JETS-CHARGERS: Previewing the AFC Divisional Round

The task is certainly tall on Sunday for the New York Jets who head into San Diego to face the 13-3 Chargers in an AFC Divisional playoff matchup.   But still not as tall as their opponent’s receivers.

San Diego, led by the hot-hand of quarterback Philip Rivers, enter the postseason riding an eleven-game winning streak, the longest current streak in the NFL.  River’s immense success this season (28 TD, 9 INT) is due largely (no pun intended) in-part to the skyline that he has lining up next to him:  6-foot-5 receivers Malcom Floyd and Vincent Jackson, and 6-foot-4 TE Antonio Gates.

Safety Jim Leonard and the rest of the Jets secondary have their work cut out for them Sunday against the Charger's statuesque receving core. (JetsInsider.com Photo)

“He’s extremely accurate,” said Jets safety Jim Leonhard.   “The biggest thing with them is they’ll spread the ball all over the place. He has a lot of big-time targets that he can distribute the ball to. He’s an equal-opportunity quarterback.  He’s willing to throw it to anyone. It doesn’t matter, whoever is open, that’s where the ball is going. It’s really hard to get keyed in on him.”

Jets safety Kerry Rhodes will assume the toilsome assignment of covering Gates on Sunday.   Rhodes believes the former Kent State basketball player should be considered amongst the upper-echelon of tight ends.   According to Rhodes, it’s Gate’s size and strength that make him such a tough matchup for opposing secondaries.

“He fits right in there with them,” said Rhodes.  “We’ve faced (Kellen) Winslow, (Tony) Gonzalez, (Dallas) Clark and all those guys.  I’ve been matched up on them most of the time and I’ve done ok…He’s definitely one of the best.  He’s very athletic plus he’s big.  He’s a big, wide body.”

“The reason he’s so tough to cover is you can’t put a small guy on him.  A small guy can’t use his quickness on him because he can (box) him out.  If you have a big safety guy that can cover him and can try to limit his catches, is probably the best way because he’s such a big guy.  That’s what kind of sets him apart.”

Offensively, the Jets hope to get a repeat performance from quarterback Mark Sanchez, who is coming off his most impressive game as pro.   The running game should once again be a strong asset to the rookie.    If there’s one thing the San Diego defense has exhibited this season, it’s a tendency to falter against the run.   The Chargers’ 20th-ranked rush defense surrendered over 117 yards per game during the regular season.

Center Nick Mangold and the Jets offensive line have done a great job of protecting their rookie signal-caller all season.   Mangold says that the team has tried to give their quarterback assurance that he doesn’t need to beat San Diego all by himself.   He’s set up to succeed.

“It’s one of the things we’ve been trying to alert Mark to,” said Mangold.  “Don’t do anything more than just be the quarterback.  Go out there and do your job and we’ll try to make things perfect for you.  We’ll give you the protection.  We’ll pick things up.  (We) try to alleviate one concern from his mind because I’m sure he’s got about 50 other things he’s got to worry about when he’s back there.”

“He did a great job flinging the ball around (last week).  I think a big part of it was he came in loose.  He had that little kid-like smile on his face.  I think for the past couple of weeks, his confidence has just been growing and growing.  The experience he’s had from the beginning of being drafted, through training camp, through the season has really helped him out a lot.”

Sunday, Sanchez will be play in the biggest game of his football-life to date.   A win in San Diego, in front of his friends and family, would further actuate the rookie’s confidence, and propel the Jets into the AFC Championship Game.

Prediction

The San Diego are a lot of things, but one thing they’re not is unbeatable.  That has already been proven three times this season, by the Ravens, Steelers and Broncos, respectively.

Philip Rivers is an elite quarterback, no questions asked.   However, he is not Drew Brees and he is not Peyton Manning, both of whom the Jet defense held strong against on the road.

For all his accolades in the month of December, in which Rivers is an unconscious 18-0, he has yet to prove anything in the postseason.  Rivers only has two more career playoff wins than Mark Sanchez.

The key to the game will be denying San Diego their opportunities in the red zone, something the Jets have excelled at this season.  Mike Pettine’s unit has allowed touchdowns on just 42% of red zone chances by their opponents, good for fifth-best in the league.

The Jet defense, which suffered a few hiccups last week in Cincinnati, will be in prime form on Sunday, and the ultimate difference in this ballgame.   Darrelle Revis will indeed take Vincent Jackson out of this game, offering a critical blow to Rivers’ arsenal.

Gang Green’s Cinderella run continues, at least for the time being:  Jets 28, San Diego 20

INSIDER TIDBITS

Matchup history

The Chargers and Jets have met a total of 32 times, with the Bolts leading the all-time regular season series 19-11, with one tie.   New York holds the advantage in the postseason, winning the only meeting between the two teams in 2004.

The Jets are 9-11 in 13 playoff appearences and are 2-3 all-time in Divisional playoff games.   Two of those three losses have come in overtime.

The last time they met in the post season…

The Jets went into Qualcomm Stadium on the dreary night of January 8, 2005 and won a classic, back-and-forth struggle, 20-17 in OT, to advance to the AFC Divisional Round.

The Jets, led by 272 passing yards by QB Chad Pennington had the game all but won, leading 17-10, late in the fourth quarter.  With San Diego down to its final chance, the Jets forced an incompletion by Chargers QB Drew Brees on fourth down.   However, Jet LB Eric Barton was flagged for a personal foul penalty after inexplicably connecting with Brees’ helmet.

Given new life, the Chargers took advantage as Brees hooked up with TE Antonio Gates in the end zone, sending the game to overtime.   On their second possession of the overtime period, the Chargers advanced the ball to the Jets’ 22-yard line and trotted out rookie kicker Nate Kaeding for a 40-yard attempt to win the game.   Kaeding pushed the kick wide-right, sending New York a lucky break and giving them a second chance to win the ballgame.

A 19-yard run by RB LaMont Jordan set up the game-winning, 28-yard field goal by Jets kicker Doug Brien.

Ellis makes history…again

Shaun Ellis’s record breaking season continues on Sunday in San Diego.   The tenth-year defensive end will be making his eight postseason start as a Jet, a new franchise record.

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