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Countdown to AFC Championship Game

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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CZAR: NFC Championship breakdown

The big edge in this game goes to New York’s offensive and defensive lines. The Jets should be able to sustain their blocks against Pittsburgh’s front, allowing Shonn Greene to run inside and freeing LaDainian Tomlinson for his end runs and screen receptions. New York’s pass rush could prove to be too much for Pittsburgh’s battered offensive line.

Pittsburgh’s most consistent offensive lineman this season has been rookie center Maurkice Pouncey, but if Pittsburgh can’t run a lick, it could be a long afternoon in what could be one of the coldest playoff games in Steelers history.

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: New York Jets at Pittsburgh, 6:30 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: This game figures to be a slugfest with two of the most physical defenses in the NFL. Until the weekend’s talk of telling their fans to pop the champagne and predicting a win, the Jets spent the week being rather subdued for a Rex Ryan team. Many believe the Jets acted that way because they know Pittsburgh’s defense can pop them in the mouth.

In New York’s win here late in the season, the Steelers were minus TE Heath Miller and perhaps the game’s finest safety, Troy Polamalu. Against New York’s blitz, Miller will be Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite target against safety Drew Coleman. Pittsburgh doesn’t believe Coleman can outmuscle Miller.

Yes, Roethlisberger makes so many plays while being hit or dragged to the ground, but the Jets would be wise to try stripping the ball from the big fella in order to create some turnovers. Roethlisberger doesn’t look to throw short, and has confidence in rookie WRs Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, both of whom can fly.

Surprisingly, the Jets won’t put CB Darrelle Revis on Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace, possibly the game’s fastest big-play receiver. Instead, Antonio Cromartie will have that assignment as Revis concentrates on Hines Ward. The Steelers will try to get RB Rashard Mendenhall unleashed in hopes of helping with some play-action attempts.

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Although Jets QB Mark Sanchez has had some erratic moments in the playoffs, he has won four road playoff games and was super in beating the Patriots last Sunday. He will face more pressure from the Steelers, but has a solid O-line and plenty of playmakers starting with Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery.

CZAR’S SCOOP: During the regular season, Jets punter Steve Weatherford tied an NFL record by placing 42 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. He had only four touchbacks. But in two playoff games, Weatherford has six touchbacks and two punts inside the 20. In the Dec. 19 win in Pittsburgh, Weatherford plopped three punts inside Pittsburgh’s 10-yard line, including one at the three that led to a New York safety.

Former Steeler Santonio Holmes, the MVP of Piitsburgh's sixth Super Bowl championship, had six receptions for 40 yards in the Jets’ 22-17 win over the Steelers  last month, his first trip back to Heinz Field since being traded. He was covered most of the game by CB Ike Taylor, a close friend with whom Holmes still communicates. Taylor said given the opportunity he will lay out Holmes today. “I think the personal game is out of the way,” Holmes said. “This time it means everything. Everything for myself, this team, this organization. We’re trying to get to the Super Bowl. If we win the Super Bowl, then everything is personal. That’s a slap back in those guys’ faces for trading me.”

The Steelers felt forced to unload Holmes, who failed a drug test and was suspended the first four games of this season in the aftermath of the Roethlisberger scandal in Georgia in which he also was suspended for the first four games of the season.

The Steelers won their only playoff game against New York and own a 15-4 record during the regular season. The Jets’ only victory in Pittsburgh happened a month ago. Former PK Jeff Reed’s field goal beat the Jets in the playoffs, but this time around Pittsburgh will be counting on Shaun Suisham.

Former Jet Dennis Byrd, whose motivational speech Saturday night inspired the Jets for their win over New England, will be their honorary captain. Byrd recovered to walk again after suffering broken vertebrae in 1992.

Look for the Jets to give new RT Wayne Hunter some help against the Pittsburgh linebackers. Backup lineman Rob Turner will be used as a blocking tight end. Even though Coleman could be a liability in coverage, he did have two strip-sacks of Roethlisberger in the previous meeting.

WR-KR Brad Smith (groin) practiced on a limited basis this week and hopes to play. His 97-yard kickoff return put the Steelers on their heels in the last game.

CZAR: NFC Championship breakdown

Tagged: Falcons, Bears, Packers, Jets, Steelers, Ike Taylor, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Heath Miller, Jay Cutler, Antonio Cromartie, Santonio Holmes, Devin Hester, Brad Smith, Drew Coleman, Steve Weatherford, Mike Wallace, Tim Masthay, Antonio Brown

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