AFC East: Joe Montana
Gary Horton and Field Yates break down the Bills and examine what the team needs to accomplish in free agency.
Jerry Sullivan of The Buffalo News offers his thoughts on the future of guard Andy Levitre. "I wouldn’t pay Levitre elite guard money. He’s not worth it. Levitre is a very good player. He hasn’t missed a game in his four-year career, or rarely a play. But he’s not great. He hasn’t made the Pro Bowl. He doesn’t dominate. It’s good to keep the line together. Chemistry is vital for an O-line. But guards are replaceable. Teams reach the Super Bowl all the time with restructured lines. The Ravens did it this year. Games are decided by playmakers; the Bills don’t have enough of them on either side of the line of scrimmage."
Defensive tackle Randy Starks remains the strongest candidate to receive the team's franchise tag, writes Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “I want to be a Dolphin, [and] not just for one more year,” Starks tweeted out on Sunday. “Discount, yeah. Clearance rack, heck no! I want to be here and finish here!”
New England Patriots
It was reportedly on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles where team owner Robert Kraft first mentioned the idea of a contract extension to quarterback Tom Brady. "I was probably wearing my fan hat as much as anything else," Kraft told Peter King of Sports Illustrated. "I just didn't want to ever see this become like Joe Montana leaving San Francisco, Emmitt Smith leaving Dallas, Brett Favre leaving Green Bay, Peyton Manning leaving Indianapolis. If Tom Brady played out this current contract and left us, there was no doubt in my mind that someone out there would pay him top dollar, and they should, for his ability, his leadership and his unselfishness."
The Patriots have yet to decide how -- or if -- they will use the franchise tag.
New York Jets
Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News: "I am talking to an NFL general manager not long ago about the Jets, and the guy starts talking about the Giants, the move Ernie Accorsi made for Eli Manning in the 2004 draft, one of the biggest trades in the history of New York sports teams, one of the best, one of the most important. 'When you wait and wait and finally get your shot at the guy you want, you better be right,' the guy said. 'The Jets made their big move on [Mark] Sanchez and turned out to be wrong.'”
Rich Cimini of ESPNNewYork.com says the Jets remain in contact with free-agent quarterback David Garrard, but a deal is not imminent.
New England Patriots quarterback and future Hall of Famer Tom Brady continues to set records. He recently became the NFL's all-time winningest playoff quarterback, as well as the third player to throw at least 40 postseason touchdowns.
All of this confirms Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. But Brady says he has no time to reflect on his legacy.
"To tell you the truth, I don’t really think about any of that," Brady said during his Wednesday’s press conference. "I’m just trying to win a football game this week. I think we’re very short-term focused and playing against a great football team that obviously deserves the right to be here. We know how challenging of a team they are, both schematically and personnel-wise. All of our focus is on this week."
Expect some articles over the next few days about Brady's place in NFL history. That will only increase if Brady qualifies for his sixth Super Bowl.
Is Brady the NFL's greatest quarterback? That's subject to debate. But Brady certainly has the résumé to make a case.
However, don't expect Brady to believe his own hype -- he never has. Brady continues to live in the moment, which involves Sunday's AFC Championship Game against Baltimore.
"I try not to buy into what people say or think," Brady said. "I just live my life and certainly enjoy being the quarterback for this team. There’s nothing more fun than running out onto the field in front of 70,000 people cheering for us. That’s what it will be this weekend."
1.Familiar foe: The Patriots and Ravens are almost like division rivals in recent years. These two teams always seem to meet in the regular season or playoffs with a lot on the line. This will be the second meeting this season. Baltimore beat New England, 31-30, in Week 3 in a game with several controversial calls from replacement officials. The Patriots feel they owe the Ravens from that game in this rematch.
2. No Gronkowski: The Patriots must adjust again to life without Rob Gronkowski. The Pro Bowl tight end broke his arm a second time and will be out for the rest of the postseason. New England played five games without Gronkowski and went 4-1 in those games. The Patriots also scored 41 points in the divisional round against the Texans with Gronkowski sidelined for more than three quarters. New England has plenty of offensive weapons, but Gronkowski will be missed most in the red zone.
3. Youngs RBs: The Patriots have two emerging running backs coming of age in the postseason. Second-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen combined for four touchdowns in Sunday's victory over the Texans. Ridley led the Patriots with 82 yards rushing, and Vereen showed his versatility with 41 rushing yards and 83 receiving yards. Neither player contributed to last year's playoff run. With Gronkowski out, there will be more opportunities for others to step up.
4. Chasing history: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady set an NFL record with his 17th career postseason victories Sunday. He surpassed his childhood idol Joe Montana. However, Brady is chasing Montana in the most important record for quarterbacks: Super Bowl titles. Brady needs one more Super Bowl title to tie Montana and Terry Bradshaw with four. A win over Baltimore would give Brady his sixth Super Bowl appearance.
5. Cooling off Flacco: New England's defense will face a hot quarterback in Joe Flacco of the Ravens. He outdueled Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the divisional round and will be looking to topple Brady next week. Flacco has played well against New England in the past two meetings. He nearly upset the Patriots in the AFC title game last year, but had a key pass dropped in the end zone by former Ravens receiver Lee Evans. Flacco also beat the Patriots in their regular-season meeting in Baltimore. Flacco is 0-2 in AFC Championship Games.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Houston Texans-New England Patriots divisional-round playoff game at Gillette Stadium:
Guarding against overconfidence: The New England Patriots are heavily favored against the Texans. New England trounced Houston 42-14 last month. But that means all the pressure is on New England to win again at home. This game could have shades of the Patriots' 2010 playoffs if New England isn't careful. That year New England drilled the rival New York Jets in the regular season 45-3, only to get overconfident and lose to the Jets in the playoffs. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams that lost in the regular season by 28 points or more are 11-11 in rematches in the postseason.
Can Brady pass Montana? New England quarterback Tom Brady has a chance at another record that he would be proud of. With a win over Houston, Brady would pass his childhood hero -- Joe Montana -- for the most postseason wins in NFL history. Brady is 16-6 during the playoffs in his career, although he went 10-0 to start his postseason career.
Talib vs. Johnson: One of the key matchups in this game will be the cornerback-receiver matchup of Aqib Talib of the Patriots versus Andre Johnson of the Texans. They will see a lot of each other Sunday. Talib was acquired in a midseason trade from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and quickly became New England's best cover corner. It has allowed the Patriots to played more man-to-man defense. Johnson had another monster, Pro Bowl year. He caught 112 catches for 1,598 yards this season, with eight catches for 95 yards in the first meeting.
Tailback concerns: The Patriots will enter this game with concerns at tailback. New England second-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen have minimal combined playoff experience. They will have to earn the trust of New England’s coaching staff. Ridley and Vereen have had some untimely fumbles late in the season. Both lost fumbles in New England’s most recent loss, to the San Francisco 49ers. Ball security will be crucial in the playoffs. As a result, the Patriots may increase the workload for sure-handed veteran tailback Danny Woodhead.
- Miami Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby said it's his goal to make it to the Hall of Fame.
- New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft says his quarterback, Tom Brady, is better than Joe Montana.
- Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson was hospitalized Thursday night.
- New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott says this year's defense could be the best in team history.
But all of that comes to an end when Brady retires.
Brady, who turns 35 in August, says he wants to play in New England until he's 40. That is great news for the Patriots, because they will struggle the second the future Hall of Famer hangs it up.
Things that have become foreign to New England the past dozen years will become routine again. New England will have down years and miss the playoffs -- just like everybody else. The Patriots won't survive various injuries -- just like everybody else. The Patriots also will run through a few quarterbacks -- just like everybody else.
On Wednesday, ESPN.com examined potentially dominant teams in 2015 . At that point, I think New England's easy run over the AFC East will be a thing of the past.
Here are four reasons New England will struggle in the post-Brady era:
No. 1: Patriots won't immediately find Brady's replacement.
Brady's story is once in a generation. He's a former sixth-round pick who slipped through the cracks to become one of the top five quarterbacks of all time. Brady had the drive and “it" factor to become the greatest player in franchise history. Brady often is compared to Joe Montana, because they share a similar story about 20 years apart.
The chances of New England finding another Brady anytime soon are slim.
What about Brian Hoyer? The undrafted quarterback has shown small flashes but certainly not enough to warrant Pro Bowl status. The drop-off going from Brady to 99 percent of other quarterbacks will be steep.
Even if Mallett or Hoyer turns out to be a viable starting quarterback, neither will be nearly as good as Brady. Is Mallett or Hoyer a future Hall of Famer? Probably not. Will either quarterback perennially make the Pro Bowl? Not likely.
New England has been able to overcome poor defense, injuries and at times average receivers to still be competitive. Brady was great enough to carry the Patriots through various weaknesses. That no longer will be a luxury in New England. It will be much harder to get everything right with other areas of the team, especially if the quarterback position is in flux.
No. 2: The offense is old.
Brady is turning 35 in August. No. 1 receiver Wes Welker is 31. Starting receiver Brandon Lloyd is 30. Longtime left tackle Matt Light just retired this offseason. Guard Brian Waters might follow, if not this year, then soon after.
When Brady is gone, it's likely all these important offensive pieces will be gone as well. A Patriots offense without Brady, Welker, Lloyd, Light, Waters, etc., means New England is virtually starting over in a few years.
The Patriots still have a couple of young stars in tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. But consider this: One tight end probably will bolt in free agency. Both Gronkowski and Hernandez -- two of the top five players at their position -- have rookie contracts set to expire in two years. Both will be looking for huge paydays, and New England can't do that with two players at the same position.
New England most likely will throw the money truck at Gronkowski, perhaps making him the highest-paid tight end, and let Hernandez walk. Brady also will be 37 and possibly retired or on his last legs by the time both tight ends will look for extensions. Returning to New England's offense long term won't be as attractive two years from now for a pending free agent such as Hernandez.
No. 3: Sun is setting on Belichick.
Belichick just turned 60 years old. How much longer will he coach the Patriots?
He has coached in the NFL in some capacity for 37 years. He is approaching his fourth decade in the league.
Even head coaches have a shelf life. Belichick currently is the NFL's fourth-oldest head coach behind Tom Coughlin (65) of the New York Giants, Romeo Crennel (64) of the Kansas City Chiefs and, by a few months, Chan Gailey (60) of the Buffalo Bills. Perhaps we are also witnessing the last few years of Belichick roaming the sidelines.
A good debate topic in New England would be who contributed more to the Patriots' dynasty the past dozen years: Brady or Belichick? Both are Hall of Famers. But in my opinion, Brady's development and dominance at quarterback are stronger factors in New England's success. Belichick would not have won all those games, division titles and championships in New England with shoddy quarterback play. Brady remained dominant and kept the team afloat, even when Belichick struggled coaching the defense, which is Belichick's specialty.
No. 4: The rest of the AFC East will catch up.
I often call the AFC East the "Brady and Belichick division." They're the great equalizers who keep the Patriots on top.
But without Brady in a few years, and perhaps Belichick, all four teams are back to an even playing field. Who will be the top quarterback in the AFC East when Brady retires? Ryan Tannehill? Mark Sanchez? Tim Tebow? Someone else?
Maybe all four teams will have average quarterback play. That means the Patriots, New York Jets, Bills and Miami Dolphins must rely on other areas to be successful and win the division.
Can the Patriots rely on their defense to lead the way? Not right now. Not even close. New England is in no position to overcome poor quarterback play, and that probably won't change overnight.
I expect Brady to play at least two more years (2012 and 2013) at an elite level. He might opt to play beyond that. But after age 37, there's no guarantee Brady can continue to take the physical pounding and play at the high level to which we have become accustomed. We've already seen nagging injuries bother Brady more than ever over the past couple of seasons.
Brady is a special talent the organization probably will never see again. So enjoy the success now, Patriots fans. New England will come back to earth and be an ordinary team again in three to five years.
1. Giant rematch: New England's 2012 playoff revenge tour continues. The Patriots entered the playoffs 0-3 in their previous three postseason games. The Patriots exacted revenge against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday in the AFC Championship Game. Baltimore knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs following the 2009 season. Now, New England gets another chance at the Giants, who beat the then-undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII with a late touchdown drive four years ago. That was the last time both teams reached the Super Bowl.
2. Brady chasing history: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is chasing history on several levels. Brady is 16-5 in the playoffs and can become the NFL all-time winningest postseason quarterback with a win over the Giants. Brady would surpass his childhood hero Joe Montana. Brady also can tie Montana and former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw with four Super Bowl championships.
3. "Gronk" will be ready: Patriots Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered a gruesome-looking left ankle injury that knocked him out of the third quarter of the AFC Championship Game. He eventually returned in the fourth quarter but played on adrenaline. Gronkowski said he will be ready. But the ankle will probably experience some swelling over the next couple days and this will be a big injury to watch. "Gronk" has been a major part of New England's offense. He caught five receptions for 87 yards in the AFC title game.
That means, theoretically, Brady and coach Bill Belichick plan to dominate the AFC East and keep New England in title contention until 2017. Brady will turn 35 in August.
But five more years? That is an eternity in the NFL in which the average career span is approximately 3-4 seasons. Does Brady have enough in the tank to play 17 years at such a demanding position?
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only four quarterbacks in NFL history have started on opening day at 40 or older. Warren Moon (41) was the oldest, followed by Brett Favre (40), Vinny Testaverde (40) and Johnny Unitas (40). Brady wants to become the fifth player to accomplish that feat.
Former quarterback and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer played 14 seasons in the NFL and believes Brady will reach that goal. According to Dilfer, the key to quarterback durability is the lower body, not the upper body.
"What goes first with quarterbacks is their legs. Once you lose your legs, you kind of lose everything else," Dilfer explained. "I remember Kurt Warner talking about that late in his career, and obviously I experienced it. Every quarterback experiences it. I think Tom works hard enough to maintain the leg strength he needs to be as precise as he is, and I think he's a competitor that if he puts something in his mind that he's going to do something, he's a guy that goes out and does it.
"There's very few people in sports like that, talk about the Kobe Bryants and the greats in all sports. I think Tom is right up there. When he puts his mind to something, he's going to do it. So I fully expect him to be playing at 40 if he says he's going to."
It's hard to say when that window will close for Brady, who will lead the Patriots (14-3) in Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens (13-4). He's proved over the past dozen years that as long as he's healthy, he's an elite player. Brady is an MVP candidate this season and by far the best remaining quarterback in the playoffs.
A case can made that Brady's three best statistical seasons occurred after 30 -- in 2007, 2010 and 2011. He also is coming off a record-tying, six-touchdown performance in a 45-10 playoff victory over the Denver Broncos. It was one of his top single-game performances.
Brady projects to be an elite player for at least the next two or three seasons. Injuries are probably the only thing that can derail him at this stage of his career.
Brady had reconstructive knee surgery and missed 15 games in 2008. Otherwise, he has had a clean bill of health. Outside of 2008, he has missed just one start since taking over the job in 2001.
"If anybody can pull it off, it's Brady, but like we saw with Peyton Manning, he could break down easier [with age] too," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "Manning may never be the same. He may never play at that same high level. Who knows? If Brady hits one stumbling block like Peyton did, all of a sudden 40 is a long way away for him. But nobody is playing better than Brady right now."
Brady has been fortunate with pass protection throughout his career. He has been sacked 26 times or fewer in six of the past seven seasons.
Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi was a longtime teammate of Brady's and knows firsthand the importance of protecting the veteran quarterback. Brady is a classic pocket passer who moves well in the pocket. But he doesn't have the ability to run away from defenders.
"As players progress up into the years, the more shots you take, the shorter the second half of your career will be," Bruschi said. "And I think Tom Brady will play as well as his offensive line, his protection, allows him. I think he's shown over the course of the last few years that there are the usual [ailments], they're becoming normal now. Late in the season, where he had a rib or a shoulder or various injuries like that over the course of a season.
"You end up accumulating some damage, especially as a quarterback, because you're the most sought-after hit in terms of the defensive perspective. So if he can be protected, I think that goal is possible. He can play as long as he wants to."
Brady currently is playing with a left shoulder (non-throwing) injury that has to be managed during the playoffs. This week Brady sat out of Wednesday's practice to rehab and watched extra film of Baltimore's defense.
An under-the-radar aspect of Brady's longevity could be the development of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Both have been tremendous weapons and security blankets for Brady in their second season together.
Throwing in the middle of the field is the quickest and easiest completion for quarterbacks. It also keeps the pass rush at bay.
"They're obviously a huge part of what we do," Brady said of his tight ends this week. "They are on the field quite a bit and they’ve been healthy so it’s been good to have them both out there. ... They're pretty good with the ball in their hands and break a lot of tackles so that’s definitely a plus for us also. We have a lot of yards after catch this year, and those two guys certainly do a great job with the ball in their hands."
Patriots owner Robert Kraft still remembers when the late-round draft pick came to Foxborough as a long shot in 2000. Kraft shared a great story about his first encounter with Brady this week.
"I still have the image of Tom Brady coming down the old Foxboro Stadium steps with that pizza box under his arm, the skinny beanpole," Kraft said. "When he introduced himself to me and he said, ‘Hi, Mr. Kraft,’ and he was about to say who he was and [I said], ‘I know who you are, you’re Tom Brady, you’re our sixth-round draft choice.’ He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.' It looks like he could be right, although hiring Bill Belichick, I think, also has been a pretty good decision."
Brady's Hall of Fame legacy is secure. If he retired today, Brady already would be among the top quarterbacks ever to play the position. He has three Super Bowl rings and could tie his childhood hero -- Joe Montana -- for the most playoff victories (16) with a win over Baltimore Sunday.
But the difference between being a top-five quarterback and the greatest ever could come down to these next five years. Brady can tie Montana (four) and Terry Bradshaw (four) for the most titles in these playoffs. But if Brady plays through age 40, he has a legitimate shot at being the winningest quarterback in NFL history.
"I'm really happy that we have him as our quarterback," Kraft said. "I hope we have the best quarterback and coach in the history of the game. I guess to prove that, we have a little more execution that we have to do over the next few years. I certainly hope we do it."
But now that both Rodgers and Brees have been eliminated from the playoffs, more of the focus is on Brady. He is by far the best quarterback remaining in the postseason.
One week after tying an NFL playoff record with six touchdown passes, Brady has another chance Sunday to get into the record books. A win over Baltimore would tie Brady with Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana with 16 career playoff victories.
Brady may not at admit it this week, but this is one record he would look back on and cherish once his career is over. Brady grew up in San Mateo, Calif., and idolized Montana. Brady went to San Francisco 49ers games as a child and patterned much of his game after Montana.
If the Patriots win this week and the Super Bowl on Feb. 5, Brady would surpass Montana as the all-time winningest quarterback in the postseason. Brady also would be tied with Montana with four Super Bowl victories.
Winning is the ultimate measure of a quarterback and something Brady cares about much more than individual records. But to be able to potentially accomplish both during this playoff run is a great opportunity for the Patriots quarterback.
Three nuggets of knowledge about Saturday's Broncos-Patriots divisional-round game:
Gronk or Hernandez? New England tight end Aaron Hernandez had it right. This week he told reporters that the Broncos have to "pick your poison" on which tight end to defend. In Week 15, the Broncos chose to pay a lot of attention to Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, and Hernandez had a big game. Hernandez torched Denver for nine catches, 129 yards and a touchdown in a 41-23 victory. Gronkowski saw a lot of double coverage and caught just four passes for 53 yards, one of his lowest outputs of the season. The question is, will Denver adjust or keep the same strategy? Hernandez and Gronkowski are both capable of big games, and the pair needs to stay ready.
O-line at full strength: The Patriots are coming off a bye week and are as healthy as they've been in months. Two key offensive linemen are expected to return for the playoffs. Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins (knee) and starting offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (knee) both practiced this week. Protecting Brady will be key. New England throws the ball a lot, and the line has to protect him from Denver pass-rushing specialists Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller.
What made Sunday's announcement newsworthy was how completely obvious Brady was the top candidate. Brady is the first unanimous selection for MVP under the Associated Press' current selection process.
Brady received all 50 votes from AP's panel of media who cover the league. He also was a unanimous All-Pro selection and won the AP's offensive player of the year award on Tuesday.
Brady came one vote short of being a unanimous MVP choice in 2007, with the dissenting vote going to Brett Favre. Brady is the eighth player to take MVP honors multiple times, joining Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Favre, Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning.
Parcells has been there a few times. He took three teams to the Super Bowl. He won a pair with the New York Giants and lost another with the New England Patriots. Parcells has navigated his share of treacherous postseason games.
But Parcells, now a consultant with the Miami Dolphins, doesn't covet Ryan's road.
If the Jets do reach the Super Bowl, then they will have beaten Peyton Manning in Lucas Oil Stadium, Tom Brady in Gillette Stadium and Ben Roethlisberger at Heinz Field (twice in a month).
"I can't say I've ever faced three in a row like that," Parcells told me by phone from South Florida. "The closest I ever came to anything like that was Joe Montana and then Jim Kelly in the Super Bowl."
That was the 1990 season, but the Giants had a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage in the divisional round, where the Chicago Bears' quarterback was Mike Tomczak.
But before my conversation with Parcells found much traction on what it must be like to face such a homicidal lineup of quarterbacks, he put the job into perspective.
"I don't look at it like that," Parcells said. "Obviously, those are marquee, proven, winning quarterbacks. That's a difficult task.
"But I kind of look at it like they need to beat the Colts and the Patriots and the Steelers. The dynamics of each of those games is substantially different than the others aside from the fact they have those productive quarterbacks."
Parcells emphasized all opponents have liabilities to target as long as you look at them in their totality and not get too consumed with star players. It just so happens that none of the Jets' opponents are weak at quarterback.
With that, Parcells broke down some of his key points for the Jets and Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
Tim Graham: So you don't think we should focus too much on the quarterbacks the Jets have to face?
Bill Parcells: There are a lot of other things that come into play from a matchup standpoint besides the efficiency of the opponent's quarterback. I do think this game is a far different game than the one they played last weekend. The style of defense that both teams play will be markedly different than the ones employed by New England and the Colts.
TG: Can you give some examples?
BP: Pittsburgh plays a lot of zone, and they zone blitz and they're better against the run than the other two teams. Off the top of my head, if Pittsburgh is successful in defending the run, then the third-down efficiency of the Jets will probably go down. That will be an issue for the Jets.
Now, on the other side of the coin, Pittsburgh has shown some vulnerability to a good pass rush, and Pittsburgh has some injuries at tackle. The Jets didn't blitz much versus New England. You may see a very different plan from the Jets versus Pittsburgh because besides the fact Roethlisberger will hold the ball, which makes him a little more vulnerable, Pittsburgh doesn't look like they pass protect as well as, say, a team like New England.
The other element that I think is different this week for the Jets is that Pittsburgh has a definite deep threat in Mike Wallace. New England, in my opinion, doesn't have a player like that right now. That deep threat, I think, will force the Jets to do something.
TG: What are your thoughts on Mark Sanchez?
BP: My hat's off to him because he's done a good job for that team. But the key to the Jets more -- not so much that he's not a key because he is; he made some great throws the other day to win that game -- is the Jets' overall running attack. If they don't run the ball well and they're one-dimensional, they will have a hard time with Pittsburgh. If they have some good balance, I think you'll see the Jets have success. But the same's true for Pittsburgh, now. No different. They've got to do something, too, in the run game because I don't know if they'll pass block the Jets well enough to beat them if they don't.
Sanchez will be a good contributor. He'll do what he's been doing, which so far has been good enough.
They've already beat them out there [in Pittsburgh], so they have a good chance. But the game is a toss-up, to me. There's a lot more on the line right now. This is a lot different than a regular-season game. The Jets have a good special teams group. That's another thing Pittsburgh has to be concerned about.
TG: How much does the fact the Jets won at Heinz Field a month ago impact the rematch?
BP: The good thing about this game for the Jets is they've gone to Pittsburgh and beaten them already. So they know they can do it. Pittsburgh will have their ears up because, 'Gee whiz, they came in here and beat us once. They might be able to do that again.' The psychology of the game can play into both teams' hands. That could favor both teams. They both should be crystal clear on the situation.
TG: Troy Polamalu didn't play in that game, though.
BP: That's correct. But I think what will be an even more important weapon is the Steelers' tight end, Heath Miller. He didn't play last time either. In the grand scheme of things, that presents some issues. Polamalu is a player that you have to deal with. He's one of the 11 defenders. But offensively, you don't have any control over where he's going to be and what he's going to do. You have to react to him. Pittsburgh's tight end, the Jets can exercise a measure of control on that player if they want to attempt to.
TG: How do you think the game will go down?
BP: It should be interesting. It's going to be a great game. Both teams have done well, but I can't tell you what's going to happen anymore than I can tell you what's going to happen with the Bears and the Packers. If the Packers play like they played last week, they're going to win.
TG: Well, that's anticlimactic. ... But I can't thank you enough for your analysis, Bill. Should I have ESPN send a check?
BP: No, but remember this, Tim: Sometimes the value of my analysis is commensurate with what I'm charging you for it.
The reality, however, is that Sanchez has made it to the AFC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons with the New York Jets. He turned 24 years old in November, yet he already has tied the NFL record for road playoff victories.
Mediocre quarterbacks don't do that.
Clutch quarterbacks do.
"He's just one of those kids that has 'it,'" Jets backup quarterback Mark Brunell said, "and whatever 'it' may be is the ability to make the play that needs to be made -- clutch."
Sanchez's detractors don't see anything special, but among others, he's developing a reputation as one of those rare quarterbacks who excels in difficult spots. He can erase doubt Sunday by advancing to the Super Bowl with a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers and one of the NFL's few established clutch quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger.
Like art, the concept of "clutch" is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. Clutch performers execute when consequences escalate. Joe Montana was clutch. Michael Jordan was clutch. Tiger Woods, Reggie Jackson, Patrick Roy -- all clutch.
Sanchez isn't remotely near that echelon, but some expert observers claim he's getting there.
"It seems like it," Miami Dolphins consultant and two-time Super Bowl champion coach Bill Parcells said. "He's in his embryonic stage. So time will tell, but he's certainly showing some of the characteristics that are vital to that type of player.
"Sometimes with these quarterbacks it's not always pretty. But it becomes efficient."
Sanchez's numbers don't shriek competence. He ranked 25th in passer rating. Only three qualifying passers averaged fewer yards per attempt. Two completed a lower percentage of throws.
But over Sanchez's past 20 games, including the playoffs, he has directed five fourth-quarter comebacks and two more winning drives when the score was tied in the fourth quarter. Two of those victories were back-to-back on the road and in sudden death -- something that never before had happened.
Clutch? You betcha.
"Sanchez qualifies in the discussion for sure," noted quarterback guru Sam Wyche said. "Their record and the fact they have prevailed in this single-elimination tournament tells me he's had some clutch plays in 2010. There's no way a quarterback can be off much and get this far in the playoffs."
Wyche knows a little about clutch. He was the San Francisco 49ers' passing game coordinator for Montana's first four NFL seasons. Wyche later watched from the Cincinnati Bengals sideline when Montana orchestrated one of the most sublime clutch drives of all time to win Super Bowl XXIII.
Wyche explained clutch as a combination of attributes a quarterback must possess when the margin for error is skinniest. The quarterback must be poised, have the rules mastered, be mindful of field position, be skilled at clock management and be in command of his teammates.
"Clutch means making quicker decisions, generally unforgiving decisions," Wyche said. "You're at the end of the game. You don't have the second half to come back and rebound.
"In a time squeeze with two options -- throw the ball away or try to get it into a tight hole -- who makes the right decision?"
Another clutch quality is raising the performance level when it's essential.
Sanchez's 2010 regular-season stats were ordinary, and in many cases below average. He completed 54.8 percent of his throws, averaged 6.6 yards per attempt and tossed 17 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. His passer rating was 75.3, lower than Chad Henne's. The Dolphins benched Henne twice because of lackluster play.
A look at Sanchez's effectiveness in key situations indicates an even shakier quarterback. Among those who threw at least 10 times in the regular season, ESPN Stats & Information showed, Sanchez's passer rating was 48th in the fourth quarter and overtime, 38th on third down and 27th in the red zone.
But in Sanchez's five career playoff games, he has completed 60.5 percent of his throws, is averaging 7.4 yards per attempt and has seven touchdowns with three interceptions.
His 92.2 career postseason passer rating -- accumulated entirely on the road -- is 22.0 points higher than his regular-season rating.
Jets head coach Rex Ryan said that when it comes to being clutch "you either have it or you don't" and that Sanchez probably had it as a kid, regardless of the sport he tried "because the great ones, the competitors, find ways to win, and I think Mark is that kind of guy."
Back in November, with the Jets on a death-defying win streak, Ryan was asked about Sanchez's success. The Jets notched consecutive overtime road victories and a miracle against the Houston Texans at the Meadowlands, where Sanchez drove the Jets 72 yards for the winning touchdown in just 45 seconds. Sanchez delivered a dazzling 42-yard strike to Edwards along the right sideline and a perfect 6-yard toss to Santonio Holmes in the left corner of the end zone one play later.
The Steelers have one of those quarterbacks, too.
Roethlisberger owns two Super Bowl rings and has delivered 19 fourth-quarter comebacks and 25 winning drives over his career, according to ProFootballReference.com data. Three of them happened in the postseason, including that famous dart to a toe-dragging Holmes in Super Bowl XLIII.
Wyche compared Roethlisberger to Montana, whom the NFL Network named the No. 1 clutch quarterback of all time.
"This guy has the same kind of good fortune in the game," Wyche said. "He seems to zig when he's supposed to zig and doesn't zag. He seems to be able to throw the ball away or maybe get a great run out of his running back, and the players around him perform because they have the confidence that he's going to perform.
"He's just got that quality. It's a charisma thing, and you don't bet against it very often."
Sanchez already has beaten Roethlisberger head-to-head at Heinz Field this year. Roethlisberger posted better passing numbers, but Sanchez ran a fourth-down bootleg 7 yards for a touchdown.
No matter the outcome Sunday night, Sanchez should be considered one of the NFL's future stars. A 24-year-old doesn't advance this far twice in a row by accident.
"He's not mentioned in the same sentences as Peyton Manning or Tom Brady," Brunell said. "He doesn't have those numbers yet. He doesn't have a Super Bowl ring. But all indications are that he's going to be an elite quarterback someday, who will have those numbers and be mentioned with all those top guys like Drew Brees.
"He'll be there. For a guy in only his second year, it's pretty dang impressive what he's accomplished."