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Conference Championship Sunday

And then there were four. It has been ten seasons since the New York Jets have made it this far. The Jets entered the 1998 season with high hopes. It was the second year of the Bill Parcells era. Curtis Martin was brought in from the New England Patriots as a free agent in the summer, adding fuel to the ever-burning fire of the Jets-Pats rivalry, and the Jets had a new quarterback in…Glen Foley. Neil O’Donnell was cast aside, and Foley got the reigns from the Tuna. But his stewardship of the Jets was short lived as injuries and poor play lost the job for Foley as veteran QB and Long Island native Vinny Testeverde stepped in and led the Jets to their best season in three decades, capturing a 12-4 record and their first AFC East crown (their last division title was the AFL East in 1968, as four teams from the AFC East made the playoffs that year) as well as a first round bye in the playoffs. After dispatching of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Divisional Round, the Jets went out to Denver to play the defending champion Broncos led by John Elway. Even though the Jets led 10-0 in the third, the Broncos stormed back with 23 unanswered points for a 23-10 victory en route to their second straight Super Bowl. The Jets have never advanced as far since.
Unlike the rest of the Jets fans out there I’m optimistic about the future. Their potential next coach could be on the sidelines this Sunday, trying to coach his team into the Super Bowl. And if the moribund Arizona Cardinals can get that opportunity, so can the Jets.

Philadelphia Eagles vs. Arizona Cardinals
The consensus for this game is pretty evenly split. Six weeks ago, these teams didn’t look like they deserved to be in the playoffs. Now one of them will be in Tampa for the Super Bowl. Nobody outside of Scottsdale thought the Cards would make it this far, and if the home crowd advantage can work like it did against Atlanta, a victory could be in the Cards. But Donovan McNabb is no rookie. This is likely the last chance McNabb and coach Andy Reid will have to make the Super Bowl together. This is their fifth NFC Championship game together, but they only have a 1-3 record (But compare that to the Cowboys zero playoff victories since 1996, the Giants only playoff wins of the decade coming last season, and the Redskins have not been past the second round since 1991, and the Eagles look very successful in that span). The Eagles will have to pressure cornerback Kurt Warner (much like the Jets did back in week 4) and contain Larry Fitzgerald, who has emerged as the undisputed best wide receiver in the league. They also need a big game (or a couple big plays) from Brian Westbrook, who scored four TDs against Arizona in their Thanksgiving Night tilt. McNabb and Co. won’t let this opportunity slip away. The Eagles will fly to Tampa.

Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
If not the best, this is the most brutal rivalry in football. These defensive-oriented run-first teams hit hard on both side of the ball, and they truly detest one another. The Steelers won both games this year by a combined seven points, but it’s known if that helps or hurts their chances on Sunday, as it is extremely difficult to beat a team three times in one season, especially one as good as the Ravens. Joe Flacco has proved unflappable so far in the postseason, using a smart and steady hand to get the Ravens this far. But the Steelers defense he faces is the most viscous of them all, outside of his own defense. He will need to play another zero-turnover, zero-fumble, zero-sack game to beat the Steelers this time around. The Ravens defense struggled containing Tennessee’s Chris Johnson before his injury last week, and Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker is another fast back that could get past the Ravens D. Just tell Ben Roethlisberger (writers HATE writing that name, and announcers don’t like to say it much either, which is the only reason he is on a first-name basis with the media. It is much easier to say and write “Ben”) to keep the ball away from Ed Reed. Each of these teams has Super Bowl winning players on the roster, and this game will be treated like one. The Steelers were the only team to defend home field last week. Their home field advantage and fast, smart defense could be enough to throw Flacco off his game and send the Steelers back to the Super Bowl.

Jason Levy

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