New York Jets (13-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4)
Kickoff: Sunday, 5:30 p.m.
TV: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms). Keys to the game
Jets QB Mark Sanchez has been efficient in the playoffs and made plays when he's had to. But the Steelers' top-ranked run defense wants to shut down RBs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson and see how the second-year quarterback performs in the face of a constant pass rush. The two combined to average a respectable 3.9 yards per carry in the first meeting and have totaled 62 carries through two playoff games. If given time, Sanchez will mostly work the intermediate routes, and WR Braylon Edwards had a season-high eight catches for 100 yards working primarily against CB Bryant McFadden in Week 15.
The Jets focused on keeping Peyton Manning's receivers in front of them two weeks ago and then came out with a bevy of pressure packages to rattle Tom Brady last Sunday. So how will they approach Ben Roethlisberger? The Jets are concerned with Big Ben's ability to shed on-coming pass rushers at 6-5, 240 pounds. Nickel back Drew Coleman had a pair of strip-sacks in the first meeting, but the Jets' pass rushers must play with discipline to prevent Roethlisberger from turning negative plays into big completions. CB Darrelle Revis shadowed WR Hines Ward in the last meeting, but vertical threat Mike Wallace caught seven passes for 102 yards, so it will be interesting to see who Revis is on in the rematch.
Sanchez has tied an NFL record with four career road playoff wins. ... Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 99 yards in the first meeting, his best output since Week 12.
Second postseason meeting, with Steelers leading 1-0. Steelers lead regular-season series 15-4. The Jets' only victory in Pittsburgh in franchise history came on Dec. 19, when the Jets won 22-17 at Heinz Field. The Steelers were without injured players S Troy Polamalu (Achilles') and TE Heath Miller (post-concussion effects). In the lone playoff game between the teams, Pittsburgh won 20-17 on Jeff Reed's 33-yard field goal in overtime after New York's Doug Brien, in his final game as a Jet, missed field-goal attempts from 47 and 43 yards in the final 2 minutes of regulation.
Inside the Jets
"I was watching that on 'SportsCenter'," Cotchery said. "I was like, that's the funniest thing I've seen."
"That's not my style," the seventh-year veteran said. "You can't get out of character. You can't start doing things you don't normally do, because the next thing you know you're distracted and you're not focused on the things you need to be focused on.
"I've gotten used to it," he added with a smile. "We have a lot of passionate guys. You have to understand what type of guys they are. They're passionate about the game of football. They love the game of football.
"I definitely see the humor. I get a good kick out of it, but I try not to participate."
But Cotchery was at the forefront of the Jets' victory over New England on Sunday. His 58-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter, after the Patriots had cut their deficit to three, restored order for the Jets and set up a 7-yard touchdown pass from Mark Sanchez to Santonio Holmes.
"He did such a great job of knowing where to sit in the zone," Sanchez said, "and then breaking the tackle down the sideline, making the right cut, hurdling the defender on the sideline. ... It was awesome just to watch him do that.
"All last year," Sanchez added, "all throughout this year, he's been there for me just as a safety valve and made some huge plays for a young quarterback and really bailed me out. He's done a great job. The last game was perfect for him. He deserved that."
Cotchery was fifth in receptions for the Jets this season, with 41 for 433 yards and two touchdowns. He hasn't gotten as many opportunities with the acquisitions of Braylon Edwards (in October 2009) and Holmes (in April 2010).
But he keeps doing his job, and his teammates have noticed.
"He's just (a) professional, ultimate class, ultimate team guy," Edwards said Thursday, "somebody you definitely feel like you can learn from."
Inside the Steelers
The question of the week in Pittsburgh has been what the New York Jets defense will do to try to shut down the Steelers' offense in light of what they did on the road in Indianapolis and New England the past two weeks.
The Jets might have the best one-two cornerback combo in the game with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, and a stout front seven. The Steelers offensive line has been leaky and their ground game so-so.
"Literally everything from their coverages to their blitzes to rushing two guys ad getting sacks," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, "it is truly amazing.
"They can go into Indianapolis and beat Peyton Manning and go to New England and beat Tom Brady, who are the two best quarterbacks in the game in my opinion. I don't know how I have a chance. I'm just going to have to try and get lucky and play the best I can."
Roethlisberger, though, is fooling no one, because he has risen on a level where he can challenge those two. He has two Super Bowl rings and at age 28 is trying for a third, which would tie Brady and give him two more than Manning.
Against the Jets on Dec. 19, Roethlisberger completed 23 of 44 passes for 264 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. The Steelers also rushed for 146 yards and did not commit a turnover. But a 97-yard kickoff return by the Jets' Brad Smith for a touchdown to open the game provided the difference in a 22-17 Steelers loss at Heinz Field.
"This week is about playing this Jet defense," Roethlisberger said, "which may be one of the best we have ever played."
The Steelers allowed a league-low 3.0 yards per carry and 60.8 rushing yards per game, but the Jets were able to dent them for 106 yards on the ground last month, and will try to move the ball that way again.
Besides Troy Polamalu, the Jets must be wary of edge pass rushers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, whom they held in check in the last meeting. The Jets' defense must do a better job against workhorse RB Rashard Mendenhall, who had 99 yards rushing and one TD in the last game. They also must prevent QB Ben Roethlisberger from turning potential negative plays into big gainers, which he does by escaping sacks and finding receivers downfield.
A key matchup will be Pittsburgh receiver Mike Wallace against Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie. Wallace was looking forward to facing Darrelle Revis last month, even calling the three-time Pro Bowler "just another guy" before the game. Instead, the Jets chose to use Cromartie on the Steelers' main deep threat, and Wallace took advantage of the cushion given him by Cromartie to grab seven passes for 102 yards, although his longest gain was only 23 yards.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.