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NFL Playoff Preview - N.Y. Jets (11-5) at Indianapolis (10-6)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The New York Jets feel they are better prepared to handle a playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts this year. They won't have to wait long to take their shot at the defending AFC champs.
In a rematch of last year's conference championship game, the sixth-seeded Jets visit a Colts club that overcame numerous injuries to reach the playoffs for a ninth straight season this Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
With a 9-7 record a year ago, the Jets went into the 2009 postseason as the AFC's fifth seed and knocked off both Cincinnati and San Diego on the road before taking on the hosting Colts for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
Led by then-rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez and outstanding corner Darrelle Revis, the Jets took a 17-6 advantage late in the second quarter versus the Colts, but failed to find the scoreboard again as Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning threw three touchdown passes -- two in the second half -- to rally his team to a 30-17 victory.
The Colts then went on to lose in the Super Bowl to New Orleans.
Sanchez said his team is excited to get another chance at Indianapolis.
"It's a great matchup for us, it really is," he said. "We beat them once [in the regular season] last year, they beat us when it really counted and that's hard. That's a tough feeling, going home after a playoff game, all the way to the AFC Championship Game, having the lead at halftime and then coming up short. This is a different team, very similar on their defense."
Behind a solid season from Sanchez, an excellent two-headed rush attack and stingy defensive play, New York went 11-5 overall and 6-2 on the road this year. It's the club's best finish since a 12-4 campaign in 1998 lifted the Jets to a second straight postseason appearance for just the fifth time in franchise history.
New York did lose three of its final five regular-season games, but capped the schedule with a 38-7 home victory over Buffalo. Sanchez played just one series in that game without throwing a pass as the Jets opted for him to rest a sore right shoulder, while running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene as well as corners Revis and Antonio Cromartie did not play.
Indianapolis had a little more to play for in Week 17, needing a victory or a Jacksonville loss to claim its seventh division title in eight seasons. Even though the Jaguars fell to Houston, the 10-6 Colts still did their part with a 23-20 triumph over Tennessee, in which Adam Vinatieri's 43-yard-field goal as time expired allowed Indy to carry a four-game winning streak into the postseason.
Not bad for a club that was once 6-6 while also finishing the season with 17 players on injured reserve.
"Hopefully, we can build off some of the momentum we established," said Manning. We feel fortunate to be playing this week. We don't take it for granted to be in the playoffs."
Indianapolis' nine straight playoff appearances ties a record set by the Dallas Cowboys from 1975-83, and the Colts are averaging just over 30 points per game over their last five tests. Jets head coach Rex Ryan, though, feels his club is up to the task.
"One hundred percent. We are ready," Ryan said. "It's going to be a physical match, so let's see who can win the physical battle. We are ready to go. I think we're confident in what we are doing schematically.
"Does that mean [Manning] isn't going to have success? No. We know that you're not going to stop Peyton Manning, but we're going to make enough plays to win this game."
Injuries might help New York. In last year's game, Manning threw touchdown passes to Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie and Dallas Clark. However, both Collie and Clark are on injured reserve and Manning will miss the duo.
"We were watching our film from last year's game against the Jets and some of the games we've played against the Ravens in years past, and Dallas played critical roles in all of those games," said Manning. "It'll be the first time playing against this style of defense without Dallas, so there is a change. It's more of a challenge. Collie was awesome last year."
The Colts and Jets have met on three prior occasions in the postseason, the most recent being Indianapolis' previously-mentioned victory in the 2009 AFC Championship. The most memorable, however, was the Jets' landmark 16-7 win over the then-Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, and New York scored a 41-0 home rout of Indianapolis in a 2002 AFC First-Round Playoff as well.
Indianapolis holds a 40-26 advantage in its all-time regular-season series with the Jets, but New York recorded a 29-15 win at Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 16. In that contest, Colts head coach Jim Caldwell pulled Manning and a bulk of the team's starters with Indianapolis ahead, 15-10, early in the third quarter, sparking a firestorm of debate about the undefeated team's decision not to play at 100 percent to attempt to win the game. The result snapped a two-game winning streak for the Colts in the set, which included a 31-28 road win in 2006 and a 38-31 decision at the RCA Dome in 2003.
Caldwell and Ryan are 1-1 against one another as well as their counterpart's respective team, and both possess 2-1 lifetime records in postseason play.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
While Sanchez (3291 passing yards, 17 TD, 13 INT) showed great improvement from his 20-interception rookie season, the Jets' offense makes its money on the ground, where it ranked fourth in the NFL with an average of 148.4 yards per game. Tomlinson (914 rushing yards, 6 TD) led the club with 219 carries and was tied for third among Jets players with 52 catches, while Greene (766 rushing yards, 2 TD) carried the ball 185 times after beginning the season as the starter. The duo ran behind a line that features a pair of Pro Bowl picks in left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold and was tied for eighth in the league with just 28 sacks allowed. Sanchez did a great job in the regular season of using all of his weapons, with tight end Dustin Keller as well as wide receivers Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes all finishing with over 50 catches. Keller (55 receptions, 5 TD) led the club in receptions, while Edwards (53 receptions, 7 TD) had the most touchdown receptions of any receiver on the roster. Edwards caught an 80-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez in last year's AFC Championship Game, while Holmes (52 receptions, 6 TD) is averaging 17.2 yards per catch in the playoffs. No Jets receiver went over 1,000 yards, with Edwards' 904 leading the way.
Though the Colts ranked 25th in the league in run defense (127.0 ypg), they were able to shut down three talented running backs during their winning streak in the Titans' Chris Johnson, the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden of the Raiders. Indianapolis allowed just 79.8 yards per game on the ground over its season-ending win streak. If the Colts can stop the run, it will allow the Pro Bowl defensive end duo of Dwight Freeney (25 tackles, 10 sacks) and Robert Mathis (60 tackles, 11 sacks) to wreak havoc. Freeney is one postseason sack shy of becoming just the ninth player in league history since 1982 to reach 10 for his career. Linebackers Pat Angerer (88 tackles, 1 sack) and Gary Brackett (74 tackles) hope to be joined this weekend by Clint Session (38 tackles, 1 sack), who is questionable with an elbow injury. Safeties Aaron Francisco (59 tackles, 2 INT) and Antoine Bethea (106 tackles, 1 INT) have played well this season even though the Colts lost depth at that spot with season-ending injuries to Bob Sanders (biceps) and Melvin Bullitt (shoulder), and the pair gets help from corners Kelvin Hayden (61 tackles, 2 INT) and Jacob Lacey (64 tackles, 1 INT). Hayden, who tied for the team lead in interceptions with cornerback Jerraud Powers and Francisco, is also a question mark due to a neck injury.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Though Manning (4700 passing yards, 33 TD, 17 INT) did struggle at times, especially during a three-game slide from Nov. 21-Dec. 5, the Colts still ranked first in passing offense (288.1 ypg) while he himself set a league record with 450 completions and a personal best in passing yards. His interception total was its highest since he had 19 in 2002, but the four-time league MVP also has plenty of past experience and success in the playoffs. Manning, in fact, ranks third in NFL postseason history with 435 completions and 5,164 passing yards, behind only Brett Favre and Joe Montana in both categories, and is the game's all-time leader with eight 300-yard passing games in the playoffs. The Pro Bowl quarterback will miss Collie and Clark, but he still has the reliable wideout Reggie Wayne (111 receptions, 1355 receiving yards, 6 TD) to throw to. Wayne, also a Pro Bowl selection, set a career best this season in catches and has nine touchdowns in 16 career postseason games. Garcon (67 receptions, 6 TD), meanwhile, had 11 catches for 151 yards in last year's playoff game versus the Jets, while tight end Jacob Tamme (67 receptions, 4 TD) has been great in replacing Clark. With Collie, who led the Colts with eight touchdown catches, out, Blair White (36 receptions, 5 TD) should continue to see time on the field. The Colts did rank just 29th in rushing offense (92.7 ypg), and Donald Brown (497 rushing yards, 2 TD), Joseph Addai (495 rushing yards, 4 TD) and Dominic Rhodes should all see time carrying the ball in this one.
The Jets figured to be one of the league's top defensive teams in 2010 and they did not disappoint, ranking third in total defense (291.5 ypg) and sixth in scoring (19.0 ppg). Revis (32 tackles, 0 INT) saw his numbers dip after posting six interceptions in 2009, but that was more likely because teams threw away from him and he was still selected to his third straight Pro Bowl. Revis has two picks in three postseason games and needs one more to tie Greg Buttle for the most in team playoff history. New York hopes that Cromartie (42 tackles, 3 INT) will be the difference-maker in this year's rematch after a successful debut with the Jets this season. Safety Eric Smith (54 tackles, 1 sack) had been filling in for the injured Jim Leonhard (61 tackles, 1 INT), who is on IR with a fractured tibia, but he missed the last three games due to a concussion. Smith could return in this one to start alongside Brodney Pool (53 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), with Dwight Lowery (19 tackles, 2 sacks. 3 INT) returning to his reserve role. Linebackers Bart Scott (81 tackles, 1 sack) and David Harris (99 tackles, 3 sacks) were the only two defensive players to start all 16 games, while defensive end Shaun Ellis (36 tackles, 4.5 sacks) is slated to play in his club-best 10th playoff game. Harris had two sacks in last year's playoff matchup with the Colts, while linebacker Bryan Thomas (39 tackles, 6 sacks) was this year's regular-season leader in that category. Calvin Pace (51 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Jason Taylor (36 tackles, 5 sacks), the NFL's active sack leader, add to New York's excellent linebacker depth.
Jets versatile kick returner Brad Smith ranked second in the league with an average of 28.6 yards per return and took a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns during the regular season. Jerricho Cotchery has been handling punt return duties with Leonhard's injury. Punter Steve Weatherford matched an NFL record with 42 kicks inside the 20-yard line, while kicker Nick Folk hit 30-of-39 field goal tries and connected on a club-record 56-yard boot versus Denver on Oct. 17.
Late-season addition Rhodes is listed No. 1 on the Colts depth chart as the kick returner, ahead of Justin Tryon (21.4 avg.). White averaged eight yards on 10 punt returns. Punter Pat McAfee stuck 21 of his 65 punts inside the 20 and Vinatieri missed just two of his 28 field goal attempts, but did not try one from beyond 50 yards.
The Jets can talk all they want about how prepared they are to handle the Colts' Manning-led offense, but they know deep down inside he is probably the last quarterback they wanted to see on Saturday. That being said, no other defense in the NFL has the talent, swagger and confidence needed to go toe-to- toe with Manning, and Ryan will have his boys ready to play. The Colts are nowhere near the team they were during last year's run to the AFC title game, but Manning is still Manning. If New York can't run the ball and keep the Colts' offense on the sidelines for extended periods, Indianapolis will get its chances versus the New York defense. In what should be an excellent battle, expect the calm and coolness of Manning to edge out the Jets' grit one more time.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 24, Jets 20
01/06 14:50:13 ET