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Sun, Jan 23, 2011 - 6:30 PM ET
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Jets-Steelers Preview

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Three teams - and three of the NFL's highest-profile quarterbacks - have represented the AFC in the past seven Super Bowls, a trend that can continue Sunday at Heinz Field with a victory by Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Don't expect the New York Jets to be intimidated.

The sixth-seeded Jets have gotten through Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to punch a ticket to their second straight AFC championship game, leaving Roethlisberger's Steelers as the last obstacle to their first Super Bowl appearance in 42 years.

With rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez and rookie head coach Rex Ryan, New York was a surprise participant in last season's conference championship game, a 30-17 loss in Indianapolis.

The Jets were among the favorites to win the AFC heading into this season, but the same couldn't be said as they entered the playoffs as the No. 6 seed - a path only the 2005 Steelers have taken to a Super Bowl victory.

That road started with a rematch against the Colts that Ryan called "personal" between himself and Manning. New York won 17-16, leading to a game with an even more significant revenge factor.

The Jets (13-5) didn't let a 45-3 drubbing by Brady and the Patriots in Week 13 diminish their confidence. After Ryan and many Jets players spent the week needling New England in the media, they backed up their words last Sunday in a 28-21 upset of the NFL's top team behind Sanchez's three touchdown passes.

"We don't care what people say or whether they like us," All-Pro cornerback and Pittsburgh native Darrelle Revis said. "We just focus on what we need to do to win games."

The Jets aren't just winning - they're threatening to shake up a conference that's been dominated by three teams for much of the last decade. Manning's Colts, Brady's Patriots and Roethlisberger's Steelers have represented the AFC in every Super Bowl since 2003.

After getting past Brady and Manning, it's only fitting what's standing between New York and its first appearance on the league's grandest stage since Super Bowl III.

"Big Ben, he's next on our list," receiver Braylon Edwards said.

Roethlisberger has the Steelers (13-4) in their fourth AFC championship game in his seven years in the league after it looked like his team might be one-and-done at halftime last Saturday against Baltimore.

Two turnovers helped put Pittsburgh in a 21-7 hole, but Roethlisberger led it back. The two-time Super Bowl winner threw two third-quarter TDs to tie the score, then completed a 58-yard pass to rookie Antonio Brown on third-and-19 late in the fourth, setting up Rashard Mendenhall's score to punctuate a 31-24 victory.

"(Ben) may not be Brady or all those other guys, but when I see him in the huddle I know we've got a chance to win," receiver Hines Ward said. "He's a proven winner."

Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie seems to agree. A week after calling Brady an expletive, Cromartie had nothing but praise for Roethlisberger, who's 9-2 in the postseason.

"I love Ben, man," said Cromartie. "Ben's a competitor."

Ryan says facing the 6-foot-5, 241-pound Roethlisberger is hardly the same as preparing for Manning or Brady, the latter of whom the Jets sacked five times Sunday.

"(Manning and Brady) approach things a little different," said Ryan, who lost the 2009 AFC title game in Pittsburgh as Baltimore's defensive coordinator. "Roethlisberger will beat you up. ... I've never seen a guy take the hits he can take and also make people miss the way he does and be as accurate on the run."

The speedy Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace give Roethlisberger plenty of chances to make plays down the field, but the Jets largely eliminated those options in Week 15 at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger averaged a season-low 6.0 yards per attempt in a 22-17 loss.

"They're a really good defense," Roethlisberger said. "They try and confuse. That's the big thing they do. ... You don't know where people are lining up and how to identify them.

"The Jets' defense beat the two best quarterbacks in the game at their place. I don't know how I'm going to do it."

With Cromartie and Revis likely shadowing Ward and Wallace, that could leave some room in the middle for tight end Heath Miller, who missed the regular-season meeting with a concussion.

Also sitting out that game was All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, who's now playing despite a strained Achilles'. Pittsburgh is 31-8 with Polamalu in the lineup since 2008 and 6-7 without him.

Jets wideout and former Steeler Santonio Holmes called Polamalu the "greatest player" he has ever seen play in person.

With plenty of game-changing players in the secondary, running could be key even though Pittsburgh and New York finished first and third, respectively, in rush defense. The Jets ran for 106 yards behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Green in the regular-season meeting while Mendenhall had 99 of Pittsburgh's 146.

Both totals were the most either defense has allowed.

While many doubted Sanchez's ability to win a game through the air, he didn't look like a quarterback who's merely a caretaker Sunday. Sanchez is 4-1 on the road in the postseason, and his playoff passer rating is 92.2 - 22.0 higher than in the regular season.

One Jet who may be more motivated than most Sunday is Holmes, the Super Bowl XLIII MVP who Pittsburgh traded for a fifth-round pick in April following his repeated off-field troubles.

Holmes insists he's not out for revenge.

"I got a chance to beat those guys the first time around," Holmes said. "I don't care about the Steelers right now. ... If we win the Super Bowl, that's a slap back in (their) face for trading me. But right now it's not a focus of mine."

Pittsburgh, which is 5-5 in conference championship games at home, will certainly be monitoring the health of Jets return man Brad Smith. Smith returned the opening kickoff for a score in Week 15 but missed last week's game with a groin injury.

Tagged: Colts, Patriots, Jets, Steelers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Cromartie, Santonio Holmes, Brad Smith, Mark Sanchez, Antonio Brown

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