give these receivers a chance. To do it right, Sanchez needs time and Pittsburgh has no intention of giving him enough of it. Last week, Ravens QB Joe Flacco found out in the second half what happens when the Steelers turn up the heat on defense. Flacco went in at halftime going 12 for 18, with one sack and no interceptions or fumbles. In the last 30 minutes of the game, Flacco wound up with five sacks, four more hits on the quarterback, a lost fumble, and an interception. Flacco called 17 passes in the second half and was sacked four times. The second-half collapse led directly to 17 Steelers points.
4. Can Jets stop run and get to Big Ben?
The Steelers will look back at the first game against the Jets and conclude that they should have given Rashard Mendenhall more carries. Mendenhall had 17 attempts for 99 yards and a touchdown. He could be in line for 20 to 25 rushes ths Sunday.
Sooner or later, Roethlisberger is going to put the ball in the air. Against the Colts and Patriots, the Jets did a msterful job of blending in more three-man rushes in their blitz calls. The coverage calls with eight defenders dropping back caused both Manning and Brady to hold the ball and eventually make mistakes. Neither quarterback was going to scramble, and Ryan took advantage. Roethlisberger doesn't like to run much himself, but he is more active in the pocket than Manning and Brady and will move all over the place to extend plays. Ryan has plenty of experience against Roethlisberger, having worked with the Ravens. The Jets sacked Roethlisberger three times with Ryan's pressure calls when a defensive back -- Drew Coleman -- got him twice and an outside linebacker -- Bryan Thomas -- got the Steelers' QB the other time.
In Ryan's nine games against Roethlisberger, his units have sacked him 31 times, but have also given up 15 touchdown passes and have a 3-6 record. Instead of the constant pressure calls, I am expecting more of the "rope-a-dope" calls that were effective against Manning and Brady. A delayed blitzer who will spy Roethlisberger and get after him, if and when he breaks contain, might be a part of the package. Bart Scott could be utilized in that role because he has the quickness to go get Roethlisberger when he's outside the pocket. Keep in mind, Roethlisberger likes to throw deep when he is in his "school yard" mode outside the pocket. The secondary has to remain disciplined when that happens.
This game is going to be a great matchup, and there could be more than 40 points scored before the final outcome is determined. The Jets are loose and confident, and the Steelers are nasty and focused. I think this game comes down to a field goal, and as much as I would like to see the Jets' story finish in Dallas, it's too hard to go against the Steelers at home.