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By Tony Cocco
Cold, Hard Football Facts man of steel
The Cold, Hard Football Facts real and spectacular victory machine looked in great shape after last Saturday: we
nailed both Pittsburgh's 31-24 win over Baltimore and Green Bay's 48-21 win at Atlanta.
But we wobbled on Sunday: we expected Seattle to keep it within 10.5 points at Chicago. They lost by 11 (35-24).
And we told you the Patriots would stomp the Jets again. Instead, the Jets stomped the Patriots, 28-21, in a game that wasn't even as close as the final score.
We're still a respectable 5-3 against the spread here in the 2010 postseason. And, far more impressively, we've gone .500 or better against the spread – picking every NFL game! – every week since Halloween. It's almost February.
So our real and spectacular picks continue to live up to the hype.
Here are both AFC title contenders sized up across the board in all of our Quality Stats. Our analysis, and our picks, follows.
2010 AFC championship game
NY Jets at Pittsburgh (-3.5)
Hand it to the Jets and Rex Ryan. For all of their never-ending bluster during what was a disappointing, up-and-down regular season, the Jets clearly are a team that rises to the occasion in the playoffs and backs up its bravado when the money is on the table.
Ryan's Jets are now 4-1 in the playoffs, with all five games played on the road. In the last two weeks, Ryan's complex defensive schemes have been executed to perfection by his players, and the result was two road wins at Indy and New England – two of the toughest road venues in the NFL. New York's defense held two of the highest-scoring offenses in the league to a grand total of 37 points, while becoming the first team to intercept Tom Brady since October 17.
If the Jets can pull off the trifecta and defeat Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers this Sunday, they will have knocked off three of the highest-rated passers in NFL history, owners of a combined six Super Bowl rings, and done it all on the road.
It would be, simply put, one of the greatest post-season runs in history.
The Jets won the first meeting between the teams back in December, but needed a special teams TD, a defensive safety and, perhaps more importantly, the absence of All-World safety Troy Polamalu from the Pittsburgh secondary to pull off a 22-17 win. Polamalu is back for this one. (Read about "The Defense of Troy" here.)
The big difference between the Colts, Patriots and Steelers can be summed up in one word: Defense.
The Steelers fielded the top scoring defense in the NFL this year and, as the Quality Stats chart below shows, they also owned our No. 1-ranked Defensive Hogs (a major indicator of post-season success), were No. 2 in Defensive Passer Rating, No. 2 in Bendability and owned top five rankings in just about every other meaningful defensive statistic in 2010.
By the way, Pittsburgh, not New England, was the top-ranked team across the board in our Quality Stats this year.
New York QB Mark Sanchez has played well so far in his postseason career and is coming off his best playoff performance against the Patriots last week.
But Pittsburgh defense is unlike any other he has faced over his first five career post-season games. New England's weak pass rush never got near Sanchez last week; that's not going to happen against the Steelers, who bring constant pressure and who ranked No. 7 in creating Negative Pass Plays this season.
Under that kind of pressure, Sanchez will not duplicate the type of effort he had in Foxboro last week.
If the Jets want to try their "ground and pound" offensive attack on Sunday, they'll find that a poor option as well, given Pittsburgh's No. 1-ranking in defensive rushing yards per attempt (3.01 YPA). In fact, only five teams in the Super Bowl Era stuffed the run better than Pittsburgh did in 2010.
One overlooked aspect of the Steelers is their ability to generate big plays. They ranked No. 2 on our Big Play Index this season and have playmakers all over the field. The forever-underrated Roethlisberger is now 9-2 in his career in the post-season after leading Pittsburgh to a great comeback win against the Ravens last week, and is one of five QBs in NFL history with a career average of more than 8.0 passing yards per attempt.
It may not look pretty. His style may be unorthodox. But none of the game's elite quarterbacks – Manning, Brady, Rodgers, Brees, whoever – get the ball down the field better than Big Ben. Oh, by the way, Roethlisberger is No. 8 all time in career passer rating (92.5), right behind the prolific Kurt Warner (93.7) and ahead of some guy named Joe Montana (92.3).
Big Ben's ability to move around in the pocket, scramble and get the ball downfield effectively should provide an antidote for a New York defensive scheme that has emphasized coverage over Ryan's usual blitz-happy approach the past two weeks.
Indy and New England could not solve the scheme because neither team has the kind of deep threats at wide receiver that Pittsburgh has in a player like Mike Wallace. Remember, as we noted this week, the Steelers wide receiver this year became one of just five players since the merger to grab 60 passes and average 21.0 YPC.
And neither Manning nor Brady can move around in the pocket and avoid the pass rush as niftily and effectively as Big Ben.
The Jets have ridden their defense and relatively mistake-free football in the playoffs to get to this point, and any team that relies on defense to win always has a shot. But Pittsburgh, unlike Indy and New England, actually brings the better defense into this game, as well as a much better offense.
We think the Jets' ride ends here, and that Big Ben and the Steelers advance to the franchise's eighth Super Bowl and battle for the right to win an NFL-best seventh Lombardi Trophy.
Pittsburgh 20, NY Jets 17