Just as he did the week before against the Colts, Mark Sanchez got off to a slow start with a few wild overthrows at New England. Once he settled down, he made some completions when they counted. Sanchez continues to gain confidence, and why not? In two seasons, his postseason record is 4-1. The two QBs he has beaten so far: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
LaDainian Tomlinson's resurgence continues. He followed a strong performance at Indianapolis with a productive game at New England as he inches closer to playing in his first Super Bowl. Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, who combined for 119 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry against New England, combined for a respectable 89 yards against the Steelers' NFL-leading run defense in December.
In the postseason, wide receivers Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes have become consistent difference-makers. The Jets aren't an aggressive, pass-happy team, but when they need big plays through the air, Edwards and Holmes are able to come up with clutch grabs. Edwards has shown off his remarkable athleticism and power; he carried two defenders into the end zone vs. New England.
It turned out that the Jets were able to weather the loss of right tackle Damien Woody, who was placed on IR with an Achilles injury right before the Patriots game, just fine. Wayne Hunter stepped in, and the unit continued to perform without a hitch. However, he and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson will have their hands full dealing with OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
DE Shaun Ellis set the tone for what would prove to be a very long day for Brady last week with two early sacks. If he and the rest of the defensive line are able to make that sort of impact against the Steelers, it would go a long way toward reducing Roethlisberger's ability to make quick-striking throws to his fleet receivers.
MLB David Harris has been a dynamic force in the postseason. After all sorts of sideline-to-sideline plays against the Colts, he intercepted Brady for the quarterback's first pick since October. OLB Calvin Pace had a big strip-sack of Brady, but doing the same against Roethlisberger will likely be tougher. Expect the Steelers to target weak-side ILB Bart Scott in their passing game.
This group played well against the Patriots. Its ability to change and disguise coverages was the primary reason the Patriots' passing game struggled as a confused Brady often held the ball too long. CB Darrelle Revis is capable of taking away Mike Wallace while CB Antonio Cromartie and safeties Eric Smith and Brodney Pool can also do plenty to reduce Pittsburgh's big-play threat.
This area was huge in the Jets' regular-season victory at Heinz Field. Brad Smith's 97-yard kickoff return provided a 7-0 lead in the opening seconds. Smith is still dealing with a groin injury, but Cromartie has done an impressive job in his place. He helped provide good field position against New England. In an expected defensive struggle, good directional kicks by P Steve Weatherford will be crucial.
Rex Ryan is coming off the best coaching performance of his career. He did what few people have done in befuddling Bill Belichick and Brady. With a mix of man-to-man coverage and zone in the middle, Ryan put a virtual stranglehold on the Pats' short passing game. The challenge is different this week, because the Steelers like to throw deep. But Ryan is on a roll.
They enter this game with a great deal of confidence. Besides overcoming steep odds to win at Indianapolis and New England, the Jets also remember how well they played -- particularly in the second half, when they converted 5-of-9 third downs -- in their December win at Pittsburgh. Sanchez and the offense believe they can move the ball on the Pittsburgh's highly touted defense.
Ben Roethlisberger could encounter the same issues that Brady had in the divisional round because the Jets are just as capable of shutting down the Steelers' receivers as effectively as they blanketed the Pats' pass-catchers. The biggest difference is that, unlike Brady, Roethlisberger, with his mobility and strength, thrives on evading pressure while adlibbing his way to a completion.
After falling into an early hole in their divisional-playoff win against Baltimore, the Steelers were pretty well forced out of any opportunity to establish the run and Rashard Mendenhall wound up with only 46 yards. However, Mendenhall did continue to demonstrate his prowess near the goal line with a pair of touchdowns. None of their other backs get a whole lot of work on the ground.
Mike Wallace's deep speed should present a greater challenge to the Jets than what they faced against the Patriots. But the Ravens did a good job of minimizing his impact in the divisional-round game, holding him to three receptions for 20 yards. Rookies Antonio Brown -- who had a big catch to set up the winning score last week -- and Emmanuel Sanders have stepped up.
Rookie C Maurkice Pouncey needs to be particularly sharp because the Jets like to use a variety of looks in their defensive front. So far, he has mostly excelled at recognizing alignments and making the proper calls. OTs Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott will be tested by a pass rush that mostly comes from OLBs but also can get pressure from the defensive line.
DE Brett Keisel has rebounded from the hamstring injury that sidelined him for six regular-season games and does a good job setting the edge. Ziggy Hood continues to play well in place of injured Aaron Smith, who might return. Hood had a sack last week. The Jets' first step toward rushing success is getting past mammoth NT Casey Hampton.
OLB James Harrison got his postseason off to a roaring start with three sacks against the Ravens. Like other opponents, the Jets will have a hard time contending with his power and quickness. OLB LaMarr Woodley is highly talented in his own right but also benefits from the extra blocking attention that Harrison draws. ILBs Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior are keys to stuffing the run.
FS Ryan Clark came up huge vs. Baltimore, with an interception and forced fumble. He'll need to continue to make such contributions to prevent the Jets' multiple playmakers from taking off. Working against a young quarterback, SS Troy Polamalu, who missed the earlier encounter, could be particularly effective in a role that gives him the freedom to line up practically anywhere he likes.
The Steelers have to make sure their kick coverage is sharp because Cromartie and Jerricho Cotchery have the ability to break some long returns. Pittsburgh was fortunate that a penalty wiped out what would have been a punt return for a score last week. Punter Jeremy Kapinos will have to be on his game to try and give Pittsburgh the edge in the all-important battle for field position.
Give Mike Tomlin credit for doing against the Ravens what he has done all season, and that's keep his team from falling apart. It would have easy for the Steelers to unravel after they fell into an early 21-7 hole. Tomlin keeps his club playing with great energy and urgency throughout the game. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will have some ideas about how to trip up Sanchez.
Regardless of whether they'd admit it, the Steelers can't help but feel as if they got away with one last week. The Ravens gave away a victory through a complete meltdown that looked mostly of their own doing. Baltimore's early advantage exposed some vulnerability in the Steelers' defense that the Jets could very well exploit, along with making some big plays on special teams.