Road Less Traveled

The Steelers blazed the trail following the 2005 season and now the Jets are trying to take it. But the Jets won't find Jake Plummer at the gateway.

PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers have seen this before. In fact, they lived it.

In 2005 they were a wildcard team and went on the road to beat their division rival/champion (Bengals), Peyton Manning (Colts), and then the No. 2 seed (Broncos) to win the conference title.

The Steelers were the first to take that path all the way to a championship, and it's since been duplicated by the New York Giants. The New York Jets are trying to become the third team in six years to win three straight playoff games on the road, and, like the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger in 2005, they have their own second-year quarterback in Mark Sanchez.

Sanchez, like Roethlisberger before him, lost in the AFC Championship Game as a rookie.

The path has already been blazed for these Jets, who tonight (6:30 p.m.) invade the home of the No. 2 seeded Steelers for the AFC Championship.

"There are similarities," said Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel. "It's a tough road, but it can be done. We are trying to not let that happen here."

The big difference between the Steelers going to Denver in 2005 and the Jets coming to Pittsburgh this year can be found at one position: quarterback.

While Roethlisberger was just a sophomore in 2005, he's since been hardened by five more playoff games and one more Super Bowl. And he's physically superior to Jake Plummer, who turned the ball over four times in the Steelers' 34-17 win at Denver.

Roethlisberger's not only playing the best football of his career right now, he's doing it with an underdog's mentality.

"They (Jets) 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," Roethlisberger said on a national media conference call. "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."

The man who has the second-best playoff winning percentage (.818) in NFL history, and the fourth-best regular-season winning percentage (.704) in NFL history, is playing the no-respect card, and with good reason.

Of course, the Jets did beat the Steelers a month ago. They did it with a kickoff return for a touchdown, a bend-but-don't-break defense, and more success running the ball than anyone's had this season against a Steelers defense that's allowed the third-fewest yards per game of any team in the last 66 years.

The Jets rushed for 106 yards on Dec. 19, or 43.2 more than the Steelers allowed on average this season.

How will the Steelers address the issue?

"The run game issue is always addressed, whether we had played a good game or a bad game," said Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. "We've always worried about stopping the run first here. I think everybody knows that. They rushed for a little over 100 yards but they controlled the game. That's more important than the stats."

The Steelers have the capability to stuff Jets running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, but can they cover Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery if starting cornerback Bryant McFadden misses the game, as expected, with a painful abdominal strain?

That's a significant question for the Steelers' defense. And it might force Sanchez to copy Roethlisberger's 2005 playoff game plan of throwing on first down. It might work against a defense hopped up to stuff the run, but it could also bring up plenty of 2nd-and-10s for a Steelers pass rush that led the league in sacks.

Defensively, the Jets' strengths lie with their cornerbacks and interior run-stoppers, but they lack the pass-rushing star that caused so many problems for the Steelers last week against Terrell Suggs and the Ravens. The Jets used more scheme than talent in finishing ninth in the league with 40 sacks.

Many in the national media this week believe scheme will be enough for the Jets against what they perceive to be the Steelers' "patchwork offensive line." But Flozell Adams is revived from his flu and the other tackle, Jonathan Scott – who's been playing for the IR'd Max Starks since the middle of November – returned to the field last week after his minor injury caused some in-game shuffling.

The Steelers, in fact, will start the same offensive line for the eighth consecutive game. It's the line that allowed the Jets – who were playing with a lead most of the game – only 3 sacks and paved the way for 146 yards rushing, the Steelers' fourth-best rushing performance of the season.

The Steelers outgained the Jets by 102 yards last month, had 8 more first downs, had more time of possession, and were better on third down and in the red zone. The 97-yard kickoff return by the Jets' Brad Smith to start the game, and Steelers backup tight end Matt Spaeth's drop in the end zone to end the game, were the key differences in the Jets' 22-17 win.

Heath Miller is back at tight end for the Steelers. But can they stop Smith on kickoff returns?

That might be the only real question mark in this game, because we already know that Ben Roethlisberger is no Jake Plummer.

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