JETS-COLTS: AFC WILD CARD PREVIEW

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)


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