Mendenhall powers the Steelers back to the Super Bowl

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall (L) embraces New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez (R) after the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the New York Jets 24-19 in the AFC Championship game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, 23 January 2011. The Steelers will go on to face the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV on 06 February 2011 in Arlington, Texas. EPA/JUSTIN LANE fotoglif933714

Here are five quick-hit observations on the Steelers’ 24-19 win over the Jets in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.

1. Mendenhall ran like he was mad at the ground.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Rashard Mendenhall run with more determination than he did Sunday night. He shredded the Jets for 95 rushing yards in the first half and finished with 121 yards on 27 carries and one touchdown. He also caught two passes for 32 yards and would have scored on one of those receptions had he stayed on his feet. He now has three touchdowns this postseason and has provided the Steelers’ offense with balance. Against the Jets, he rarely went down on first contact and he flashed terrific speed on a 35-yard jaunt in the first half. No running back has ever rushed for more yards against the Jets since Rex Ryan took over as head coach in 2009. Mendenhall set the tone for Pittsburgh’s win.

2. Bruce Arians shows some stones.
Pittsburgh fans have had a roller coaster relationship with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians over the years, but they had to have loved his gutsy 3rd and 6 pass call with less than two minutes remaining. How many times do teams run the ball in that situation, get stopped, punt and then have to rely on their defense to close out the game? Arians knows he has a great defense so if the clock is stopped because of an incompletion, so what? But thanks to Ben Roethlisberger’s 14-yard competition to Antonio Brown (how big has this kid been the last two weeks?), the Steelers were able to pick up a first down and run the rest of the clock out. They didn’t even give the Jets an opportunity to win. Great call.

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How does Cromartie plan to deal with Ward? Well choke him, of course.

Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward (86) catches this second quarter pass and runs it in for a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium in Miami on October 24, 2010. UPI/Michael Bush

I thought the Jets were being rather quiet this week. Turns out they were just waiting for Sunday to talk a little trash.

The Jets’ defensive backs are well aware of Hines Ward’s reputation of throwing blindside blocks and will apparently look to deliver a message to him early.

From ESPN.com:

“We’re going to deal with him early so he knows what type of game it’s going to be, and that none of that stuff is being tolerated,” Jets safety James Ihedigbo said.

Like a tone-setting hit?

“Hell yeah,” the safety said.

Safety Eric Smith hesitated to say what would happen if Ward serves up any cheap shots on Sunday. Why? Because Smith is worried such words might incur a fine from the league.

“If I finish what I said and then do what I planned on doing, I’m going to get fined,” Smith said.

Cromartie said that he doesn’t really care if Ward hits opponents with blindside blocks — as long as he can hit back.

“I really don’t care. You smash him in the mouth, he’s going to smash back, whatever,” Cromartie said. “Does he do it while you’re not looking? Yeah, he does. But who doesn’t?”

The Jets corner allowed that Ward’s hits “can be” dirty. When such hits occur, Cromartie suggests that players “grab [him] by the throat and choke [him].”

Only the Jets could make a conference championship game even more interesting than it already is.

Will Ryan error in putting Cromartie on Wallace again?

Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Wallace pulls in a pass and runs away from Carolina Panthers Nic Harris for 43 yards and a touchdown in the second quarter at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 23, 2010. UPI/Archie Carpenter

Far be it for anyone to question one of Rex Ryan’s defensive game plans. As much as fans and members of the media think they know about the game, we actually know very little about the X’s and O’s and what it takes to run a defense in the NFL.

That said, I found something that Rotowold.com wrote very interesting about Ryan’s potential game plan this Sunday when it comes to covering Steelers’ receivers Hines Ward and Mike Wallace.

Manish Mehta of the NY Daily News predicts that the Jets will use Darrelle Revis to cover Hines Ward in the AFC Championship Game.

Mehta anticipates Antonio Cromartie covering Mike Wallace. It’s the same way the Jets played Pittsburgh in Week 15, and Wallace went off for 110 yards while Revis held Ward to 34 on two catches. It’d be a mistake, as far as we’re concerned. Using Revis on the declining, 34-year-old Ward would be a waste when the shutdown corner has the ability to eliminate Pittsburgh’s true No. 1 receiver. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders will remain potential difference makers as they prepare for Dwight Lowery and Drew Coleman.

I think the idea is that since Cromartie has more speed, he can match up better with Wallace. But as Pierre Garcon proved two weeks ago, if Cromartie isn’t allowed to get his hands on receivers at the line of scrimmage and be physical with them out of their stance, he’s liable to get burned deep. And considering Wallace averages over 20 yards per reception, that’s a concern that Ryan should have if he wants Cromartie to shadow the young wideout.

But as Rotoworld points out, this is just a “prediction” by Mehta. Who knows what coverage Ryan will unveil this Sunday in Pittsburgh. He’s well aware of the speed that the Steelers’ wideouts posses and he’s not going to put his defenders in a position to fail. Nobody was more irate at Cromartie on that Garcon touchdown than Ryan was, so he’s well aware of what could happen this weekend if he puts him on Wallace.

Or if he isn’t, then things could get real interesting on Sunday when Pittsburgh drops back to pass.

Five storylines to follow for NFL Championship Sunday

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It’s the NFL and it’s Championship Sunday – we know you don’t need reasons to actually watch the games. But here are five storylines to keep an eye on as we draw closer to kickoff.

1. Are the Jets worn out?
Very few pundits thought the Jets would beat Peyton Manning on his home field and nobody thought they would upset Tom Brady in Foxboro. But after two straight upsets, Gang Green now has everyone’s attention and you get the sense that people are actually starting to get behind Rex Ryan’s team. Compared to the last two weeks, the Jets have been awfully quiet over the past five days as they prepare for the Steelers. Are they focused or have they worn themselves out? Playing on the road is draining enough during the regular season. What happens to a team when they have to play three-straight road games in the playoffs when a Super Bowl is on the line and they’re constantly underdogs? This time last year, the Jets fizzled out. Do they have enough left in the tank this year to pull off one more upset?

2. Will Rodgers continue his onslaught on opposing defenses?
After they crushed the Giants and beat the Bears in their final two regular season games, then went on the road and contained Michael Vick in Philadelphia, the Packers already had plenty of believers last week when they traveled to Atlanta. And after Aaron Rodgers put on a clinic against the Falcons, there’s a large contingent that believes the Pack are Super Bowl bound. But Rodgers has a tough test this Sunday against the Bears, whose defense might as well be cement to Atlanta’s Charmin extra soft. In their Week 17 loss at Lambeau, Chicago held Rodgers relatively in check but he still competed 19-of-28 passes for 229 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Rodgers can make plays with both his arm and legs and he has a knack for getting the ball out of his hand quickly and accurately. Can the Bears pressure him in the pocket and if so, can their corners play as physical as they did last week against Seattle in order to disrupt Rodgers’ rhythm with his receivers? Or will the gunslinger elevate his play one last time in order to make Green Bay’s improbable Super Bowl dreams a reality?

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Three keys for the Steelers to avoid another upset at the hands of the Jets

Pittsburgh Steelers Hines Ward (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens during the second half of their NFL AFC Divisional playoff game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, 15 January 2011. The Steelers defeated the Ravens 31-24, and will advance to the AFC Championship game. EPA/DAVID MAXWELL fotoglif902601

One factor that the Jets have to their advantage this week is that they’ve already beaten the Steelers in Pittsburgh once this season (22-17 in Week 15). But things could prove to be more difficult for New York this time around.

Below are three keys for the Steelers to avoid another upset.

1. The O-line must rebound.
The play of the O-line continues to be the biggest question mark surrounding this team. Flozell Adams was sick last week with the flu and could barely stand up, which is why he struggled so much against the Ravens. Ramon Foster deserves praise for moving to tackle when Adams left the game, but he continues to be a marginal blocker. Jonathan Scott gave up a handful of pressures and a sack against Baltimore and while Maurkice Pouncey played well overall, he had trouble moving the Ravens’ big defensive tackles at the goal line. In fact, the entire Steelers’ O-line had trouble at the goal line, which includes Chris Kemoeatu (who also made some stupid decisions after the whistle had been blown). What’s interesting is that the Steelers gained 377 total yards against the Jets in Week 15, which included 146 on the ground. They also had touchdown drives of 96 and 74 yards, so they’ve already proven that they can move the ball on Rex Ryan’s stingy defense. But can the O-line elevate their game after last week’s performance? They better, because Ryan has proved over the past two weeks that he can put together some of the best defensive game plans in the NFL.

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