Sunday, January 16, 2011

It's Why They Play the Games

So much for that Atlanta-New England Super Bowl. Both #1 teams lost this weekend, convincingly. The closest game of the weekend was the Steelers coming back to win over the Ravens. Since the Jets beat New England, the AFC championship game will be in Pittsburgh, the Steelers v. the Jets.

After a crisp early drive and a touchdown, the Steelers gift-wrapped 14 points for the Ravens and were down 21-7 at the half. But then they cashed in three Ravens turnovers in the third quarter, and drove to a touchdown to win it in the fourth, with a not-soon to be forgotten 3rd and 18 pass to young speedster Antonio Brown. Looking to the future, the Steelers may wind up with the most potent deep threats in the league, with Mike Wallace and Brown.

So it wasn't 40-31 but 31-24 was still beyond most expectations. Still it wasn't really a shootout since most of the scoring on both sides came from turnovers and a shorter field. But here's what was clearly true: Ben Roethlisberger is a better quarterback than Joe Flacco, especially under pressure.

Speaking of pressure, both the Jets and Steelers will try to make that a big factor next weekend. The Jets used coverage and pressure or blitz packages to throw Tom Brady out of rhythm. The Patriots' offense was kind of a puzzle--it was unrelentingly conservative, except for a couple of big risk plays that didn't pay off. Whatever the Jets defense did, the Steelers better understand it and counter it in prep this week. But the weekend also showed that when it comes to dealing with pressure, Big Ben is better. Specifically better than Mark Sanchez of the Jets.

The Steelers are not a lock to win this game, not against a team that have overachieved to beat two of the highest rated quarterbacks in successive weeks. But the Steelers have a very good chance to win it. In contrast to the Baltimore game this weekend, I think next week's will be a low-scoring affair, along the lines of 20-17. What could well be decisive again is Big Ben and especially his playoff and Super Bowl experience. The Steelers were only weakened by injury on special teams so far, and Troy Polamalu had a quiet game against the Ravens. He didn't play last time against the Jets. I expect he'll make his presence known next week. Tight end Heath Miller also didn't play against the Jets, and that probably cost them the winning touchdown as time expired.

The other league matchup will be Green Bay v. Chicago, one of pro football's oldest rivalries. Green Bay looks unbeatable now, but so did New England until today. What's striking is that except for Big Ben, all the surviving quarterbacks are inexperienced in playoff football. The pressure only mounts week to week. You'd have to say at this point that the Steelers have the best shot. Green Bay would be the stronger opponent for them. But they are fully capable of beating these three teams. They'll have to start though with the Jets.