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Thursday, January 20, 2011
Conditions critical: Kickers in the spotlight

By Tim Graham

In the AFC playoffs last weekend, two of the NFL's great rivalries completed in-season trilogies.

What emerged is a matchup that looks nothing like a storied rivalry.

The New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers have met only once in the postseason. The Steelers beat them 20-17 in overtime six years ago.

That game also took place on Heinz Field's notoriously treacherous kicking surface, and two missed field goals in the final 120 seconds proved deadly. Jets kicker Doug Brien struck the crossbar on a 46-yard attempt at the two-minute warning and was wide left on a 43-yard attempt as the fourth quarter expired.

Heinz Field hasn't gotten any more luxurious since then.

Jets coach Rex Ryan said Thursday he expects Sunday's game to be decided by a late field goal.

"That's what's going to happen," Ryan said. "This is going to be one of those games. I don't see a team blowing the other team out. This is going to be hard-fought all the way to the end."

In Wednesday's edition of the "Big Question," we examined Nick Folk's inconsistencies this season. He has made all four of his career kicks at Heinz Field, including from 25 and 34 yards in a Week 15 victory over the Steelers.

Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely, who was the Jets' kicker last year, recently handicapped the venues, kickers and punters in Sunday's conference championship games for ESPN.

"You have bad footing, cold weather, which you can't kick the ball as far, and you add the wind," Feely said of Pittsburgh and Chicago. "Heinz Field is historically the toughest place in the NFL footing-wise, kicking-wise. It'll impact the distance of your kicks and punts."

The Jets didn't re-sign the reliable Feely after last season because letting him go allowed them to sign outside linebacker Jason Taylor under weird free-agency rules for the uncapped season. The Jets signed Folk to replace Feely.

"There's a part of me that watches them and says 'Man, I wish I was still playing,' " Feely said. "I wish my team had been better and we had gotten into the playoffs because you want to be in those games. You want to play in those championship games. That's what players play for and live for.

"I'm OK as long as they don't win the Super Bowl because that'll crush me."