We have an AFC East versus AFC North showdown at Heinz Field to determine who will represent the conference in Super Bowl XLV. The New York Jets (13-5) will visit the Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4) in a rematch of the Jets' 22-17 victory in Week 15.
But this time we're going to narrow our focus to the heart and soul of both teams: the defense. That is what brought the Jets and Steelers this far. The better defense Sunday likely will make the difference in the AFC Championship Game.
So which defense has the best chance to dominate? ESPN.com AFC North blogger James Walker and AFC East blogger Tim Graham break it down.
James Walker: I like the fact that both of these defenses attack first and often can dictate to the opposing offenses the tempo of the game. But when you start comparing the two teams by the numbers, New York's defense doesn't stack up to Pittsburgh's. The Steelers have the advantage over the Jets in every major statistical regular-season category, including average total yards allowed (276.8 to 291.5), points allowed (14.5 to 19), total sacks (48 to 40) and forced turnovers (35 to 30). Pittsburgh's run defense also was fifth best all-time since the start of the Super Bowl era in 1966, allowing just 62.8 yards per game. The Jets allowed an average of 90.9 rushing yards per game. New York also gave up 72 more points than Pittsburgh in the regular season. And based on their average, that's about five games' worth of points for the Steelers. If you want to compare current numbers in the playoffs, the Steelers are also No. 1 in postseason defense, allowing just 126 total yards in a divisional win over Baltimore. The Jets played in two playoff games and are not in the top six. New York has allowed an average of 342 total yards in the postseason, which is a very big discrepancy of 216 total yards per game.
Tim Graham: No, I don't want to compare postseason stats because the Steelers have played one game at home against a wild-card team. The Jets have played two road games against future Hall of Fame quarterbacks and snuffed them both -- in two of the most intimidating stadiums for a visitor to escape in any sport. What the Jets have done the past two weeks would be a remarkable feat even for the "Steel Curtain." The Jets held Peyton Manning to 16 points and made inevitable MVP Tom Brady appear lost. The Patriots scored 21 points, but the last touchdown came against the Jets' prevent defense in garbage time. But even more significant? The Jets won in Pittsburgh five weeks ago. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took his shots against the Jets and posted a passer rating almost 20 points lower than his season average. The Jets forced more fumbles than the Steelers that night, had more sacks and even recorded a safety. As for that sterling run defense ranking you quoted, in that contest the Jets' running game surpassed the Steelers' average by 44 yards -- an increase of 59 percent.
JW: If you want to throw away the Jets' postseason statistics, then Pittsburgh's superior regular-season numbers over 16 games still apply. There is no way to ignore both, Tim, because Pittsburgh's defense was better no matter how you cut it. In terms of Week 15, I think you're conveniently leaving out that the game was won on special teams. Brad Smith's 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was the difference. The Steelers' defense allowed just one touchdown, while Pittsburgh's offense outscored New York's offense 17-13. The Steelers also racked up 377 yards against the Jets' defense, which is worse than the 342-yard postseason average I mentioned earlier. In terms of which defense can dominate the AFC title game, you have to take into account the offenses these two teams are facing. There is zero debate that Roethlisberger is a superior quarterback to New York's Mark Sanchez. In fact, if I were ranking the four remaining playoff quarterbacks, Sanchez would be dead last behind Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and even Jay Cutler. Credit Sanchez for having some success against the Colts and Patriots, but those defenses were ranked in the 20s this season. Even Jets linebacker Bart Scott admitted New England's defense "couldn't stop a nosebleed," and he's right. Sanchez has yet to face a defense in the playoffs like Pittsburgh's once it's at full strength with a healthy Troy Polamalu, who missed the first meeting. Sanchez threw for just 170 yards in Week 15, and even then Polamalu’s absence limited what Pittsburgh could do defensively. The Pro Bowl safety makes a huge difference in coverage, stopping the run and freeing up others to pressure the quarterback. The "Polamalu factor" cannot be overlooked with the Steelers' defense, and I think he's going to be a huge headache for Sanchez, especially since Sanchez didn’t get to face Polamalu in the first meeting.
TG: I didn't ignore either the Jets' regular-season or postseason statistics. We simply cannot compare the Jets' postseason numbers to the Steelers'. The sample size is too small, they haven't played the same number of games, and they've played a different caliber of opponent so far in the tournament. The Jets were road underdogs for both of their games, while the Steelers were a home favorite coming off a bye week. You cannot compare them that way. It's apples and grapefruits. You're right when you say Sanchez has yet to face a defense like the Steelers' with Polamalu on the field. But Polamalu didn't exactly look like a superstar against the Ravens -- two tackles, no passes defensed and a whiffed tackle or two. I'll grant that nobody can expect Polamalu to have two straight subpar games, but he just showed there are no guarantees he's going to take over Sunday's game. Maybe the injury is hampering him. But let me ask you: How is Roethlisberger going to solve a mystifying, multilook defense that Manning and Brady couldn't master in the past two weeks? Oh, and one Roethlisberger couldn't defeat five weeks ago? And if you're thinking about replying with "He's had five weeks to figure it out," remember that Brady had no idea what he was looking at last Sunday, and he played the Jets twice this year.
JW: Roethlisberger threw for 264 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting with the Jets and the offense notched 25 first downs, compared to New York's 17. Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall led the game in rushing with 99 yards, one touchdown and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. It's safe to say the Steelers were not mystified in the first meeting after gaining 377 total yards of offense. If anything, I think the Jets' defense needs to make more adjustments to stop what Pittsburgh's offense was able to do well in Week 15. Roethlisberger has played against Rex Ryan's defenses plenty of times when Ryan was the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. This will have the familiarity of a division game for Roethlisberger, where Sanchez is seeing Dick LeBeau's defense for only the second time in his entire career and the first time with Polamalu in the lineup, which is a huge difference. Plus, here is the key advantage Roethlisberger has over Manning and Brady: Pittsburgh's elite defense. The Colts and Patriots need their quarterbacks to play lights out and take more risks to beat the Jets because they have shoddy defenses. This game isn't nearly as much on Roethlisberger's shoulders. He can simply play sound, complementary football with the Steel Curtain defense, which will do much better holding down the Jets' offense compared to New York's previous two playoff opponents.
TG: If the roles were reversed on this debate and I were asked to state a case for the Steelers' defense, the first words I would've written would be "Troy" and "Polamalu," and then I would have made the point that the last time the Jets played the Steelers, the Jets' offense scored one touchdown -- a fourth-down Sanchez bootleg that totally fooled the Steelers' defense. The rest was a kickoff return for a touchdown, a safety and some field goals. One touchdown surrendered would seem to support the Steelers, right? Well, it does. I'm guessing you hadn't gotten around to making that point yet. But that fact also goes to show that a dominant defense doesn't mean a team will win. The Jets did surrender more yardage, but you omitted that the Jets ran 15 fewer offensive plays and spent the fourth quarter in a prevent defense, giving the Steelers the entire middle of the field. The Steelers had the better defense in terms of yardage and still lost because the Jets' defense kept them out of the end zone when it counted. Last time I checked, a game never has been decided by yardage or league rankings.
JW: Tim, I really appreciate you repeating my points from earlier about the "Polamalu factor," the Steelers allowing just one touchdown and New York winning the first meeting via special teams on Smith's 97-yard kickoff return. I think you're finally seeing things my way. At this stage of the season the old saying still applies that "Defense wins championships." That is why both teams are here. Since the Steelers have the better defense in the regular season, the better defense in their previous meeting and the better defense in the playoffs, it's safe to say Pittsburgh's defense will be better on Sunday -- and that will be the difference in the Steelers advancing to their third Super Bowl in six seasons.