By Jason Keidel
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This is one of those rare, delicious autumn Sundays, when your team plays their team.
Though a native New Yorker, I bleed black and gold. Weaned on Mean Joe Greene, with a 1978 Terrible Towel hanging proudly in my home, I still speak in the collective — “we have six Super Bowl rings.”
Most of my friends, however, are hardcore Jets devotees.
And while a midseason NFL battle is always worth copious chest-thumping, smack-talking and endless, unanswered texts after the game, this week’s contest is a special tale of two teams. Fans of the losing squad brace for Facebook invectives and Twitter missives, with the winners being as clever and caustic as 140 characters allow.
The Jets are 1-3, their nostrils well below the .500 waters, and clawing for their playoff lives. Their trusted, Harvard-schooled quarterback who signed 60 seconds before training camp — presumably to build on the franchise-record numbers he posted last year — has morphed into Geno Smith, whom fans now want under center.
Everything is breaking bad for Gang Green. Their defense was supposed to suffocate the life out of opponents, yet are 16th in the NFL in yards allowed per game (355.2), 26th in passing yards allowed (285), and 21st in total points allowed (105).
On offense, the Jets are tied for 21st in total points scored (79) and 19th in passing yards per game (248.2). Matt Forte has led a pretty robust rushing attack, at 112.5 yards per game, which ranks 11th.
The Jets are last in the stat that makes most coaches wince — turnovers. With two takeaways and 13 giveaways, Gang Green posts a league-worst, minus-11 turnover margin. That includes a laughable 10 interceptions, which has fans calling for Ryan Fitzpatrick’s vocational head.
It’s no coincidence that of the top-10 teams in turnover differential, only one (Buffalo) has a .500 record. The other nine clubs are at least 3-1, with the NFL’s three remaining undefeated teams (Minnesota, Philadelphia and Denver) in the top six.
Last week, I dissected the disadvantage West Coast teams have when traveling to the East Coast, particularly for 1 p.m. games. Seattle had struggled mightily, outscored 75-0 in the first half of 1 p.m. playoff games in the Eastern and Central time zones since 2010. Yet Russell Wilson dissected the Jets with impunity, on brittle legs, with a suspect offensive line.
And here come the Steelers, with their scary, pyrotechnic attack. If the diminutive Russell Wilson was a problem, the Jets will find the hulking Ben Roethlisberger even more haunting and harder to tackle. And Roethlisberger leads the league’s best three-pronged assault.
While Antonio Brown is widely considered the best wideout in the sport — especially since Odell Beckham Jr. has morphed into Mike Tyson — Pittsburgh has a perfectly balanced attack. The Steelers are 12th in rushing and passing, with 112.3 and 262 yards per game, respectively. Unlike the Jets, Pittsburgh is relatively secure with the football, sporting a plus-1 turnover margin.
They average 27 points per game (No. 7 in the NFL), and now have the best all-around running back in the NFL back in the huddle. Le’Veon Bell made a resounding statement in his first game back after serving a three-game suspension, with 18 rushes for 144 yards (8.0 per carry), and six catches for 34 yards. His maiden game was reminiscent of his electric 2014 season — the only in which he played all 16 games — when he gained over 2,200 total yards rushing and receiving.
With Bell back, evidently better than ever, it will open wide swaths of space for Brown, who is becoming just as renowned for his spastic, twerking TD dances as for his innate ability to find the end zone. But unlike Beckham and other eccentric wide receivers, Brown’s bombast doesn’t drain the blood from the team.
If the “Three B’s” — Ben, Bell and Brown — remain healthy, no one doubts their potency. After spending much of the last few drafts trying to plug their defensive holes, the Steelers became the sleeper Super Bowl pick for many pundits.
Right now, they are more than healthy and hearty enough to put a dent in the Jets’ defense. Gang Green has arguably the best defensive line in the NFL, but if Pittsburgh can keep Muhammad Wilkerson, Leonard Williams and Sheldon Richardson from wrapping their meaty arms around Big Ben, then the Steelers should shred the Jets’ secondary. Revis Island has way more residents than it used to, and Calvin Pryor has looked lost.
We knew the Jets had an ornery road to October, opening with six opponents who made the playoffs last year. But the first game was lost by the Jets, more than won by the Bengals. And last week’s game was an eyesore of poor execution, defense and turnovers. Despite their woeful play, the Jets were only down 14-10 at halftime.
But bad teams blow those games. Good teams, which the Jets were, at least last year, find a way to steal those games, particularly at home.
The relatively good news for Jets fans is 1-3 teams have made the playoffs 21 times, or 14.5 percent, since 1990.
Maybe the odds are not comforting, but it can be done. It all starts Sunday at Heinz Field. Time to play catch-up at the Big Ketchup.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel