There are a good number of positional battles to keep an eye on in this week's AFC and NFC Conference Championship games. Here are the ones that take center stage: Will Rex Ryan and Darrelle Revis decide to strand the clutch but aging Hines Ward on Revis Island? Or will it be the speedy Mike Wallace, who burned the Jets for 110 yards receiving in the first meeting between these teams? It’s one of the mysteries that neither Ryan nor Revis will reveal, but it could be crucial to the outcome. Ward has a knack for making the big play, even if he’s 34, in his 13 th season and not as swift as he once was. But Wallace toasted Antonio Cromartie the last time the Jets went down that path. Odds are Revis will shade Wallace and the Jets will take their chances with Ward.
2 of 10Heinz Kluetmeier/SI; Paul Lindenfelser/Southcreek Globe/Icon SMI; Peter Read Miller/SI
The between-the-hashes offensive attack of the Jets should be huge. In their regular-season loss to the Jets, the deep middle of the field was exploited by Mark Sanchez. But of course, Polamalu did not play because of injury. With Polamalu and inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons so keyed on the powerful Jets inside running game, make no mistake Jets tight end Dustin Keller will be integral either crossing behind linebackers or trying to split the safeties and catch one out of position. Keller was held to just 15 yards against the Patriots and couldn’t get going in the first meeting with the Steelers, either. He’ll be targeted this time, for certain.
3 of 10Fred Vuich/SI
They call Hampton "Big Snack" for a reason. He’s huge. And he eats up the middle of the field, rendering opposing rushing attacks useless. Establishing a beach front, if you will, at the center of the Steelers’ defense is the biggest key to what happens Sunday. Mangold is arguably the best center in the game and has been the glue that’s made the Jets’ ground game so successful, averaging nearly 160 yards over the final three games of the regular season and first two playoff games. The Steelers have the best rush defense in the league and one of the best in NFL history.
4 of 10Bill Frakes/SI
Rex Ryan and the Jets’ blitzing philosophy has been completely unpredictable since the last time these teams met. Known as a team that starts bringing the pressure as soon as it gets off the bus, the Jets blitzed much less often in playoff wins over Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Was that out of respect for Brady’s and Manning’s ability to toast blitzing teams, or a tribute to the confidence Ryan has in his secondary? Four of the five sacks on Brady were clear "cover" sacks. When the Jets did blitz, they were well-disguised and successful. Against Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan should be much more likely to bring blitzes, because he’s much easier to get to and prone to hold the ball longer.
5 of 10George Gojkovich/Getty Images; Bill Frakes, Al Tielemans/SI
The explosive kick returner and Wildcat-formation quarterback said he was, “leaps and bounds” better Wednesday, after sitting out the divisional win over the Patriots with a groin injury. And that’s exactly what the Steelers are worried about – Smith’s leaps and bounds. Probably the biggest X-factor in the Jets’ attack, Smith is capable of busting a huge play out of the wildcat formation. When you hear about defenses, “holding the edge” it’s usually because players like Smith can exploit hair-on-fire pass-rushers like James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley’s attacking style. If Smith breaks free, it could be decisive. The same is true with his kick-return ability.
6 of 10Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images; AP
Aaron Rodgers is the hottest quarterback left standing and only seems to get better with every outing. The vaunted Bears’ pass rush has been anything but itself against the Packers this year. On the way to racking up 546 yards this postseason, with six touchdowns and no interceptions, Rodgers consistently has spread the ball to all of his receivers. If the Bears can’t get to Rodgers, it will be on Harris, the free safety, helping Jennings, who figures to be attacked on the outside.
7 of 10Heinz Kluetmeier/SI; AP
If there’s one player who clearly has the advantage in what could be dicey field conditions, it’s Hester. The slightest slip in coverage and Hester likely will break the game wide-open. That’s what he did in the first meeting. Mathay couldn’t avoid Hester and coverage was destroyed, with a 62-yard Hester punt return being the decisive blow in the Bears’ 20-17 win. In the Packers’ win later in the season, Hester was allowed to return just two of eight punts. Masthay must be precise and hang the ball or one play may decide it, again.
8 of 10Al Tielemans/SI; Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
After Starks stunned the Eagles with huge runs in the wild-card playoff win, he wasn’t nearly the same factor in the Aaron Rodgers-led romp in Atlanta. That’s not to say Starks was ineffective, however. He was. In two playoff games, Starks has run for nearly twice as many yards (198) as he did the entire regular season (101). Against the league’s No. 2-rated rush defense, a key factor will be whether Starks can churn out some yardage against a defense that surely will be focused much more on pass coverage against Aaron Rodgers. If he does, the Packers have showed they’re not afraid to keep feeding Starks until the defense decides to bring another player to the line of scrimmage.
9 of 10Tom Dahlin/Getty Images
Much like the Casey Hampton-Nick Mangold battle in the AFC Championship, the point-of-attack in the middle of the field should be crucial. Even more so on what figures to be less than perfect field conditions, any leverage either Raji or Kreutz establishes could lead to a big day for Matt Forte or inside-backer A.J. Hawk. An often overlooked fact about the otherwise tremendous Packers’ defense: It’s been prone to give up yardage on the ground, ranking 18 th during the regular season. Specifically between the tackles, the Packers have been susceptible to losing key short-yardage battles.
10 of 10WD/Icon SMI; Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
It took a long time for Cutler to endear himself to Bears fans, because he’s been prone to the hiccup-type game, as well as the untimely turnover. This has been Cutler’s breakout season. Still, Capers is a master at crafting an array of confusing pass-rush schemes and disguising them well. It may be Clay Matthews garnering all the headlines, but Capers will bring any combination of Matthews, inside linebackers A.J.Hawk and Desmond Bishop, defensive backs Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams and more. After giving up the notorious 10-sack effort early against the Vikings, the Bears’ offensive line and coordinator Mike Martz have adjusted well. If Capers wins the mind-game battle, or Martz gets too greedy, Cutler could give up pivotal turnovers.
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