NFL Playoff Preview - N.Y. Jets (11-7) at Indianapolis (15-2)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - When they take the field at Lucas Oil Stadium for Sunday afternoon's AFC Championship, the New York Jets will be looking to prove that the notions of homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, first-round byes, and even postseason home games are overrated factors in the quest for a championship.
The homestanding Indianapolis Colts, meanwhile, can prove exactly the opposite with a victory of their own.
The Jets and Colts made their way into the 2009 NFL Playoff bracket in markedly different manners, and in the four weeks that have passed since their much- debated regular season meeting, little has changed about their perceived stature.
The fifth-seeded Jets were not so long ago a 4-6 team that blazed a trail into the playoff field through a combination of improved play, seeming deference by two late-season opponents, and a weak AFC field that helped Rex Ryan's team get in at all with a 9-7 mark (the Jets were a playoff-less 9-7 last year, when the Patriots were also on the outside looking in at 11-5). The uphill climb that the Jets began in late November has continued throughout the postseason, as they've taken to the road to upset the Bengals (24-14) and Chargers (17-14), and now stand at the cusp of the organization's first Super Bowl berth in 41 long seasons.
The Jets are in the AFC Championship for just the third time since Joe Namath led the then-young franchise to an AFL title in 1968, and the first since 1998, when the Bill Parcells-coached edition of the team was a 23-10 loser to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. A 1982 shutout loss to the Miami Dolphins ranks as the team's only other experience on the conference title stage.
The history of the organization, then, would seem to be stacked against a Jets win, though recent NFL history is not. With a victory on Sunday, the Jets can join the 2005 Steelers and 2007 Giants as the third team in the last five seasons to reach the Super Bowl after winning three consecutive road games as a wild card entry. Both the Steelers and Giants won Super Bowls.
If the Jets are the scrappy underdog, the Colts are the regal pure-bred that would seem to have a reservation for the winner's circle.
After remaining undefeated until after Christmas and clinching homefield advantage in the AFC with three games to spare, that top-seeded Indianapolis finds itself in a position to reach its second Super Bowl in the past four years is a surprise to absolutely no one, least of all the Colts themselves.
Any skeptics that might have questioned the Colts' fire after going more than a month without playing a meaningful game have scattered in the wake of Indy's formulaic 20-3 pasting of the Baltimore Ravens last Saturday. The victory marked the first time Indianapolis had won a postseason game following a first- round bye, after previously going 0-3 under those circumstances since 1999.
The Colts are 2-3 in the AFC Championship, including 1-2 since moving to Indianapolis.
The Colts and Jets have met on two prior occasions in the postseason, both of them memorable. The first-ever meeting between the franchises resulted in a landmark 16-7 win for the Jets over the then-Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Also, in a 2002 AFC First-Round Playoff, the Jets scored a 41-0 home victory.
Indianapolis holds a 40-26 edge in its all-time regular season series with the Jets, but New York scored 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 series, which included a 31-28 road win in 2006 and a 38-31 decision at the RCA Dome in 2003.
The Jets' Ryan is 1-0 against both the Colts and Caldwell. The winner of Sunday's meeting will become the first rookie NFL coach to lead his team to a Super Bowl since the Raiders' Bill Callahan in 2002. The 49ers' George Seifert (1989) is the last rookie head man to win a Super Bowl.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
After leading the NFL in rushing offense during the regular season (172.2 yards per game), the Jets have maintained their ground-based approach by totaling 340 rushing yards in the postseason. Rookie running back Shonn Greene (2 TD) has been a breakout star, with his 263 rushing yards in two postseason games ranking as the second-most by a rookie in NFL history (Duane Thomas). Greene had a Jets franchise record 53-yard touchdown run to help sink the Chargers last Sunday. Thomas Jones (29 carries, 75 yards, 1 TD) has been quieter. Greene and Jones combined for 200 rushing yards against the Colts in Week 16, though many of those came against Indy's second-string unit in the second half. Mark Sanchez (282 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) and the Jets passing game have been a complementary piece, with the rookie turning the ball over just once and suffering only one sack while generating a 92.2 passer rating. Wideouts Jerricho Cotchery (9 receptions) and Braylon Edwards (4 receptions) are the outside threats, with Dustin Keller (6 receptions, 2 TD) the best weapon over the middle.
As if to reinforce the notion that the Colts didn't go 14-2 just because of one side of the ball, the Indianapolis defense almost completely shut down the Ravens attack last Saturday. Baltimore managed just 12 first downs, committed four critical turnovers, and could find little of the traction in the running game that had fueled their upset of the Patriots the week before. An underrated Indy run-stopping group, led by tackle Daniel Muir (7 tackles) and end Raheem Brock (5 tackles) along with linebackers Gary Brackett (5 tackles) and Clint Session (4 tackles, 1 FR), helped limit Ray Rice to a pedestrian 67 yards on 19 carries. On the back end, cornerback Jerraud Powers (3 tackles) and safety Antoine Bethea (3 tackles) both had interceptions of Joe Flacco, and corner Kelvin Hayden posted a team-best six solo tackles and a forced fumble in the contests. Ends Dwight Freeney (4 tackles) and Robert Mathis (4 tackles) were shut out of the sack category, a trend they will be looking to reverse this week. Indy surrendered just 19.2 points per game during the regular season - tied for eighth-best in the league, and was also in the top half of the NFL in sacks (34), interceptions (16), and passing defense (212.7 yards per game). In the first half of their Week 16 game against the Jets, before the first-string was lifted, the Jets managed just seven first downs.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
As Indianapolis has shown countless times over the years, the best defense can often be a great offense, especially one led by the methodical Peyton Manning. Manning completed 30-of-44 passes for 246 yards and a couple of touchdowns in last week's win, with six different players making multiple catches, and Indianapolis had more first-downs passing (16) than Baltimore had in total (12). The Ravens' only interception of Manning was negated when Ed Reed fumbled it back to Indy in the third quarter, and Baltimore had just two sacks one week after punishing New England's Tom Brady in the wild card round. The Colts had a wide advantage in time of possession, 33:58 to 26:02, greatly reducing the Ravens' margin for error when they did touch the football. Reggie Wayne (8 receptions, 63 yards, 1 TD) and tight end Dallas Clark (7 receptions, 59 yards) were again Manning's top targets, and youngsters Austin Collie (4 receptions, 52 yards, 1 TD) and Pierre Garcon (5 receptions, 34 yards, 1 FF) contributed as well. The Colts' bottom-ranked running game totaled 42 yards on 25 carries against Baltimore, led by Joseph Addai's 23 yards on 11 totes.
The Jets defense kept the team in business last week at a time when Sanchez and the offense weren't getting much done, keeping the game a manageable 7-0 at halftime to give them a chance. Then, in the second half, two interceptions of Philip Rivers - one an incredible grab that cornerback Darrelle Revis (5 tackles, 2 INT) somehow kept from hitting the ground, another by safety Jim Leonhard (10 tackles) to set up the go-ahead touchdown - allowed the Jets to steal the game in the fourth. The Jets have now allowed only 75 points over their last eight games (9.4 per game). The key to shutting down Manning will be the play of the secondary, led by Revis, fellow corner Lito Sheppard (7 tackles), Leonhard, and fellow safety Kerry Rhodes (10 tackles). Rhodes came up big with eight tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble in San Diego. Linebacker Bryan Thomas (10 tackles, 1 sack) and end Shaun Ellis (7 tackles, 1 sack) will be among those trying to put pressure on the quick-firing Manning. After being gutted by Cedric Benson in Week 1, the Jets recovered to allow just 61 ground yards to San Diego last week. Linebackers David Harris (14 tackles) and Bart Scott (9 tackles) were part of that effort, with nose tackle Sione Pouha (6 tackles) notching five tackles at the point of attack. The Jets finished the regular season atop the NFL in total defense (252.3 yards per game), scoring defense (14.8 points per game), and passing defense (153.7 yards per game), among other categories.
Jets kicker Jay Feely has made both of his field goal attempts during this postseason, including a 46-yarder last week, while his kickoff unit has generally tightened up since allowing a 56-yard return to Bernard Scott on the opening play of the wild card round. Punter Steve Weatherford (38.8 avg.) returned last week after missing the Bengals game due to an irregular heartbeat, and his highlight was pinning the Chargers at the 4-yard-line just prior to a critical Philip Rivers interception in the third quarter. Neither kickoff return man Brad Smith (24.8 avg.) nor punt returner Jerricho Cotchery (12.0 avg.) have had a huge return this postseason, though Smith scored on a 106-yard kickoff return against the Colts back in Week 16.
Indianapolis kicker Matt Stover's first postseason effort as a Colt was solid, as he connected on field goals of 44 and 33 yards. Stover hasn't missed a postseason kick since Jan. 13, 2002, when the then-Raven missed an inconsequential field goal against the Dolphins. A kickoff coverage unit that struggled a bit during the regular season allowed the Ravens to amass just 18.8 yards per return last week. Pat McAfee punted to a solid 45.8 average and did not allow a single punt return yard in the contest. Kickoff returner Chad Simpson (14.0) and punt returner T.J. Rushing (7.3 avg.) were quiet. Simpson (23.6 avg.) had a 93-yard kickoff return for a TD against the Jaguars in Week 14.
Anyone who views the Jets as some kind of upstart fluke hasn't been paying attention. The team's stretch of 7-1 football, and march to the AFC Championship, has stuck to the tried-and-true NFL formula of riding a solid running game and outstanding defense to victory. It's a formula that will also keep this one close, as Greene and Jones find some yards working against a relatively light Indy front seven, and the Jets get Manning and the Colts offense off the field more often than opponents normally do. But when it comes down to it, noting that the Colts have an incredible advantage at the most important position on the field, look for Indianapolis to find a way to win. No matter how well the Jets have been playing, or what holes you can find to poke in Indianapolis, it's simply inconceivable to imagine that Mark Sanchez would beat Peyton Manning on the road in the AFC Championship.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 20, Jets 17
01/24 11:28:46 ET