On January 24, 2010, Rex Ryan and the New York Jets ran a gamut of emotions. With minutes to go before halftime of the AFC Championship Game, the Jets had the Indianapolis Colts buried 17-6, and Peyton Manning was sputtering like a rusty engine. However, before the two teams could adjourn to their locker rooms, Manning quickly put together a stunning drive, hitting Austin Collie for a touchdown with 1:13 left. The Jets, in the second half, were suddenly without an answer. Manning and the Colts tacked on another 17 points, winning 30-17, and ending Rex Ryan’s first year as head coach earlier than the brash Oklahoman had hoped. Fifty weeks later, the two teams meet again, albeit in the Wild Card round. Just like last year, it’s a battle of big names with reputable egos, and the losing team has no choice but to ingest a rather bitter pill.
1. What’s changed from last year’s AFC Championship?
The biggest difference is the perception of each team. Last year, Ryan’s New York Jets had something of an ‘underdog’ label; Rex’s mouth combined with the youthful swagger of a team on the rise, and the Jets exuded a menacing cool similar to the Oakland Raiders of old. However, with high expectations this season, the Jets failing to win the division, as well as Ryan’s big mouth emitting no bite to match the bark, puts the Jets at risk of being considered an overrated flop. While many would love to see the Jets fail, the Colts found themselves failing for an eternity. Injuries galore, plus a slight off year for Peyton Manning, saw last year’s 14-2 monster barely stagger into the post-season in week 17 after Jacksonville collapsed. As big a game as this is between two considerable football markets, both teams lack their aura of invincibility that lingered a year ago.
At a recent press conference, Ryan failed as usual to keep things cordial and generic. Ryan brought up the aforementioned AFC Title game, and was very open about how it has affected him. While many are quick to point out how Ryan seems to dig holes with his words, the optimist would say that Ryan’s a great motivator. In the “Hard Knocks” HBO special, Ryan may have dropped more F-bombs than Sam Kinison dropping an anvil on his foot, but what you also saw was a group of men hanging off of his every word. Ryan’s matter-of-fact, blunt, “us vs. the world” speeches don’t need subliminal messages to reach his players. By instigating the media with his “I can’t let go of last year” tale, he’s preparing to psyche his team up for a revenge game. Whether it works remains to be seen, but the seeds are currently being sewn.
3. What has been the Jets biggest downfall?
Without question, it’s been the failure of Mark Sanchez to blossom into a necessary leader. How many quarterbacks in NFL history have made the playoffs their first two years, and had QB ratings of 63.0 and 75.3 in concurrent years? Sanchez started 2010 magnificently, going a number of games without throwing his first interception. Then after he threw his first one, along came the second, and then the third, and so forth. He ended up with 13 in all against 17 touchdowns, and with that comes a miserable 54.8 completion percentage. After fighting neck and neck with New England for the potential #1 seed all year long, the Jets got stomped by the Patriots 45-3, and then lost to the mediocre Dolphins 10-6 in back to back weeks. Both games were in December, when your absolute best is needed, and in neither game did the Jets score a single touchdown.
4. How is Peyton Manning holding the Colts together?
There has never been a more cerebral, calculating, “I have a playbook embedded in my brain” quarterback than Peyton Manning. While the defense has dropped dead thanks to a litany of injuries (341.6 yards a game, 20th best in the league), Manning has kept the offense afloat just by being Manning. The running game has suffered, thanks to injuries to Joseph Addai and Mike Hart, but Manning’s passing game remains crisp. And that’s with losses like Austin Collie, Dallas Clark, and Anthony Gonzalez. In their places, Manning has turned the likes of Blair White and Jacob Tamme into near Pro Bowl caliber players. White was an obscure rookie, and Tamme is an undersized tight end converted from a fullback assignment, but yet Manning has them fixed into the clockwork of his scheme. If you switched quarterbacks in this game and gave Manning what Sanchez has, Sanchez wouldn’t stand a chance.
5. Who is Peyton Manning missing the most?
Manning’s missing a linchpin defense more than anything. Manning has thrown 17 interceptions this year, and the fact that the likes of Jerraud Powers, Bob Sanders, and Melvin Bullitt are lost for the season means that Peyton’s picks are more susceptible to becoming quick passing touchdowns. In 2009, the Colts gave up 19 passing touchdowns while snaring 16 interceptions. This year, it changes to 22 touchdowns and only 10 picks. Playing in a run-heavy division (against Chris Johnson, Arian Foster, and Maurice Jones-Drew) has also exposed the Colts abysmal run defense. Giving up 127 yards a game with little resistance, one has to wonder how Indy plans to handle LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene come Saturday night. Manning’s had to work too hard forcing passes, and if the Jets cagey defense can shut him down (or pick him off), Ryan has his one-two running combo waiting to break some strides.
6. Can Mark Sanchez handle this game?
I know a Jaguars fan who sounded off Sunday about how the Jets have a better chance at winning with Mark Brunell in there, and he may not be far off. Sanchez led the Jets to three major losses in December. The shellacking by the Patriots and the upset against the Dolphins were already mentioned, but there was also a 38-34 loss to the Bears, in which Sanchez threw a crunch-time interception to seal the Jets’ fate. It needs to be said again: Going into December, the Jets were neck and neck with the Patriots for not just the division, but a realistic chance at homefield advantage. After the Patriots debacle, the spiral ended with the Jets taking the sixth seed, and they’re a little lucky that the Chargers tanked against the Bengals. Sanchez has an average defense to step up against, but he has to actually get it done.
7. How much will Mark Sanchez defer to the run?
Let’s face it: Rex Ryan isn’t stupid. Surely he’s seen Sanchez’s stat line, and has seen enough to realize that even against a tepid defense, Sanchez could be a liability. I fully expect liberal doses of LT and Greene to be sprinkled at the Colts D, and that’s not to mention Brad Smith in the wildcat, just to throw things into further disarray. Obviously, the Jets can’t run on every play, because the Colts will figure it out eventually, but Ryan’s going to take as much pressure off of Sanchez as possible. In the passing game, I figure Sanchez will be running plays that he’s comfortable with, but doesn’t use very often, in order to keep the inexperienced Colts defense confused. Also, when the run begins to falter, Sanchez still has Dustin Keller over the middle against a poor linebacking group. Sanchez should be fine if he doesn’t take chances.
8. How will Peyton Manning deal with Darrelle Revis?
A year ago, in the AFC Title game, Peyton Manning showed no fear against the Jets vaunted secondary. Although this was pre-Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson, you still had Kerry Rhodes patrolling the vast expanse with “Revis Island” and it wasn’t enough. Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie both had over 100 yards and a touchdown each (274 yards on 18 completions combined) while Reggie Wayne pulled in three catches for 55 yards. Manning may not always handle in-game situations with icy veins, but the bluster of a braggadocios defense isn’t going to intimidate him. Despite Cromartie and Wilson replacing the departed Rhodes, and despite Manning having a less dependable receiving corps than last year, Manning won’t hold back. Besides, Revis has had the on-again/off-again quad injury that became an issue back in September. All things considered, Manning will probably throw Revis’ way, just to show him who runs things here.
9. Who wins the battle at the line?
Much like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning has the benefit of great blocking at his disposal. Statistically, Manning has the best offensive line in the NFL, and it’s evident when you see him having all day to make his throws. Manning’s only taken 16 sacks all year, or one per game, but this is no ordinary opponent. The Jets are third in the NFL in total defense, meaning they make you make them give up quarter. 40 sacks incurred on the year may disrupt the Colts’ healthy average. Flip everything around and the story goes the Jets way again. Despite having to hold off a charge from Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the Jets offensive line has proven effective, good for ninth in the NFL with the likes of Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Unlike the Colts try some risky safety blitzes to logjam the Jets, Sanchez’ll have time to work.
The Jets edition of “Hard Knocks” was the most prolific season of the show yet, as Rex Ryan’s mouth and curtness made many wonder if he’d missed his calling on The Real World. Every time Rex opens his trap, newspaper fodder comes spilling out, and it’s put a sizeable target on New York’s back. Meanwhile, the Colts are trying to avoid the “Super Bowl Loser” curse, and they had to carry on through a million injuries to even get to this point. Before the season, both teams were projected to go deep in the playoffs, and anyone who picked either team to win it all wasn’t considered insane (I picked the Jets back in June, actually). The Colts’ll be fine down the line as long as Peyton Manning is healthy, but something tells me things would be a bit more volatile if the Jets were to vanish in round one.
Both teams pretty much snuck in the backdoor of the playoffs, needing other teams to fall apart like a soggy Caesar wrap to secure their spots. While the Jets haven’t lived up to lofty expectations, and even though they’re playing on the road here in the Wild Card round, I’m taking them in the upset. The Colts’ winning record is no indicator of how they’ve struggled late in games against supposedly inferior opponents. A crushing defeat to San Diego, an overtime loss to Dallas, and a narrow win over Tennessee doesn’t bode well against an offense that’s going to disguise every one of Mark Sanchez’s weaknesses with a thunder and lightning running attack. It remains to be seen if Sanchez really can play mistake-free, but that’ll be the order of the day for the Jets. And if Peyton Manning has but one slip-up, the Colts just might be doomed early.
SCORE: Jets 27, Colts 20
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