Thursday, January 20, 2011

5 Reasons the Steelers Will Win the AFC Championship Game

These are the five most compelling reasons I can think of that the Steelers will win on Sunday and advance to the franchise's eighth Super Bowl appearance, in search of their seventh Super Bowl victory.

1. Pig Ben. Love him, hate him, think he should be incarcerated or wish to smash his face in with a cricket bat, it doesn't matter. The tremendously gifted Jets DB's will have to play an entirely different game this week than they have the past two weekends. Both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are rhythm, timing quarterbacks who make tremendous pre-snap reads and can throw balls into tiny spaces. But both are pure pocket passers, neither of whom can do what #7 can do, which is break contain, break free of tackles and extend plays. The difference is not just Pig Ben, but the Steelers receivers, who have adapted to him, know what to do and where to go after that little alarm clock in their heads goes off that says, 'that big idiot is running around back there again -- get open!'

If you're the Jets, do you blitz a safety and risk Pig Ben escaping to find Wallace or Sanders in one on one coverage deep? Or find Miller underneath? Do you spy him? Do you rush three like the Ravens did and risk ending up on the wrong end of a 58 yard completion (which I'm sure is still burning up T-Sizzle.)

Pig Ben's critics always point to Brady, Manning, Brees and now, even Aaron Rogers as being much better than Roethlisberger, claiming that he's not in that class of elite quarterback. To that I say, piffle. You can have your fantasy stats and I'll take the guy who is built for the post-season, for the 4th quarter. Simply put, he is a big game quarterback. Plus, the forecast is for a windy evening at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger has proven than the can throw in the wind, but the verdict is still out on Jets pretty boy, Mark Sanchez.

2. James Harrison. Harrison is an unstoppable force, a class 5 hurricane, a tsunami lined up at linebacker. When the Steelers need something big, there's a good chance that #92 or #43 will provide that play. With Troy Polamalu having kind of an off week last week (due to injury, but still, he was off), Harrison (and Ryan Clark) filled that void. Reading through the official gamebook is like a Harrison highlight recitation: sack, tackle for loss, in coverage on an incompletion, pressure on the quarterback, sack. He is a game changer.

Like Pig Ben, he is a big game player. Earlier in the season, I heard some local radio talking head fielding questions about who was the Steelers MVP of the season. I think he was of the mind that it was Lawrence Timmons (although I could be remembering wrong) and Timmons would be a fine choice, as would Troy. But Harrison has once again dominated his side of the line of scrimmage and even changed the game as it is now played.What's amazing about all of that is that he had to adjust his game mid-stride to avoid penalties (both legit and ridiculous -- yes, I am looking at you Tony Corrente for the "falling on the qb with his full body weight" absurdity) and still be the dominant presence his teammates count on.

Sanchez may be calm and confident now, but he hasn't run into James Harrison lately, not the playoff version of James Harrison. Sanchez' current sang froid is subject to change.

3. Heeeeaaaaattttthhhhh. Yeah, that's right, Jets, the Steelers didn't have Heath Miller during that first meeting and instead, Pig Ben had to throw to Matt "Head of Granite and Hands to Match" Spaeth.

The underneath and middle routes, typically the domain of tight ends, were open enough that Pig Ben threw to Spaeth seven or eight times, even though Spaeth only managed to haul in three of those passes. Who knows? That game might have a different ending with Heath in there. Maybe he doesn't run interference on the 3rd down pass intended for Emmanuel Sanders in the back of the endzone? Maybe he makes the difficult catch in the endzone to win the game on 4th down? I'm not here to bury Spaeth; rather, I'm just making the point that those routes, the ones generally covered by a safety or linebacker, were open.

Whereas the greatness of the Jets corners is evident, the safeties, particularly in the absence of Jim Leonhard, can be exploited. This is a match up that favors the Steelers. Apparently in the last game, the Jets put Revis on Hines and Cromartie on Wallace, leaving either Eric Smith or Brodney Pool to cover the tight end. Certainly the Jets will have all kinds of new schemes, twists and stunts in store for the Steelers (Rex is no dummy), but the personnel is what the personnel is, and I like the Steelers' chances a whole lot better with Miller in the offensive arsenal.

4. Young Money Crew. Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown make up the Young Money Crew and, per Sanders, he is Easy Money, Wallace is Fast Money and Brown is Quick Money, although I did hear an interview wherein Brown said he was Cash Money, which made me howl. Defenders, however, are not laughing. Not one bit.

In truth, there were legitimate questions about the Steelers wide receiving corps coming into this season. Wallace had a great rookie season, but how would he handle the attention paid to him with Holmes gone to New York? Ward, though a Hall of Famer, is getting older. We knew that the Steelers had three good passing options (including Miller), but after that it was a black hole of unknown.

Enter Brown and Sanders -- Mo' money, Mo' money, Mo' money!

Sanders, listed as third on the depth chart, contributed 28 receptions for 376 yards and two touchdowns, an unexpected bounty. He has shown that he is capable of stepping up his game on a big stage and none is bigger than this Sunday.

Brown didn't getting much playing time in the beginning and wasn't even dressed for a handful of games, but still he managed to contribute 16 receptions for 167, none more beautiful or important than the 58 yarder against the Ravens. (I don't know how fast Brown is, but it sure looked like he kicked it into another gear to gain separation as he passed Lardarius Webb.)

One more note about the addition of Brown. There has been some serious garment rending over the Steelers giving up Santonio Holmes for just a 5th round draft pick, but that draft pick was used to bring Bryant McFadden back and then go and get Brown. If you say Holmes for a 5th round pick, you say, we was robbed! But if you say Holmes for McFadden and Brown, it's a pretty good deal, particularly when you factor in salaries and such.

It is a particularly popular football cliche to say that you need a speed receiver to stretch the field and that, without one, it all turns to pain, misery and tears. That the Steelers can deploy three speedsters at one time gives them speed at the receiver position that is nothing short of an embarrassment of riches.

5. Brett Keisel. Ah, to sing the praises of the great unheralded one, he of the Nordic God-like beard, the man who, quietly mind you, took over as the anchor on the defensive line when Aaron Smith was lost for the season. Now, nobody other than Aaron Smith's family loves him more than I do. I was positively crestfallen when he was injured. But Keisel has stepped in and stepped up to not only anchor the line, but, it seems to me, to step into the leadership role that has always been Smith's.

His stats are good, but like any defensive lineman in a LeBeau scheme, they're not eye-popping. But if you're watching a replay of last week's game on the NFL Network just watch #99 for a series or two. Or do the same this week. The guy is always pushing the line back, or stringing out a running back so that Troy or Clark or Timmons can get there. He is an unseen playmaker, a virtual puppet master who allows other guys to get lots of camera time. When Keisel was out for a five game stretch, the Steelers went 3-2 and struggled to get by Buffalo. I think he's enough of an impact player that he might have altered the outcome against the Saints or made the Buffalo game a less cardiac arrest inducing affair.

The Jets did a nice job of keeping Mark Sanchez clean last week, but the Patriots don't have anybody on their defensive line who is anywhere near as good as Keisel. I'm hoping to see lots of Brett and his luxurious, multi-hued beard on Sunday night.

Bonus Reason -- The Terrible Towel. I hear tell yarns of Jets fans defiling the Terrible Towel, and worse yet, that some desecrations took place on the streets of this very hamlet, in the Strip District, no less. Not to go all Walter Sobchak on you, but we're talking about unchecked aggression here. And the Towel has drawn a line in the sand that you DO NOT CROSS.

Now, the legendary Myron Cope wrote in Double Yoi, "... I did not see the Terrible Towel as witchcraft to hex the enemy. It would be a positive force, driving the Steelers to superhuman performance ..." I'm not in direct contact with the Towel as Myron was, and do not know if the Towel will smite a team for the idiocy of that team's fans, but it is possible that these cretinous Jets fans have awakened the great might and power of the Towel. You know, I just don't know how to say this more clearly: Respect the Towel, bitches.

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