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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

AFC Championship Recap: Homeward Bound

I am, at my core, a sports pessimist. Meaning, when my team is down, there is no hope. And when my team is up, they'll likely find a way to gag. Interestingly enough, both have been on display in consecutive weeks of the NFL playoffs.

Down 21-7 to the Ravens, I was already completely resigned to defeat -- like Peter waiting for Shadow at the end of Homeward Bound. The Steelers weren't going to make it. "He was old," Peter said. "It was too far. He was just too old." I'm not sure my actual words were as suitable for a Disney movie, but the moral was the same. Yet despite my pessimism, Shadow, at the very last moment, came lumbering over that hill.

I'm not quite sure if there's a Homeward Bound analogy for the Jets game. Maybe something like -- during their journey, Shadow is forced to confront a trash-talking coyote (who happens to be obsessed with female coyote's paws). Shadow proceeds to beat the living crap out of said coyote for 30 minutes, then they take a short break, after which the coyote beats the living crap out of Shadow until the coyote runs out of time, tires itself and admits defeat. 

Could not find a video of that scene. 

This week against the Jets, you literally could not imagine a person less confident with a 24-3 halftime lead. But that's how it is I suppose. When you're down 24-3, there's not a chance in hell your team will come back. But when you up 24-3, there's not a chance in hell the other team won't come back.

While all ended well, my pessimistic nature was certainly on to something in predicting a Jets comeback. 

Next to Joe Buck, Phil Simms might make more idiotic statements per broadcast than any other announcers. It'd be fun to calculate some stats on that. But totally redeemed himself with his statement right after the Jets kicked their field goal before halftime. He said something like, "Don't discount the significance of that Field Goal. They get the ball back to start the second half, and if they can score there, it's 24-10."

While it may seem like simple arithmetic, Phil was right. A 24-3 lead really isn't insurmountable. Especially when the leading team gains 8 yards of offense in the second half.

But let's go back to the beginning. I was thankful that the Packers game was on first, simply to have some time to prepare myself emotionally for the Steelers game. The Packers game, as Eric noted, was entertaining if not frustrating. McCarthy did about everything he could give that game away. His uber-conservative play-calling was beyond suspect, particularly when you have the best QB in the league and one score would ice the game. They should have been up 35-0 in that game, but instead were at risk of going to overtime against Caleb Hanie.

In any event, the Packers won, which pleased me. At the very least, the Packers would play the Jets. A Bears-Jets Super Bowl sounded about as entertaining as a root canal. Moreover, I knew if the Bears somehow won that game, the AFC Championship might as well have been for the Super Bowl. And the Jets just could not be allowed to win the Super Bowl simply by default after going up against the great Caleb Hanie. 

So it was on to the AFC Championship. Katherine, to her credit, tried her best to watch the game with me. I will admit I am not the easiest person to watch a Steelers game with. It's long periods of silence and wringing paper towels followed by unpredictable obscenity-laden outbursts.

Perhaps as a result of the high stakes, it only took three plays to incite my first explosion this week. Ben threw incomplete on 3rd down. Naturally I jumped up, slapped my hands together and shouted. As if she had been released from detention, Katherine promptly moved to her bedroom and watched Modern Family on DVD until about 2 minutes left in the game. All things considered, I think it worked out well for both of us.

The Steelers first drive really set the tone for the whole half. Nothing quite says, "We're in control" like a 9 minutes touchdown drive to start the game. Mendenhall was fabulous, and I don't say that often. I have a tendency to criticize him for dancing behind the line of scrimmage, waiting for a hole that never forms and settling with a 1 yard gain. But it was exactly that ability to keep his feet moving that triggered his monster half. What's more, the Steelers completely denied the Jets' ability to play their "ground and pound" brand of football. Not only were the Steelers manhandling the Jets' defensive line, but the Jets were missing tackles, getting stuffed in their own run game and falling behind early.

At halftime, I took a few breaths and considered where we were at. Just as I had hoped, the Steelers raced out to an early lead thanks to stuffing the Jets run and forcing Sanchez into a costly mistake. If the Jets were going to come back, it would have to come from Sanchez's arm, which was my hope from the very beginning -- force Sanchez to make throws. As fearful as I was of a Jets comeback/Steelers collapse, the Black and Gold really couldn't have been in a better position. One more score in the second half and the game was over.

The second half, as we know, was like a negative image of the first half. We knew the Steelers were going to hang back and play a lot of prevent defense, but 30 minutes is a lot of clock to runout. I for one wish they'd played the third quarter a little more aggressively. If you want to start running the clock out at the start of the 4th, that's fine. But starting it immediately after the half just gave the Jets too much time to close the gap.

Before this game I detailed some keys to the game. Let's see how they went: 

- Sanchez's Decision Making:
I can't believe I'm saying this, but Sanchez really impressed me. I gave him no credit for any of his team's accomplishments up to this point, but had they won this game, he would have been the reason. He had some huge completions in the second half and even more that were dropped by Jets receivers. I wanted the Steelers to force Sanchez to beat them and he almost did. For that, he earned my respect. Some of it anyway.

- Where does Revis play?
Revis, for the most part, covered Wallace and did a fine job. Ben took one big shot to Wallace in the first half, and while Wallace had Revis beat, Ben under threw him and should have been picked off. The Jets took their chances with Ward and it was a smart decision. He was essentially a non-factor as well. Wallace may not have had a huge game, but he did occupy Revis' attention on almost every play. I can't wait to see Wallace on turf in Denver. I texted my Dad during the game, Mike Wallace should run a stop and go on every play. Ben would have him every time, if he could throw it far enough. He's that fast.

- Steelers O-Line vs. Jets D-Line: 
Even with the Steelers losing Maurkice Pouncey, their best Offensive Lineman, in the first quarter, the Steelers O-Line managed to give Ben just enough time to make plays. They cleared space for Ben to run for several crucial first downs, and gave him the escape valves I stressed which allowed Ben to get outside the pocket to Heath Miller and Brown on his last two game-icing completions.

- Tackle Return Men:
Outstanding job. Part of it was the Steelers' advantage in Time of Possession, but no Jets return man came close to breaking a big return. They couldn't give up points on returns like they did in Week 15 and expect to win. They did not and they won.

- Week 15 Means Nothing: 
In many ways, this game was a lot like the Week 15 battle. The winning margin was 5 points, it featured a Jets' safety, and both teams endured painfully cold weather. While neither Heath Miller nor Troy made the highlight reel, they certainly changed the landscape on the field. Troy had a few awesomely loud tackles and Miller made a few of the biggest catches of the night.

- Stop Santonio 
Santonio did exactly what he always does -- he scored a huge TD when his team needed it most. But other than that one long TD reception after Ike Taylor slipped, he was held mostly in check. I'm not sure if that's more a credit to the Steelers or a fault of the Jets for not getting him the darn ball more. 

- Who Wants It More?:
What I thought might tilt this game in the Jets' favor was their hunger. They essentially shocked the football world with their win over the Pats and I was worried they might come into this game so hopped up on emotion that the Steelers couldn't compete. In the end, the exact opposite rang true. The Jets looked drained and lacking focus. The Steelers pounded them into submission from the opening gun. And while they "stumbled at the end" (putting it very nicely, Coach Tomlin), the Steelers put the Jets in a hole of which they could not climb out.
The Jets deserve credit for a turning a 24-3 halftime deficit into 66,000 soiled trousers at Heinz Field. Literally a few plays here and there, and that game could have ended differently. And we'd be talking about the "greatest playoff comeback of all time" as Rex Ryan held a 24 hour press conference sponsored by KFC. Braylon Edward's third down drop in the 4th quarter sticks out to me as a game-changer. As does the Steelers goal line stand. Even with the Safety a few plays later, it forced the Jets to start a new TD drive on their side of the field. 
Furthermore, all of the Steelers mistakes were minimally painful. Ben's first interception was on a 4th and 1 for no return, thus giving the Jets even poorer field position than if had simply been an incomplete pass. His second pick came at the Jets' 5 yard line on a 3rd down. Chances are had the Steelers been forced to punt, the Jets would have ended up with better field position. Even the safety, much like that in Super Bowl XLIII, wasn't the end of the world. The Jets still needed two TDs to avoid losing and the time it took them to score their next TD was the difference in the game.  

The Steelers last drive really was a thing of beauty. I think their play calling was flawless, including the big gamble to pass on 3rd and 6 to ice the game. During the 2 minutes time-out my dad and I sent identical texts to each other: "Run or Pass?"

We agreed. Pass. End it right now. They did and, they did. I don't even want to think about what would have happened had they been forced to kick the ball back to Sanchez with 1:15 left. I have a feeling I would not have gone to get a Giordano Bros. sandwich later that night if they had.

So here we are. The Steelers are back in the Super Bowl for the third time in six years -- homeward bound, indeed. And it's Ben's 4th AFC Championship game in 7 seasons. That's a pretty phenomenal stat. 
As I said in my previous post, I realize how recent the Steelers have won it and how that sways a lot of casual fans (Katherine included) to root for the other team. But to fan's of a winning team, does that really matter? If the Giants are in the tight race for the West next year, are we going to just hand it over? Do we have any problem rooting for Cal to keep the Axe for consecutive seasons? Heck no! When your teams in it, you want them to win every single time. Sure, it makes it less painful to lose if you've won recently. But you can't squander opportunities for a championship. There's no telling when you'll see one again.

Much Super Bowl banter to come from Eric and I, but for now, enjoy Rex Ryan's final Hard Knock of the year.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Joe Buck: please quit your job. Thanks, The World