Archive for January, 2011

JETS-STEELERS: AFC CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Ryan and Jets look to erase last year’s title game nightmare, seize second chance in Steel City

A second chance.

All too often in professional sports, the window of opportunity for attaining the transcendental goal of a championship is cracked open for only a few short hours.  In the egalitarian National Football League, an association defined by its peerless parity, that window is even more diminutive.

5 weeks ago, Mark Sanchez and the Jets celebrated a statement victory in Pittsburgh. Sunday they aim to rejoice again by punching their ticket to Super Bowl XLV in Arlington. (JetsInsider.com Photo)

Winning a Super Bowl is by far the most difficult achievement in all of sports.  The requisite recipe of talent, execution, health, and luck is a rare combination that has only been consummated by 18 of the league’s 32 teams since 1967.

Players and coaches alike can go careers without tasting Super Bowl glory or having even one legitimate opportunity to play for it.  It takes far more than individual greatness.  Ask Dan Marino.  Ask Barry Sanders.  Or Dick Butkus.

Legends in sports lore are ultimately defined by championships, with rings and trophies transcending any individual accomplishments as the barometer for true greatness. For all the Canton fanfare and NFL Films immortalization, all of the aforementioned hall of famers would undoubtedly sacrifice their personal records and historical milestones for that ever elusive ring. Or the second chance to return to their prime to obtain it.

On Sunday night, 24-year-old Mark Sanchez, in only the second season of his professional career, will get what Hall-of-Famers Marino and Sanders never got, a second chance as the New York Jets play in their second consecutive AFC Championship.

For Sanchez and the Jets, Sunday’s title game is far more than simply redemption for last year’s second-half meltdown in Indianapolis at the hands of Peyton Manning.

Sunday marks a second chance to end a 42-year Super Bowl drought for a championship-starved fan base. A second chance to finally exorcise the ghosts of John Elway,Vinny Testaverde’s Achilles tendon, Mark Gastineau’s late hit, Rich Kotite, Doug Brien, and Brett Favre. A second chance for the bombastic Rex Ryan and neophytic Sanchez to prove their diatribic naysayers wrong. A second chance to rectify nearly a half century of misfortune and embarrassment as the long-time running joke of the National Football League.  A second chance to finally liberate themselves from the dark, burdensome shadow of their fellow Jerseyan tenants, the New York Giants.

A second chance at history.

The setting, Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, is a place all too familiar to the Jets.  It was here seven years ago, that it all came crashing down for Gang Green in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, at the right foot of kicker Doug Brien.  But it was also here, that little over a month ago, Rex Ryan’s group posted their most impressive performance of the regular season, an emotional 22-17 victory over Ben Roethlisberger and company.

A victory that seemingly everyone in America aside from the Jets themselves, has chosen to conveniently forget about.  Just like a week ago, when football pundits across the nation misremembered the fact that New York had indeed handed the New England Patriots their first loss of the season back in September.

Minor details.

The blueprint (or shall we say green-print) for a Jets win on Sunday and a trip to Arlington, Texas for Super Bowl XLV, lies within that Week 15 victory in the Steel City.

Three words. Ground. And. Pound.

A second chance to execute that winning formula on Sunday in Pittsburgh.

KEYS TO AN AFC CHAMPIONSHIP FOR GANG GREEN

  • AL-CRO-TRAZ: Back in March, Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum sent a then third-round draft pick to the San Diego Chargers in exchange for cornerback Antonio Cromartie.  In his first four years in the National Football League, there was never any question of the 26-year-old Cromartie’s freakish length, speed or athleticism.  Conversely, his character and effort on the field were definitely up for debate.  Despite the baggage the young corner came with, Jets head coach Rex Ryan believed he could make a winner out of Cromartie.  In the search for the Robin to Darrelle Revis’s Batman, Tannenbaum and the Jets brain-trust firmly believed that ‘Cro’ was their man.  Antonio Cromartie was brought here precisely for Sunday, to propel the Jets to the next level–a Super Bowl.  With Revis set to be matched up against the physical Hines Ward and aid in stopping the Steelers rushing attack, Cromartie will be asked to fly deep with the speedy Mike Wallace.  In their Week 15 matchup, Wallace went off for 102 yards with seven receptions.  While Wallace didn’t burn Cromartie deep, he came close on two occasions.  Cromartie must bring his A-game Sunday and negate Big Ben’s speedy deep-threat.  The Jets must also bring safety help over the top to cover Wallace. The Steelers were 7-1 this season in games where Wallace had a touchdown reception.

  • DINK ‘N’ DUNK/GROUND ‘N’ POUND: Mike Tomlin’s second-ranked defensive unit will not give up the big play.  Just like last time, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer must dial up short passing routes for Sanchez and the receivers–they’ll be available all day to move the ball down the field.  Look for tight end Dustin Keller to be a big facet of the gameplan on Sunday.  The Jets have already demonstrated they can run against this vaunted Steelers defense, rushing for 106 yards in their Week 15 meeting, the most allowed by Pittsburgh this season.
  • TONE TIME: Playing against the team that traded him just seven months ago for a mere fifth-round pick, Santonio Holmes will be out for revenge Sunday–and blood.  Holmes, who hauled in six receptions in Week 15, must be utilized as a big part of the gameplan on Sunday.  Sanchez should look often to Holmes, who has the game-breaking speed to be the deciding factor in a high-stakes game like this.
  • KEEP HEATH IN CHECK: Absent from the Week 15 matchup between the two teams was Steelers TE Heath Miller.  Miller is particularly effective in spearheading the running game with his blocking and has emerged as one of the most dangerous receiving tight ends in the NFL.  The Jets must do a solid job of shutting down the middle of the field, and taking away Miller, who acts as Roethlisberger’s safety valve in Pittsburgh’s passing attack.  Last week, the Jets linebackers and secondary did a phenomenal job of taking away Patriot tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, so they should be up to the task of limiting Miller.
  • THE SANCHISE: It all begins and ends with the kid from Long Beach, California.  His lights out, turnover-free play in the postseason must continue on Sunday.  If Sanchez can play a smart game and hold onto the football in the frigid conditions, the Jets will conquer and advance to Dallas.  If not, they will be in for a long night.  The success of Sanchez is strongly predicated on how well his offensive line can protect him. Nick Mangold and his band of merry men must keep Steelers linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley out of the backfield and off of Sanchez.

PREDICTION: JETS 20, STEELERS 10

Round 2 in the Steel City promises to be eerily similar to the pilot episode, a hard fought, grind-it-out battle.  Ultimately matched up against their mirror image, the deciding factor on Sunday will be who can get that elusive turnover or big play to swing the momentum of the game.  Gang Green’s running game is in top-form and will be able to impose their will on Pittsburgh’s stubborn defensive line.  On the other side of the ball, the Jets will be able to get into the backfield against the Steeler’s banged up and depleted offensive line and keep Big Ben in check. Roethlisberger and company have been here and beyond before.  The Jets, fueled by last years disappointment and the emotion of their win in Foxboro a week ago are hungrier than ever before.  The ghost of Doug Brien finally dies Sunday night.

Broadcast Info: Sunday 6:30 P.M. ET, TV: CBS (Jim Nantz/Phil Simms) Radio: 1050 AM ESPN Radio (Bob Wischusen/Marty Lyons), Westwood One (Dave Sims/James Lofton)

JETS-PATRIOTS: AFC DIVISIONAL ROUND PREVIEW

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

Settling the score in Round 3 at ‘The Razor’

Trash talk begone. 45-3 begone. Week 2 at the Meadowlands begone.

No detailed discourse is necessary to gauge the less-than-stellar odds the visiting Jets possess against the New England Patriots on Sunday in Foxboro.

The Jets success on Sunday is strong predicated on how much pressure they can apply on Tom Brady. (JetsInsider.com Photo)

No more needs to be said of the grandiose offensive orchestration of composer Tom Brady, whose MVP-worthy 2010-11 campaign has handily arranged the leagues most prolific offensive attack, restoring the Pats atop the Mount Everest of the NFL’s elite.

Redundant rehash of the inconsistencies of Rex Ryan’s group running congruous to their consistent season-long smack talk, week in and week out–need no more.

It’s all been said. It’s all been done. The only plausible explanation lies within sixty minutes of frosty January football at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

For all of the diatribic prognostication that has been sent the way of the New York Jets in the week approaching their divisional three-match in New England, a shot at redemption and tough-talk vindication is tangible, not irrational.

Belichick and Brady, the class of the National Football League for three months and running, are far from unbeatable. No team with a shoddy secondary is. Or one with no semblance of a pass rush.

Rex Ryan has referred to this matchup as the “second-biggest game” in the history of the New York Jets franchise.  This comes on the heels of a dramatic, awe-inspiring triumph over Peyton Manning and the defending AFC champs in Indianapolis.  While the similarities between New England and Indianapolis are few and far between, the gameplan will be eerily similar.

KEYS TO VICTORY FOR GANG GREEN

  • PRESSURE, PRESSURE, PRESSURE: In the New Yorks’ 28-14 Week 2 victory over New England at the Meadowlands, the Jets were able to establish a consistent pass rush, keeping the heat on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady all game.  The result? Two interceptions and a passer rating of 72.5, Brady’s second-lowest of the regular season.  In the Week 13 debacle in Foxboro, Mike Pettine and Rex Ryan were much more conservative with the defensive gameplan diverting from what brought them much success in the first matchup.  If the Jets are to have any shot at a date with destiny in Pittsburgh next Sunday, it starts with the pass rush.  Four and five-man rushes, early and often.  The only way to slow down Brady is to prevent him from getting in the groove or establish any rhythm with his receivers.
  • PUT WELKER ON THE ISLAND: Since his arrival in Foxboro three seasons ago, Wes Welker has emerged as the league’s most dangerous slot receiver as well as the insidious key to New England’s aerial attack.  Under Ryan, Welker has served as one of the few consistent thorns in the side of the Jets secondary. There is only one possible foil to another gamebreaking performance by Brady’s go-to receiver. His name is Darrelle Revis.  Time and time again, No. 24 has proven to be capable of nullifying any big-time receiver in the NFL. Moving Revis to the inside to match-up against Welker would take away a majority of the underneath routes Brady relies on.
  • DON’T STOP GRINDING: Early on in their Week 13 matchup, the Jets offense exhibited a strong ability to move the ball on the ground against the Patriots’ defense.  Faced with an early deficit, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer abandoned that gameplan, forcing Mark Sanchez and company into panic mode.  Patience is key on Sunday, and Schottenheimer must ride-out running backs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson as long as they possibly can, eating clock and keeping Brady’s unit off the field while taking the pressure off Sanchez.
  • FEED THE HORSES: The ultimate weak link of the young Patriots defense lies in an inconsistent and unproven secondary.  Receivers Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes were brought to New York for the big-time moments like this, with a big-time chance to shine.  Sanchez has demonstrated an ability to thrive when the deep ball is dialed up, most notably at the end of games.  Taking some serious shots downfield from the onset will keep the Patriots on their heels, forcing them to put less men in the box, opening up the ground ‘n pound running game for Greene and Tomlinson.  If there was any opportunity for Schottenheimer and the offensive unit to gamble heavily, it comes Sunday against the New England secondary.

PREDICTION: JETS 28, PATS 24

It most certainly won’t be easy, but with a third look at Tom Brady and the Patriots offense, Rex Ryan and his staff will devise a defensive gameplan to limit the first downs and keep the high-volume Pats offense off the field.  If the Jets can stay true to their gameplan and identity, they can move the ball on the ground against New England all day, and control possession which in itself spells the ultimate key to the game.  The maturation of the neophytic Sanchez will continue Sunday, symbolizing the passing of the guard in the AFC East and sending the New York Jets to Pittsburgh next week.

Broadcast Info: Saturday, 4:30 P.M. ET, TV: CBS (Jim Nantz/Phil Simms) Radio: 1050 AM ESPN Radio (Bob Wischusen/Marty Lyons)


JETS-COLTS: AFC WILD CARD PREVIEW

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

Gang Green searches for life after death in Indy

Here were the New York Jets.

A 9-7 team that had no business being here, in the postseason–nevermind the AFC Championship Game.  Heck, they were only here because the team that they were facing had pulled their starters four weeks earlier.

Mark Sanchez and the Jets will look to avenge last year's AFC Championship loss in Indy on Saturday night. (JetsInsider.com Photo)

A rookie head coach who couldn’t detach his foot from his mouth?   An erratic rookie quarterback?  No chance in hell a team that barely squeaked into the playoffs was taking down Peyton Manning.  In his building?  Go take a walk.

Except they were.

For 27 minutes, the team that didn’t deserve to take the field with Manning’s squad, had the four-time NFL MVP on his heels, gasping for breath.  Rex Ryan’s team had kept Manning just where they wanted him for one half of football: Out of the end zone and staring down at the prospect of a 17-6 deficit heading into the halftime locker room.

With just under two minutes remaining in the second quarter and the Indianapolis Colts offense set back at their 20, the Jets could taste blood.  They had effectively bewildered and bruised Manning for five straight drives, one stop away from sending the Indy coaching staff and the entire state of Indiana into a 20 minute panic attack at the intermission.

Except that one stop, it never came.  On 2nd and 10 from his own 20, Peyton went to work.  His weapon of choice?  A rookie receiver from El Dorado Hills, California named Austin Collie.  Collie did his best Lassie impression, selling Jets corner Drew Coleman on a hard inside fake from the slot position, bolting to the outside with grace, where his quarterback found him for an 18-yard gain.  On the very next play, Collie broke up the middle of the field on a deep seam route, where Manning connected with his receiver once again. This time, it was for a 46-yard gain on a perfectly thrown ball, which the 11-time Pro Bowler precisely lofted between Coleman and safety Kerry Rhodes.

In typical Peyton fashion, the Jet defense had no time to react. Manning hit Collie for the third straight play on a 16-yard pass in the back of the end zone.  4 plays, 80 yards, 58 seconds.  Just like that, the Colts offense had new life, while the Jet defense was left for dead.  Manning’s end-of-the-half heroics cut the Jet lead to 17-13, while setting the table for a run of 24 unanswered points, sending Indianapolis to Super Bowl XLIV in Miami and the Jets back home to watch.

Here they are again.

349 days following their title game collapse, the New York Jets head back to Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night, aspiring to ardently avenge last January’s loss to the Colts, while revamping their 2010 cemetery into their 2011 Super Bowl springboard.

This is no rematch though.  In fact, besides the logos on the helmets and front of the jerseys, these are two vastly differently teams matching up in Indianapolis for round two.

For the Jets, Saturday’s Wild Card matchup is yet an opportunity for the belated coming-out party of an enigmatic 11-5 team.  Exit Thomas Jones, the stalwart backbone of Gang Green’s ”ground and pound” attack from a year ago.  Enter LaDainian Tomlinson, Santonio Holmes and a capricious offense which has failed to live up to sky-high preseason predictions, failing to score a touchdown in four of their five losses this season.  Defensively, the Jets have taken a step back as well, as the league’s leading pass defense from a year ago has fallen to 22nd in the league, despite the offseason additions of Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie, veteran safety Brodney Pool, and first-round draft choice cornerback Kyle Wilson.

In spite of taking definite statistical step-backs on both sides of the ball, the Jets have somehow scratched and clawed their way to 11 wins.  They have shown a flair for the dramatic in last-second wins against Cleveland, Detroit, and Houston while also demonstrating an affinity for overcoming adversity, racking up six victories on the road.

Meanwhile, their counterparts, the 10-6 Indianapolis Colts, have proved to be equally difficult to gauge.  Peyton Manning and company are a far cry from the 14-2 squad which dominated the AFC a year ago.  While still dangerous, these Colts are a much more precarious bunch, marred by countless injuries and inconsistency all season long.

While Manning’s receiving core has been decimated by the loss of receivers Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez and (TE) Dallas Clark, the Colts’ quarterback has found solace in Clark’s replacement, the 25-year-old, relatively unknown Jacob Tamme.  Tamme, a third-year player out of Kentucky, has taken the league by storm this season, emerging as Manning’s new favorite and arguably most dangerous target.  The 6-foot-3 tight end has hauled in 67 balls for 631 yards this season with four touchdowns.

Things certainly won’t be easy for the Jets inside the dome, but when has this team ever taken the easy way out?  Revenge against Peyton Manning is by no means out of the question.

KEYS TO VICTORY FOR GANG GREEN

  • Tame the Tamme: The main weakness of the Rex Ryan’s defensive unit this season has been its weakness to defend the inside of the field.  In losses to New England, Baltimore, and Miami the Jets have been struggled to match up with athletic tight ends and slot receivers.  Jim Caldwell’s gameplan will no doubt include a heavy dose of tight end Jacob Tamme, early and often.  The Jets linebacking core and safeties must contain Tamme and force the action to the outside where the strength of their secondary lies, with corners Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie.
  • Ground ‘N’ Pound: Peyton Manning can’t beat you if you keep him on the sidelines.  Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer ought to take a page out of Tony Sparano and the Miami Dolphins’ playbook from a year ago.  The Jets must establish the run early and often with a steady diet of last year’s postseason hero Shonn Greene and L.T.  It shouldn’t be too difficult against an Indianapolis defense which has struggled to defend against the run this season (25th in the NFL).  Gang Green must control possession and turn this into a grind-it-out defensive battle, in which they would hold the advantage.
  • Play Action: If the Jets can establish a consistent ground attack early, it will open up the play-action game which is such an important facet to the success of their aerial attack. Against a middle-of-the-pack secondary like Indianapolis, Mark Sanchez should be given some free reign to throw the deep ball to his big-play threats, Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards.
  • Pressure Peyton: Against the Indianapolis offensive line, getting to Mr. Manning is easier said then done, but it is not an impossibility. Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine must bring the heat on Peyton and dial up constant blitz packages to disrupt his rhythm. Under duress, any quarterback in the National Football league is human, even Peyton Manning. Turnovers could end up being the difference in this one.

PREDICTION: JETS 21, COLTS 17

Offensively, the Jets should have no problem running on a very average Colts defense. The two ‘X’ factors in this game will be the Jets offensive line and Antonio Cromartie. If the Jets can keep Mathis and Freeney off Sanchez, it should be smoothing sailing for the offense. Cromartie must at least limit Pierre Garçon. Last year’s 11-catch, 151-yard performance by Garçon is the reason why Cromartie was brought here.  He needs to earn his money Saturday.

Broadcast Info: Saturday, 8:00 P.M. ET, TV: NBC (Al Michaels/Chris Collinsworth) Radio: 1050 AM ESPN Radio (Bob Wischusen/Marty Lyons)


JETS-BILLS PREVIEW: The finale about nothing

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

A preseason game in January.

Following a 31-yard field goal in overtime by Washington Redskins kicker Graham Gano last week, that’s what the Jets have set up for themselves Sunday in their regular season finale against the Buffalo Bills.

Rookie Joe McKnight could see some serious action in Sunday's playoff dress-rehearsal against Buffalo. (JetsInsider.com Photo)

With a playoff spot already locked up, what exactly does Gang Green have to play for?  According to their head coach, a whole lot.

“We’re going out there to try and win the game, first off,” said Rex Ryan Friday.  ”Is it a kick start to the playoffs?  I guess it is the last game we play, so you’re trying to go out there and get some things done.  Will we do some things that maybe we haven’t done? Yes, absolutely.”

Coming off losses in three of their last four games, there is definitely some work to be done for the 10-5 Jets. A win Sunday would restore some mojo to a team that will seemingly limp into the playoffs. Both literally and figuratively.

“There’s only one way to play the game,” said Ryan.  ”And that’s to go full tilt.  If you don’t, that’s when injuries do happen.  You have to be playing at that kind of tempo.  You’re a professional.  We want to win this game.”

Being professional is one thing.  Putting your star players at risk with a playoff run in sight, is quite another.  Mark Sanchez is likely to have his playing time severely limited Sunday with backups Mark Brunell and Kellen Clemens getting the majority of the reps.  Meanwhile starting corners Darrelle Revis (hamstring) and Antonio Cromartie (groin) have been listed as questionable for Sunday, with a good chance that they both will not suit up.

Another Jet who is likely to see his workload lessened immensely against Buffalo is running back LaDainian Tomlinson.  Tomlinson, who comes into Sunday needing only 86 yards to become only the fifth running back in NFL history to record nine 1,000-yard seasons, likely will not get the chance to do so.  It’s possible that Tomlinson could be held out of the entire game with rookie Joe McKnight taking the bulk of the carries.

Despite the uncertainty of playing time for himself and many of his teammates Sunday, the 31-year-old back agrees with his head coach that closing out the regular season should count for something.

“You definitely want to end (the season) on a good note,” said Tomlinson, earlier this week.  ”You want to be, as we talked about all year long, playing our best football at this time, so you want the momentum of winning the game and also, it’s a dress rehearsal to make sure you’re covering everything you need to do at this time to be ready to go for next week.”

Regardless of who exactly steps out onto the field for Gang Green Sunday, a win is definitely attainable.  It’s been another long, dreary campaign for the 4-11 Bills, making Chan Gailey’s first season in Buffalo a forgetful one.

While the Bills record is not truly indicative of how competitive they’ve been in the second half of the season, they certainly have some major flaws.  The key to Buffalo’s undoing this season has been a severe inability to stop the run, as the Bills rank dead last in the NFL in rush defense, yielding a whopping 162.5 yards on the ground per game.

However, Sunday’s finale in the Meadowlands does hold some serious clout for Buffalo.  But obviously it has nothing to do with the postseason.

The Bills enter Sunday’s game against the Jets, currently in the No.4 slot for April’s draft.  Depending on the league-wide outcomes of Week 17, Buffalo could finish as high as the second pick, or as low as the ninth.

PREDICTION: With the backups in, this one could get ugly. But then again, this Jet offense has been inept basically all season. The offense will struggle to score once again, even against the porous Buffalo defense. However, with the possibility of Fitzpatrick sitting this one out, the Jet defense will feast on Bills third-year backup quarterback Brian Brohm. At least three forced turnovers for the defense, two for scores. JETS 20, Buffalo 3

INSIDER TIDBITS

Matchup history

Sunday marks the 99th meeting between the two clubs with Buffalo holding a 53-46 series advantage.  However, the Jets have had the Bills’ number as of late, posting wins in four of the last five meetings.  Gang Green is coming off a Week 4 shellacking of the Bills up at Ralph Wilson Stadium in which the Jets dominated possession of the football for over 40 minutes en route to a 38-14 victory.

Goin’ for 11

A win against Buffalo Sunday will give New York their eleventh win of the season for the first time since Bill Parcells’ squad did it in 1998.  It will also mark only the fourth time in franchise history that the Jets have surpassed 10 wins in a season.  Furthermore, 11 wins would add up to 29 combined wins for the Jets since 2008.  This would tie the 1967-69 Jets for most wins by the club in a three-year span.

Injury Report

Safety James Ihedigbo (ankle/knee) and right tackle Damien Woody are out for the Jets.  Safety Eric Smith (concussion) is listed as doubtful.  As mentioned earlier, cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie (groin) and Darrelle Revis (hamstring) are questionable along with defensive end Shaun Ellis (back), defensive tackle Sione Pouha (back), and defensive end Trevor Pryce (hip).  Listed as probable are wideouts Santonio Holmes (quad) and Brad Smith (hand), quarterback Mark Sanchez (shoulder), center Nick Mangold (shoulder), guard Matt Slauson (illness), and linebacker Bryan Thomas (ankle).

For Buffalo, guard Cord Howard (shoulder) is out along with wide receivers Donal Jones (head) and David Nelson (ribs).  Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (knee) is questionable.  Listed as probable are linebackers Mike Balogun (illness) and Chris Kelsay (knee), defensive tackles Torell Troup (back) and Kyle Williams (hip), cornerback Terrence McGhee (head), safety Jon Corto (illness) and offensive tackle Demetrius Bell (knee).

Broadcast Info: Sunday, 1:00 P.M. ET, TV: CBS (Gus Johnson/Steve Tasker) Radio: 1050 AM ESPN Radio (Bob Wischusen/Marty Lyons)