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Jets-Steelers: Whose Confetti Will Reign?

Today the Jets take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers. It is the fifth AFC or AFL Championship Game in franchise history. It is their latest chance to play in a Super Bowl and earn a trophycase companion for the one Lombardi Trophy they won 41 years ago.

And with the Green & White playing the Black & Gold today, blue and white is still very much on many Jets' minds.

Call it Confetti Therapy. They can still feel the sting of the mental papercuts they received on the floor of Lucas Oil Stadium after last year's AFC title game loss to the Colts.

"Seeing all that blue and white confetti falling down on us," said linebacker Bryan Thomas, "it made me sick to my stomach."

"I think the fact that we had confetti dropped on our heads with another team's color on it," said head coach Rex Ryan, "is a motivator for us as well."

"You see that confetti coming down and Peyton and all those guys on the stage," quarterback Mark Sanchez reflected. "We want that to be us. We can't come up short this time."

Of course, someone else's tickertape stadium parade is not nearly enough to arm a team to win a conference title one year later. But also of course the Jets have a lot more than that going for them as they return to the venue of one of their greatest regular-season victories this year.

They also have payback on their minds.

The Jets already repaid the Colts for last year's indignity two weeks ago by prevailing on that same Lucas Oil pitch with their 17-16 AFC Wild Card victory. They got the ultimate revenge on the Patriots for their 45-3 Monday night loss in Foxboro in December with their 28-21 Divisional Round triumph at Gillette last week.

Not to mention that a victory would be the Jets' 14th of 2010, the first time they would have reached 14, regular season and playoffs combined, in 51 seasons of franchise history.

A win on Sunday night amid the small mountains of western Pennsylvania would also do wonders to wipe out the memory for a few Jets who endured the 20-17 overtime loss to the Steelers at Heinz in the 2004 Divisional Round Game.

Thomas said he heard an ESPN flashback on that game this week mentioning that Shaun Ellis and Jerricho Cotchery were the only Jets left from that bitter defeat after Doug Brien missed two game-winning field goal tries in the final two minutes of regulation.

"Who else was there? Brandon Moore was there. I was there," Thomas said. "I'm not saying I want to be remembered for playing in that game. But I was there fighting my butt off."

"We had 'em, we had 'em, we had 'em," Ellis said that day in the stunned visitors' locker room that day. "We just couldn't close them out."

But the Jets, who closed down the Steelers at Heinz, 22-17, five weeks ago, can take them out tonight.

Also working for the Jets is their comeback ability — fourth-quarter/overtime triumphs at Denver, Detroit and Cleveland, home against Houston, at Indy in the playoffs. They have their road prowess — an NFL-record four road playoff wins in back-to-back seasons, an 8-2 record away from home this year, 15-6 in two years under Ryan. They have Rex, the first first-time head coach in the Super Bowl era to inherit a team that didn't make the playoffs and take it to two consecutive conference title games.

Naturally, the Steelers have quite a bit going for them. Their homefield. Head coach Mike Tomlin's steady hand. Big-game-tested performers in Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and others. Their tradition.

But in an otherwise respectful week of banter with his old AFC North nemesis Tomlin, Ryan reminded, in T-Rex fashion, "They've had six Super Bowl trophies. If they want to put them on the field, we'll play them, too."

The matchups have been detailed during the week. Pittsburgh? Top run defense. Jets? Top offensive line, well-rested backs in LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene. Steelers? Polamalu back on the field. Jets? Sanchez and his multiple weapons that appear to be hitting their stride. Pitt? Roethlisberger handing off to Rashard Mendenhall, passing to Ward and Mike Wallace. Jets? A team defense led by LBs David Harris and Bart "CAN'T WAIT!" Scott, Darrelle Revis on the back end, Ellis and company up front.

As Moore said, about his linemates but applicable to both teams at this time of year: "In these games it always comes down to execution."

Which side will execute better? The Steelers still have plenty of stars and starters left from their two Super Bowl winners after the 2005 and '08 seasons. The Jets have the MVP from that latter game in WR Santonio Holmes, plus two more players who've been to the Super Bowl (Trevor Pryce, Mark Brunell) and a number who have never been to the Big Dance and want to do it in green and white (Jason Taylor, Tomlinson, Ellis, Tony Richardson).

Health is a non-issue. Polamalu may not be 100 percent on his ravaged Achilles that kept him out of the first Jets meeting, but he practiced full on Friday and is probable for this game. For the Jets, Taylor (concussion) is probable, Sanchez's right shoulder is "better than last week," Brad Smith, who opened the December game with a kickoff-return touchdown, "looks great," said Ryan.

There are no guarantees anymore. It's no one's "turn" to go. As Clint Eastwood told Gene Hackman in "Unforgiven," "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it." If the Jets are going to go to Dallas and play in Super Bowl XLV two weeks from tonight, they will have to take a tough victory out of Heinz Field.

Ryan, who came to the Jets talking about the Super Bowl and meeting with President Obama and mentioned it, oh, a few hundred times this season, from "Hard Knocks" through this week, said his team is ready and there is no fear of suffering a letdown after last week's monster win at New England.

"I can assure you we're going to play well and I can assure you that they're going to get everything we have," Ryan said. "We know what's at stake here. We want the T-shirt, we want the hat and we want the trophy. I don't know what else I need to say."

Oh, yeah, one more thing. Hold the black and gold confetti.

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