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AFC: Many Will Be Watching Rex's Defense

010709_rex_ryan_320.jpg is profiling all the NFL playoff games, with a special eye on Jets angles in each of the matchups. Today: the AFC Championship Game on Sunday evening:    

(6) BALTIMORE (13-5) at (2) PITTSBURGH (13-4), 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS


Will Rex Ryan soon be named the 18th head coach of the New York Jets?

That's what Jets fans will be thinking Sunday evening as they watch the Ravens coordinator direct his tremendous defense against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. That Ravens D, which finished second overall in yards allowed in the regular season and has finished in the NFL's top six in each of Ryan's four years as defensive playcaller, has been phenomenal during Baltimore's playoff run.

A number of reports this week have indicated that Ryan is the Jets' frontrunner. Last Sunday, Jets owner Woody Johnson and general manger Mike Tannenbaum took a trip down I-95 to interview Ryan in Baltimore.

"If he becomes a head coach, he's going to do a great job," Ravens president Dick Cass said this week in an interview with Bloomberg Radio. "We sort of wish he would maybe stay here one more year, but that's what happens when you're successful."

In addition to interviewing with the Green & White, Ryan also met with the St. Louis Rams about their head-coaching vacancy.

"Rex will be a tremendous head coach for whoever is smart enough to hire him right now," said John Harbaugh, Baltimore's rookie head coach. "We're hoping he stays. But that's a great opportunity for him, either one of those spots."

But Ryan, the son of former Jets assistant Buddy Ryan, wants to land in Tampa to close the 2008 season. In order to do that, the banged-up Ravens have to get past their AFC North rivals and that's something they've failed to do in '08.

When the clubs met in Pittsburgh back in September, the Steelers edged the Ravens, 23-30. The in the December return engagement, the Men of Steel gutted out a 13-9 win as Big Ben Roethlisberger connected with Santonio Holmes on a controversial touchdown from 4 yards out with just 43 seconds remaining.

"This is like our biggest win," Holmes said. "I know we won the Super Bowl, but you just can't understand the feeling of the players in this locker room right now."

The AFC's sixth-seeded Ravens, who topped the Dolphins, 27-9, in the wild-card round and followed up divisional weekend with a 13-10 win over the Titans, have injury issues with 10 starters on the mend, including All-Pro LB Terrell Suggs.

Statistical Picture

This third matchup will be a charm. For whom, though?

Since the NFL merger in 1970, 61 percent of the teams (11 of 18) that won both regular-season contests against a division opponent also took home the third meeting in the postseason.

"I personally don't subscribe to that hocus-pocus. What happened in the other games will have no bearing on the outcome of this game," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "Each individual performance stands on its own. We're not buying into that."

Since the NFL introduced its open date in 1990, no team has played games in 18 consecutive weeks. That will all change Sunday when the Ravens line up at Heinz Field and try to complete a road playoff sweep.

Hurricane Ike forced a rescheduling of the Ravens' game at Houston after Harbaugh's club prepared the entire week for a Week 2 date. So Baltimore's originally scheduled bye, Nov. 9, became the makeup date for the game with the Texans.

"I think we like it this way. After we lost the bye week, we understood where we were going to be," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We understood what we had to do. We understood the obstacles that were going to be in front of us."

Both offenses have unenviable tasks ahead. The Steelers were the NFL's top defense in the regular season and the Ravens were second. Ryan's crew has amassed eight takeaways in two games against conservative offenses while the Steelers held the explosive Chargers to just 290 total yards last weekend.

Playoff Histories

In the only postseason meeting between the two, the Steelers downed the Ravens, then the defending NFL champions, 27-10, in the AFC Divisional Round on Jan. 20, 2002.

In that game, Pittsburgh totaled four takeaways and put up more points on Baltimore than the visitors had allowed in their previous five playoff wins combined (26).

"They've got that swagger, but they can swagger their butts back to Baltimore," said Steelers WR Hines Ward.

The city of Baltimore has been shut out by Pittsburgh in the NFL's postseason. Following both the 1975 and '76 campaigns, the Steelers were victorious over the Colts in the divisional round.

Despite having lost four of five AFC Championship Games at home since 1994, Pittsburgh has five Super Bowl trophies. The Ravens, who opened for business in 1996, won their first NFL championship on Jan. 28, 2001 with their blowout win over the New York Giants.

Jet Fuel

Former members of the Jets organization include Ravens' TE Daniel Wilcox and WR coach Tim Hostler and Steelers S Tyrone Carter and ILB James Farrior. But the Ryan watch continues for Jets Nation.

"I've worked all my life to get ready for an opportunity to be a head coach. I'm not going to be a phony. I'm going to be myself, and hopefully it's good enough for somebody," Ryan has said. "If not, then I'll stay here and coach this defense like I've been doing."

When Top Defenses Meet

This matchup is the fifth time since the 1970 merger that the NFL's top two regular-season defenses in yardage allowed have met in the postseason, and the first time for a conference championship. And in all those games, one of the top defenses showed up. Here are those games (home teams in CAPS):

 Year Round No. 1 Def. No. 2 Def. Final Score
 1978 NFC Div. L.A. Rams Dallas Cowboys, 28-0
 1985 NFC Div. Chicago N.Y. Giants BEARS, 21-0
 2000 AFC Div. Tennessee Baltimore Ravens, 24-10
 2001 AFC Div. Pittsburgh Baltimore STEELERS, 27-10
2008 AFC Champ. Pittsburgh Baltimore  

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