Sooner or later, Ben Roethlisberger is going to lose a game in the NFL.
Someday, the New York Jets are going to win one in Pittsburgh.
Both those things could happen as early as Saturday if the Jets can find a way to go into Heinz Field and beat the Steelers, who boast the NFL’s best record and its Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Roethlisberger had one of the best seasons ever by a rookie quarterback, setting an NFL record by winning his first 13 starts. Pittsburgh closed the season with a franchise-record 14-game winning streak, with Roethlisberger sitting out the season finale to rest sore ribs after the Steelers had already clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Included in the Steelers’ winning streak was a 17-6 home victory over the Jets on Dec. 12, dropping New York to 0-6 all-time in Pittsburgh. That was part of the Jets’ 5-6 record to close the season, which would have cost them a playoff spot if the Steelers, using mostly backups, had lost to Buffalo in their last game.
The defeat to Pittsburgh renewed criticism of both Chad Pennington and the Jets’ ability to beat good teams after he threw three interceptions while leading New York to just a pair of field goals.
“Obviously I didn’t play well the last time we played Pittsburgh, so those questions will be asked again,” said Pennington, who sat out practice Wednesday with a stomach virus. “We’ll handle those things and go up there ready to play.”
Pennington helped silence some criticism by leading New York to a 20-17 overtime victory over AFC West champion San Diego in the wild-card round. He was 23-of-33 for 279 yards and two touchdowns, including a 47-yarder to Santana Moss that was the longest TD pass of the season for a player who doesn’t have a particularly strong arm and struggled late in the season after a rotator cuff injury.
While Pennington’s failures have been well-documented, forgotten is how much Roethlisberger struggled in the regular-season game against the Jets. He was just 9-of-19 for 144 yards, threw two interceptions and was sacked twice. In fact, Pittsburgh’s lone touchdown pass was thrown by running back Jerome Bettis.
However, Roethlisberger was without deep threat Plaxico Burress, who caught a team-high five touchdown passes, for that game because of an injured hamstring.
“They were bringing a lot of people, and penalties hurt us a lot,” Roethlisberger said. “We did not play a good first half of football offensively. We made some mistakes, but the good thing is we got out with the win.”
The Jets have a better chance to pressure Roethlisberger if defensive end John Abraham can play. He has missed the last five games with a sprained right knee and is listed as questionable for this week.
Both teams can overcome struggles by their quarterback, because they prefer the run anyway.
Pittsburgh had the NFL’s second-best running attack behind the duo of Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis. The Steelers rushed for 154 yards per game, with Bettis rushing for most of his 941 yards and 13 touchdowns after Staley was forced to miss a number of games with a hamstring injury.
Staley finished with 830 yards and was well on his way to 1,000 as the featured back before missing six games. He is healthy now, but coach Bill Cowher has not yet said which will be the starting back Saturday.
“It doesn’t really matter, because I promise you both of us are going to play,” Bettis said. “It’s a two-headed monster. The guy who lines up there (to start the game) I don’t think is too significant.”
New York is right behind Pittsburgh in third place and has NFL rushing champion and Pittsburgh native Curtis Martin, who gained 1,697 yards, and LaMont Jordan, who had an important carry that set up the winning field goal in overtime last week.
Neither accomplished much against the Steelers’ top-ranked rushing defense, with Martin carrying 24 times for 72 yards and Jordan adding only 10 yards on his three carries.
The game matches fiery coaches Cowher and Herman Edwards, who earlier this week apologized for yelling at one of his assistants on the sideline of last week’s game. Cowher and Edwards were teammates with the Philadelphia Eagles in the mid-1980s, and both have enjoyed some postseason success as coaches.
Edwards has the Jets into the second round for the second time in three years, and last week became the first Jets coach to win a road playoff game since Walt Michaels in 1982. Cowher has led the Steelers to at least one win in each of their last six postseason appearances and is 7-4 at home in the playoffs.
The Steelers are 15-2 all-time against the Jets and would host the AFC championship game with another victory. If New York wins, it visits the winner of Sunday’s New England-Indianapolis game.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Jets - 2nd place, AFC East; beat San Diego Chargers 20-17 in OT in wild-card round. Steelers - 1st place, AFC North; first-round bye.
JETS LEADERS: Offense - Pennington, 2,673 passing yards and 16 passing TDs; Martin, 1,697 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs; Moss, 838 receiving yards and 5 receiving TDs; Justin McCareins, 56 receptions. Defense - Shaun Ellis, 11 sacks; Erik Coleman, 4 INTs.
STEELERS LEADERS: Offense - Roethlisberger, 2,621 passing yards and 17 passing TDs; Bettis, 941 rushing yards and 13 rushing TDs; Hines Ward, 80 receptions and 1,004 receiving yards; Burress, 5 receiving TDs. Defense - Aaron Smith, 8 sacks; Troy Polamalu, 5 INTs.
JETS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 149.2 yards per game (3rd in NFL); Passing Offense - 190.6 ypg (22nd); Total Offense - 339.9 ypg (12th). Rushing Defense - 97.9 ypg (5th); Passing Defense - 207.0 ypg (14th); Total Defense - 304.9 ypg (7th).
STEELERS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 154.0 ypg (2nd); Passing Offense - 170.0 ypg (28th); Total Offense - 324.0 ypg (16th). Rushing Defense - 81.2 ypg (1st); Passing Defense - 177.2 ypg (4th); Total Defense - 258.4 ypg (1st).
LAST MEETING: Dec. 12; Steelers, 17-6. At Pittsburgh, Bettis also rushed for a TD in the fourth quarter, helping the Steelers pull away after being tied 3-3 after three.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Jets - Martin has rushed for eight TDs in nine career playoff games. … Pennington is the Jets’ career playoff leader with six TD passes after throwing two last week to break a tie with Richard Todd and Vinny Testaverde. … DE Ellis had 1 1/2 sacks of Roethlisberger in the Week 14 game. Steelers - Pittsburgh last lost its opening playoff game in 1993 against Kansas City—where Edwards was the defensive backs coach. … Former Jet and current Steelers All-Pro James Farrior had four INTs, tied for the most by a LB this season. … Roethlisberger has announced he is donating his game check to the tsunami victims relief effort.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Jets - 5-4 on the road; Steelers - 8-0 at home.
INJURIES: Jets - QUESTIONABLE: DE Abraham (knee). PROBABLE: QB Pennington (illness); DT Dewayne Robertson (thigh); LB Kenyatta Wright (foot). Steelers - PROBABLE: LB Kendrell Bell (groin); RB Bettis (ankle); CB Ricardo Colclough (shoulder); LB Clark Haggans (groin); LB James Harrison (groin); RB Verron Haynes (knee); RB Staley (hamstring); CB Deshea Townsend (hand).