In the NFL’s marquee matchup of Week 14, the Steelers will look to clinch the division and run their season-high winning streak to 11 games when they take on the Jets, who can put a hammerlock on an AFC wild-card spot with a victory.
Regardless of the Jets’ 0-5 all-time record at Pittsburgh, Steelers coach Bill Cowher is very concerned about this game, especially since his team will probably need to win to keep pace with defending Super Bowl champion New England. The Patriots host Cincinnati on Sunday, and will need to finish with a better record than the Steelers to take homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Cowher said the last thing his team can do is take the surging Jets lightly. New York leads the AFC wild-card race by two games and is just two out in the AFC East standings. With a win, the Steelers will be 12-1 for the first time since 1975. Pittsburgh went on to win Super Bowl X that season.
“From New York’s standpoint, they are still right in the thick of a divisional race and like I said, they are playing very well,” Cowher said. “They are a football team that will not beat themselves. They will impose themselves upon you.”
The similarities between Pittsburgh and New York are startling. First, each starts an up-and-coming quarterback from the Mid-American Conference. Steelers rookie sensation Ben Roethlisberger, from Miami of Ohio, has captivated the league by winning 10 straight starts to begin his career, an NFL record, while the Jets have mortgaged a good part of their future on steady Chad Pennington from Marshall.
Offensively, this game will feature the second- and third-ranked rushing offenses in the league, each with a pair of interchangeable backs.
The Steelers will certainly look to wear down the Jets with the tandem of Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis, who have combined for 1,385 yards and 12 touchdowns. On the other hand, New York has the league’s leading rusher in Curtis Martin (1,305 yards) and hard-nosed LaMont Jordan, who is averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
Defensively, the Steelers are ranked first overall and first against the run, while the Jets are allowing the fewest points per game, including six second-half shutouts this season.
The Jets have won three straight games, but their defense took a hit during last week’s 29-7 win over Houston. Defensive end John Abraham, who has been at or near the top of the league sack leaders all season, went down with a sprained knee and will not play against the Steelers.
That doesn’t seem to bother Jets coach Herman Edwards, who said his team has overcome injuries all season, including going 2-1 while Pennington was out with a shoulder injury.
“We’ve lost some guys, good players, but we don’t make excuses when players get hurt,” Edwards said. “We just continue to play. You continue to play and still try to win with players you have.”
The Steelers got some good news Wednesday as they learned Roethlisberger’s sore quadriceps will not keep him out of Sunday’s game. After sitting out the first few days of practice this week, Roethlisberger, who guided the Steelers down the field in the final minute to set up the winning field goal in a 17-16 victory over Jacksonville last week, returned to practice Thursday.
“I’m fine,” said Roethlisberger, whose passer rating of 103.2 is second in the AFC and completion percentage of 67.7 is second to Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning’s 71.1. “It’s not a problem.”
Pittsburgh, however, won’t have the services of wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who will miss a third consecutive game with a sore hamstring. He hasn’t played since getting hurt three minutes into the second quarter of a 19-14 victory Nov. 21 in Cincinnati.
Burress was initially expected to miss only one game, but now doesn’t want to take a chance by playing again until the injury is 100 percent healed.
“This is the first time I’ve hurt my hamstring so I’m just trying to take it day by day,” Burress said. “You don’t want to go there and hurt yourself for later down the road. I’ve always said that, if I don’t feel well, I’m not going to go out there and hurt my teammates or hurt myself more.”
The Jets may have proven they can win without their full complement of starters, but they are beginning a make-or-break stretch of games to end the season. After playing Pittsburgh, the Jets conclude the regular season against playoff hopefuls Seattle, New England and St. Louis.
“I’ve always told players it’s real simple in football,” Edwards said. “You win, you don’t have to worry about what anyone else does. You don’t have to worry about looking at scores. That’s been our mind-set for the last month, just win games.”
Pennington gives the Jets their best chance to do just that. He was an efficient 20-for-27 for 155 yards and two TDs last week after missing the previous three games.
“Something I see that Chad brought back to the team was that commanding attitude, that dominating spirit,” Martin said.