It's almost spooky how well this season has come together and evolved for the Steelers. They have survived scandal, witch hunts and injuries. They have been ignored, forgotten and dismissed. Now they find themselves in the penultimate game in the most favorable of circumstances. They have slain their most formidable adversaries (Patriots, Ravens, Bengals, Chargers, Colts, Titans) or these have fallen by their own hand or the hand of others. Obviously they are not out of the woods yet. And while it is appropriate for the team to, if anything, intensify their game faces and concentration as the prize comes closer to their grasp, at some point, as fans we do ourselves a disservice if we don't just kick back and enjoy the ride. In my humble opinion we have reached that point. It would still be a rather wrenching disappointment to come this far and not claim the prize, but there is no way that this season could be labeled any other way (from a fan's perspective) as a success.
Will there be a home field advantage? Normally, I would say no. It had seemed to me that Steelers fans, particularly since moving to Heinz Field had grown a little too passive, waiting for something to cheer about instead of endeavoring to make something happen on the strength of their own energy. Opposing teams appeared to be able to shut them down too easily. But you saw the home field advantage at work during the third and fourth quarters this past Saturday. I think you'll see something similar at work this coming Sunday, for a couple of reasons. First of all, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us entertained some level of doubt about our ability to survive the Ravens. The crowd will understand that they are recipients of a bonus; an unexpected home game and an opportunity to see Dan Rooney hoist the Hunt Trophy in his own park. And based upon our loss in December and their dismantling of the Patriots there will be enough fear of the Jets that the crowd will remain at a fever pitch. Will it be much of an advantage? No, but it may be enough to get them into the Championship game.
Will the momentum and confidence gained by defeating the Pats be enough to carry the Jets past the Steelers? Possibly. But that blade cuts both ways. The Jets know something that most of us don't; that the Patriots are overrated, certainly not 40 points better than the Jets, and certainly not the super team that commentators and fans wanted to make them out to be. C'mon folks, the Pats haven't won a championship in seven years. And if you aren't clear about that then you're vulnerable to overestimating the meaning of the Jets' victory. On the other hand, the biggest danger for the Jets is if they don't let that game go they'll get run out of town by the Steelers. For example, yesterday Jets and Patriots players were still exchanging insults. The Jets don't have the time for that.
Could the actions of ‘hotheads' from either team possibly cost that team the game? I think so. For the record our hotheads are Chris Kemoeatu, Ike Taylor and Keyaron Fox. These three guys are apt to forget that a penalty at the wrong time can scuttle a drive or a game. Game situations are no deterrent for these guys, they are so self-absorbed. We were lucky that Kemoeatu's penalty came after a touchdown was called. As it was it gave the Ravens good field position and a chance to get back into the game even though time was short. Earlier Taylor, who otherwise had a magnificent game, head butted a Ravens receiver and was lucky to not draw a foul. You may remember that in the Super Bowl against the Cardinals he hit someone out of bounds late in the fourth quarter that kept a drive alive. Fox does the same thing on special teams.
Will Santonio have the last laugh? Quite possibly. My first thought would be to match him with Taylor, but the risk there is that BMac (or Gay) would have to contend with the much bigger Edwards, who is also capable of having a big night. However, my major concern is not with the Jets wideouts, although I would watch out for Holmes getting an opportunity on special teams.
Who is the one Jet capable of hurting Pittsburgh the most? LaDainian Tomlinson. He doesn't have to have a spectacular night. Between running just well enough to force a greater commitment to the running game as well as doing some damage on short swing passes he takes pressure off of Sanchez and opens up opportunities for New Yorks receivers deep.
What will Pittsburgh's defensive strategy be? Make Mark Sanchez beat you. Take away the run and the short pass, then release Deebo, Woodley, and Timmons with Troy ready to pounce on any miscues.
And the offensive strategy? What worked in '05 and '08 during the playoffs, score early and make them chase. Use Ben and the passing game liberally during this early period, then turn Mendenhall loose to bleed the clock. I'm confident that we can run on this team, especially after the pass has been established and they can't sit on the line of scrimmage.
What line of reasoning will you hear this week that you should ignore? The Jets beat Manning and then Brady, and now they will go after Roethlisberger. If ever there was an example of hype this is it. The Colts barely made the playoffs, their offense was decimated by injuries and their defense couldn't consistently stop anyone or anything. The only playoff team that might be weaker on the AFC side would have been the Chiefs. The Pats were hot in November/December. Before that they got blown out, not beaten, blown out by the Cleveland Browns. The Jets exposed them. In the Steelers the Jets will be facing the best receiver corps., the best running back and the best defense that they will see in the playoffs. The drama in this game comes from the fact of inconsistent performance from both teams. Will we see the Steelers of the first half of the divisional game or the second half. Will we see the Jets that played the Pats in September and January or the group that played the Pats in December or was shut out by Green Bay, or taken to the wire by Detroit and Cleveland?
If the Steelers win what will be their edge? Leadership. Not just so-called veteran leadership, but about three dozen guys who own either one or two Super Bowl rings. A number of these guys understand how close they are, the goal is attainable, just win two games against beatable opponents, and they also realize that this may likely be the last rodeo. For players like Hines, Farrior, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke a third ring would seal their legacy. They would not have to take a back seat to any of the ‘70s guys (the difference between three and four championships is a relative quibble). With the possibility of another bout of Super Bowl hangover and a labor stoppage the next realistic opportunity would be the early months of 2013. That's a long time. It's likely now or never for these guys, so be careful when you assess who you think is the hungrier football team. The Steelers know what they'd be missing, and the Jets believe in their hearts that there will be other opportunities.
Try to enjoy the game on Sunday. Hopefully, we'll be able to turn our attention to Dallas next week.