NFL game predictions are usually a fool's errand. Take the Jets and Steelers. Coming off their opening-day games, in which an average of 63 points were scored, one might conclude that yellow-towel-twirling Heinz Field will play host to a real barnburner today.
But that, of course, would fly in the face of reason when arguably the teams with the two best recent defenses get together on the same pitch as they will late this afternoon (4:25 p.m. ET kickoff).
"If you look at the starter at each position, I like the matchup," hard-hitting Jets safety LaRon Landry said, pulling no punches, during the week. "I choose my guys over any of their guys, especially in our defensive scheme."
Head coach Rex Ryan tried to soften Landry's assessment just a bit.
"The thing we'll say is that both defenses are perennial top-five defenses," Ryan said. "Last year, obviously, Pittsburgh, tip your hat to them, they were No. 1 in the league in almost every category, so clearly they had a better year than we did. But both systems are built around their personnel. I think that's what good coaches do."
The defensive coaches for these two teams — Ryan and coordinator Mike Pettine for the Jets, Mike Tomlin and legendary DC Dick LeBeau for the Steelers — are as good as they come nowadays. It's easy to diminish NFL defenses by looking at the numbers during pro football's current age of pass-happiness, but rank the teams off their combined statistics from 2009 to present and it's no reach to say that the Jets and Steelers are the green and gold standard for the way defense should be played:
Rushing yards/game: Steelers 1st, Jets 6th
Passing yards/game: Jets 1st, Steelers 2nd
Opponents' passer rating: Jets 1st, Steelers 4th
Total yards/game: Steelers 1st, Jets 2nd
First downs allowed: Jets 1st, Steelers 2nd
Points allowed: Steelers 2nd, Jets 4th
This certainly portends for a defensive struggle alongside the confluence of the three rivers.
Yet here again there's a reason to hedge any predictions of a touchdown-less tête-à-tête. Both D's may be without key players.
The Jets, of course, have announced they're leaving CB Darrelle Revis (mild concussion) home for this game. Kyle Wilson will get the start and will try to keep that pass defense purring along against the likes of Ben Roethlisberger looking for his triumvirate of talented wideouts, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
Pittsburgh hasn't officially announced any sidelined starters, but reports out of the Steel City on Friday indicated that it's likely that LB James Harrison (questionable, knee) and S Troy Polamalu (questionable, calf). With the two former NFL Defensive Players of the Year sidelined or slowed, QB Mark Sanchez could be better protected to find WRs Santonio Holmes and rookie wunderkind Stephen Hill and perhaps TE Jeff Cumberland, playing for sidelined TE Dustin Keller (out, hamstring) downfield.
So make this a defensive struggle with some offensive opportunities.
Two more factors further cloud the crystal balls of the prognosticators. One set of factors surely indicates the Jets are in for, in Ryan's phrase, "tough sledding," and they all have to do with Pittsburgh's home excellence.
Steelers in their last nine home openers: 9-0. Average score:26-11.
Steelers in their nine home games all-time vs. the Jets: 8-1. Average score: 23-14.
Steelers vs. Rex Ryan teams since 2001: 9-2, including AFC Championship wins in 2008 (vs. Baltimore) and 2010 (vs. the Jets). Average score: 24-18.
Said Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, "We have a heck of a challenge on our hands this week, with this defense that we're playing and the place that we're going to play."
So then make it a solid Pittsburgh victory, eh, pigskin pickers?
Yet despite the history, the Green & White have a few factors falling in their favor. They are the hot team, coming off a 48-point effort against Buffalo, the most Week 1 points for any NFL team in the last nine seasons, and with four offensive touchdowns plus a defensive TD and a special-teams TD.
Tomlin's response to that: "I thought it was a good representation of a quality effort in all three phases of the football team."
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, comes home 0-1 after its 31-19 loss at Denver. The last time the Stillers opened a season 0-2 was 2002. One could look at that as another trend to be extended, or as a bit of added pressure on the home side that could take its toll. Wishful thinking? Perhaps.
But one more element of the visitors' attack could come roaring into play, and that is of course the elusive Tim Tebow Wildcat. The Jets species of 'Cat was sighted maybe once all preseason, in a practice goal-line drill. And it did appear Sunday against Buffalo when Tebow dropped back in the shotgun eight times. However, all eight plays were unexotic keepers and handoffs. Results: 21 yards.
"I guess there's some sort of benefit, them having to plan without knowing exactly what we'll do, which is good," Tebow said cagily about the Wildcat. "It definitely takes up more of their practice time and reps and thinking about certain things. So in that way I think it's a good thing."
Might the Wildcat strike it rich in Pittsburgh? Can the Jets buck most of the current trends and maintain their surprising (to some) start to the season? Will the defensive absences play more into the visitors' hands than the home side's?
This is why predicting scores is a risky business. This is why Ryan's frequently uttered line seems most appropriate to forecast the outcome of today's Jets-Steelers rematch:
"It's going to take everything we've got and we'll see what happens," said Rex. "Obviously we'll give that kind of effort, and at the end of the day we'll see if that'll be good enough to beat Pittsburgh."