PITTSBURGH — If there’s a bigger-than-life coach, it has to be Rex Ryan. His outsized personality and outlandish comments — maybe not so absurd given what Ryan’s New York Jets have achieved — draw notice no matter the situation.
If there’s a bigger-than-most quarterback, literally and figuratively, it has to be Ben Roethlisberger. Not only because he’s 6-foot-5, 241 pounds, larger than some linebackers and stronger than nearly everyone else at his position, but because his credentials on the field and troubles away from it have been, well, so noticeable.
Ryan’s loud and proud Jets (13-5) face off with Roethlisberger’s fearless Steelers (13-4) on Sunday for the AFC championship. Even though both teams are blessed with playmakers galore, the centerpieces will be the bombastic coach and the controversial quarterback.
Better have a huge spotlight.
“You thought last week was emotional and all that,” says Ryan, referring to a 28-21 victory at New England that improved his postseason record as Jets coach to 4-1 and lifted his team into its second straight AFC title game. “Just wait until this week.”
This week, after his team beat Peyton Manning and the Colts, then Tom Brady and the Patriots, it’s all about Roethlisberger. This AFC championship game is Roethlisberger’s fourth in seven seasons, and he owns two Super Bowl rings.
But he’s never had a year like the last one, making as many headlines away from the game as he usually does with his playmaking skills.
Roethlisberger was accused in March of the sexual assault of a 20-year-old college student, but a prosecutor in Georgia declined to bring charges. Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for four games to start the 2010 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
The Steelers organization, among the most respected in sports, was incensed by Roethlisberger’s behavior. Pittsburghers were torn about supporting him, noting that Manning and Brady never betrayed their fans’ trust in such a way.
What did Roethlisberger do? Apparently, he grew up.
And he kept winning.
“The great thing is that was so long ago I forgot all about it,” he says. “Right now it is not about living in the past for me. It’s about here and now and this game.”
Ah, the game. Guess what the game could come down to: Ryan’s defensive mastery against Roethlisberger’s offensive creativity.
Both of them know it, too.
“Literally everything, from their coverages to their blitzes to rushing two guys and getting sacks,” Roethlisberger says of the challenge the Jets present. “They can go into Indianapolis and beat Peyton Manning and go to New England and beat Tom Brady, who are the best two quarterbacks in the game in my opinion. I don’t know how I have a chance.”
Don’t buy it. He’ll have plenty of opportunities. The Steelers are 4-point favorites to avenge their 22-17 loss to the Jets at Heinz Field on Dec. 19, when Roethlisberger drove Pittsburgh deep into New York’s red zone before throwing two incompletions at the end. Before that win, the Jets were 0-6 in the Steel City. Pittsburgh didn’t have star safety Troy Polamalu or tight end Heath Miller for that one; both will play Sunday.
The Steelers also won’t flinch in the pressure cooker that is the last step to the Super Bowl. For Roethlisberger, Polamalu, Hines Ward, James Harrison, James Farrior and many others, this isn’t new territory. It’s where they expect to be.
“It doesn’t change. The goal every year is to win the championship and this year is no different even if we have two under our belt,” Farrior says. “We have guys around here who have never played in a playoff game, or championship game, and we want them to experience that feeling of winning.
“No doubt about it, once you have been across that line and won a championship, you always want that same feeling, always striving to get that ring back.”
Ryan has no rings. The only Jets who do are receiver Santonio Holmes, who caught the winning pass from Roethlisberger in 2009 that lifted the Steelers past Arizona and earned him Super Bowl MVP honors; backup QB Mark Brunell, who held a similar role with New Orleans last year; and right tackle Damien Woody, now on injured reserve.
Otherwise, the Jets haven’t played for the biggest prize since Joe Namath guaranteed it a mere 42 years ago.
That might be intimidating for some. Not this bunch.
“The fact we’re playing against the Pittsburgh Steelers with about as rich of history as there is in this league, as far as having Super Bowl success, playing them at Pittsburgh, we know it’s going to be a huge challenge for us,” Ryan says. “There’s no doubt.
“But this is, we’ve called it before, a triple chin strap game, a straight-ahead, no-dodging game. Both teams are built the same.”
Not quite. The Steelers tend to rely on the draft; other than Farrior, Harrison and Ryan Clark, most of their main contributors were draft picks. The Jets do have many key draftees, from DE Shaun Ellis, who had a monster game in New England, to star cornerback Darrelle Revis to 2009 No. 1 Mark Sanchez, who already has four road playoff wins — twice as many total postseason victories as Namath had. A triumph Sunday will set an NFL record for away victories by a quarterback.
But the Jets play the free-agent game and make trades, especially this year in bringing in Holmes, CB Antonio Cromartie — no, he has not badmouthed Roethlisberger or anyone else this week after cursing out Brady before the New England game — LB Jason Taylor and RB LaDainian Tomlinson. Their idea — Ryan’s idea — is, simply, it’s time to collect some hardware.
“All I want to do is find a way to win, by one point, whatever,” Ryan says. “We want to be a part of that. I want that green and white confetti coming down. We want to hold the trophy, the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
“We want the hat, we want the T-shirts. That’s our mission. That’s what we want to accomplish.”
In a big way, of course.