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Jets, Steelers seek higher ground

Run and stopping the run figure to be the keys to the outcome of today's AFC Championship Game between the New York Jets and Steelers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, and there are some remarkable statistics on each side.

The Jets ranked fourth in rushing in the NFL with an average of 148.4 yards per game, yet had no back with more than 1,000 yards. Still, LaDainian Tomlinson (914) and Shonn Greene (766) formed an effective 1-2 punch, each averaging better than 4 yards per carry. They had eight rushing TDs between them.

They will be going against a Pittsburgh defense that led the league in rushing defense. The Steelers gave up only 62.8 yards per game and an average of 3.0 per attempt and just five rushing touchdowns.

But the most remarkable statistic of all is the number of runs for 10 yards or more the Steelers yielded. Only three. The Bills gave up that many in one defensive series. The longest running gain against Pittsburgh was for 24 yards by Michael Bush of Oakland in a 35-3 Raiders loss. Next came a 19-yard scramble by quarterback Joe Flacco of the Ravens, then a 17-yarder by BenJarvus Green-Ellis of the Patriots.

New England (103) and, perhaps significantly, the Jets (106) were the only teams to get more than 100 yards against Pittsburgh on the ground. The last individual to run for 100 or more against the Steelers was Ray Rice of Baltimore, who ran for 141 in a Week 16 game in 2009.

On the Pittsburgh side, workhorse Rashard Mendenhall ran 324 times for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 23 passes.

Success on the ground figures to be important to the passing effectiveness of quarterbacks Mark Sanchez of the Jets and Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers.

A closer look at the teams in today's AFC title game:

Jets (13-5) at Steelers (13-4)

TV: Ch. 4, 6:30 p.m.

The line: Steelers (-3 1/2 )

The scoop: The Jets defeated the Steelers, 22-17, at Heinz Field on Dec. 19, in a game they needed desperately after losses to New England (45-3) and Miami (10-6). New York scored the final 10 points to win in Pittsburgh for the first time ever in regular season or postseason. The game was tied, 17-all, in the fourth quarter. A field goal by Nick Folk broke the tie and the Jets added a safety when Jason Taylor tackled Mewelde Moore in the end zone. The Steelers played without strong safety Troy Polamalu, perhaps a key factor in the outcome.

That was one of six regular season games the Jets pulled out in the fourth quarter or overtime. New York also had dramatic wins in succession over Detroit, Cleveland and Houston. The Jets, in fact, had only three blowout wins in the regular season, routs of the Bills (38-14 and 38-7) and over Cincinnati (26-10). The low points were a 10-9 loss to Baltimore in the season opener at home when the Jets gave up 233 yards rushing and a 9-0 home loss to Green Bay when they were shut out despite amassing 360 yards.

Overall, New York is healthier than the Steelers. Wayne Hunter, who had starting experience in the regular season, will start at RT for the Jets in place of Damien Woody, who is on injured reserve. Return man and wildcat quarterback Brad Smith, who brought back the opening kick for a TD at Pittsburgh in their regular season meeting, missed last week's game but may be able to go today.

If the Jets have an edge over the Steelers it's in the defensive secondary with arguably the best cornerback pair in the NFL (Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie) and on the offensive line anchored by Pro Bowlers D'Brickashaw Ferguson at LT, Nick Mangold at C and Brandon Moore at RG. The Steelers have been patching up their O-line all season. Jonathon Scott, who played 10 games and started eight for the Bills in '09, will start at LT in place of veteran starter Max Starks (IR).

Matchup to watch: WR Mike Wallace is the Steelers' big-play receiver with a 21.0 average per catch and 10 TDs. Revis will probably be matched up against him when the Jets are in man coverage. That would put Cromartie against veteran Hines Ward, Pittsburgh's clutch man. Rookie Antonio Brown had the catch that set up the winning score for the Steelers in the divisional round win over the Ravens. Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Heath Miller become key targets for QB Roethlisberger if Wallace and Ward are blanketed by Revis and Cromartie.

Best player you probably know little about: Steelers second-year DE Ziggy Hood had just three sacks but consistently pressures rival passers. Hood is playing in place of Aaron Smith.

Fast fact: The Steelers allowed only five rushing touchdowns in the regular season. The Jets allowed 11.

Outlook: Coverage and the Patriots' lack of a true deep threat allowed the Jets pass rushers to pressure Tom Brady and sack him five times last week in Foxborough. Pass rush against a dinged-up Steelers line will lead to another Jets upset. New York, 27-20.

e-mail: mnorthrop@buffnews.com