Sunday, 6:30 p.m. Eastern Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
Four weeks ago, when the Jets made their first visit of the season to Pittsburgh, the game was your typical flip-a-coin job between two strong teams bound for the playoffs. The score was tied at 7, 10 and 17, and the Steelers drove 82 yards to the New York 10 in the frantic final minutes before the clock ran out. Score: Jets 22, Steelers 17.
What makes that game seem like five years ago is the way the Jets handled New England on Sunday. Five weeks after getting blown out by 42 points in Foxborough, New York completely changed its defensive approach to Tom Brady, confused him for 50 minutes and beat the Patriots for the second time this year. You can bet Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will have something different cooked up for Pittsburgh, the same way chameleonlike Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau will challenge New York's offense with fresh tactics.
I see the new pieces in this game playing big roles. In the first meeting Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller, Ben Roethlisberger's security blanket against changeup defenses, was out with a concussion, and safety Troy Polamalu missed the game with a bad ankle and Achilles. Both are back. Last Saturday, LeBeau kept Polamalu in centerfield for almost the entire game against Baltimore, and he had little impact. This week I expect Polamalu to return to his back-for-two-snaps, up-for-one role, playing with Mark Sanchez's head. Similarly, Miller gives the Steelers the reliable move-the-chains tight end they didn't have the first time, when Roethlisberger forced 23 passes to young wide receivers Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders. One other X factor for Pittsburgh, which has more passing-game weapons than the Pats: emerging rookie Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger knows he can beat Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie on a deep route now that he has seen Brown do it against the Ravens.
This game will be all on Sanchez. Yes, he has managed winning game plans at hostile Indy and Foxborough, and he does have the league's best boundary receiver in Santonio Holmes. But Pittsburgh's run defense in '10 was the third best of the modern era. To score in the 20s at Heinz Field, without piling up yards on the ground? A very tall order for the second-year QB. I think Roethlisberger, Miller and the kid receivers make enough plays to win.
THE PICK: STEELERS 23, JETS 17
TOWERING PRESENCE Big Ben and Pittsburgh will make their third Super Bowl trip in six years.