Big Question: Troy Polamalu Factor

How much will Troy Polamalu affect the Jets?

There are a few ways to measure how the Pittsburgh Steelers fell short against the New York Jets a month ago.

The most obvious measurement was the five-point margin on the scoreboard, 22-17.

The Steelers also lost by 10 yards, getting the ball exactly that far away from the goal line with two cracks at the end zone in the final seconds.

The Steelers lost by two unusual plays, a 97-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff and a fourth-quarter safety that eliminated the possibility of a chip-shot field goal to force overtime.

You can also say the Steelers lost by a hair.

Or, maybe more accurately, several thousand bushy ones tufted over the nameplate on Polamalu's jersey.

The Steelers safety is one of the NFL's premier defensive playmakers. He didn't suit up against the Jets in Week 15 because of an Achilles injury.

In the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez not only must be mindful of Polamalu on every snap, but also constantly wonder whether Polamalu is setting him up. Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson deemed Polamalu's presence "obviously a massive strain" for any quarterback, certainly more stressful that facing Ryan Mundy.

"He's the ultimate playmaker," Sanchez said of Polamalu. "He'll do anything. He'll sacrifice his body. He'll kind of freelance out there and read your eyes. Especially a young quarterback, he'll try to get after you early and rattle you."

Polamalu is great all by himself. He's a hard-hitting safety with a penchant for forcing turnovers. He's great against the run and dogged in pass coverage.

Even more than that, he's one of those rare forces who allows the other 10 defenders on the field to get more aggressive and take chances. With Polamalu on the field, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has the confidence to dial up special plays.

"This defense is entirely different when No. 43 is in the lineup," Williamson said. "LeBeau gives him a lot of freedom to freelance and go make a play outside the structure of the defense. They use him in every way possible, and he excels in every way possible."

Polamalu finished the regular season with 63 tackles, one sack, seven interceptions for 101 yards and a touchdown, 11 passes defensed and a forced fumble.

Polamalu's bearing on the Steelers is so unusual that he actually affects the point spread.

"He's the one guy on any defense that, when he's missing, it's almost like a starting quarterback missing," said Las Vegas Sports Consultants senior oddsmaker Mike Seba. "It's not quite as much of an impact as a quarterback on the point spread, but almost."

Seba claimed Polamalu's presence is worth a point, "which is saying a lot for a defensive player." By comparison, Jets star cornerback Darrelle Revis would affect the spread by half a point or less.

That said, Polamalu did have a substandard game Saturday in the divisional round victory over the Baltimore Ravens. He made two tackles, whiffed on a couple and didn't record any passes defensed, turnovers or sacks. But just having Polamalu on the field probably mattered.

"When they always say he plays with his hair on fire, I think it's an accurate thing," Jets head coach Rex Ryan said, "and his hair is ridiculous. The guy is amazing.

"How do you not love watching the guy play? I hate watching him play if he is against us. He should probably rest up and not play this week."