AFC Championship Preview (prediction at the bottom)
How we got here:
It's hard to really explain how the Jets got here. Dropped a heartbreaker to Atlanta then benefited from the Colts and Bengals resting their starters to pick up 2 late season wins. Took their show on the road to knock off Cincinnati and San Diego to gain their chance to go to the Super Bowl. The Colts have been the best team in the AFC all year (lost 2 games with their starters out), prompting some to believe that they should be undefeated right now. My question is simple: if the Colts should be undefeated, why do I have this sinking feeling about this team every time they step on the field? Why do I feel Peyton Manning is capable of making a mistake or underperforming at the most critical time? While Manning has won his share of MVP's (regular season), his career record is 8-8 in the playoffs. Most of those games, the Colts were a better team than their opponent. By my calculations, the Colts should have at least 2 Super Bowls in the Manning era at least.....right? This year is another grand opportunity, playing the #5 & #6 seeds in the AFC in the playoffs (two 9-7 teams....must be nice) I'm not going to go over all their playoff failures (numerous vs NE & SD, also including a loss to a #6 Steelers team a few years back). The key thing to remember is that this is not baseball or basketball. In the NFL, there are no series. 60 minutes to advance to the next round. Every play could be the great play to advance your team or the critical mistake that could throw months out the window (ask Phillip Rivers about that 2nd INT last week, for example). So here we are......a 9 win regular season team against a team that arguably should be undefeated. Blowout? Not in today's NFL......
Something most of the media doesn't realize is how big of an advantage that the Colts have in seeing the Jets #1 defense for a half in December. No one makes better adjustments for his offensive line before each snap and the Jets key in on finding their unique blitz packages. If the Jets aren't at least affecting Manning on most pass plays, the Colts will win this game in a runaway. NYJ have to show Manning some blitzes that he doesn't see coming. Easier said than done though. Darrelle Revis has already been assumed to take Reggie Wayne out of this game. That's fine with the Colts I'd imagine, as they have 2 other young WR's (Garcon & Collie) who've shown all year that they can make the big catches/plays downfield. The Colts may be tempted to try to drive up and down the field against the Jets but they must hit a few big plays to keep these drives going. That's where the X-Factor of the game comes into play....Dallas Clark. NYJ had trouble covering a better athlete at TE last week (Gates) so a big game by Clark shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. IND may need to keep Clark in to protect Manning in certain situations but Clark has shown the ability to have big games against any kind of defense. The Colts running game gave us an interesting look last week. In a game where the Colts controlled the clock and really had no problems against the Ravens, they used the short passing game over the running game at times. Joe Addai had 11 carries, Donald Brown had 6 and Mike Hart had 6 suprising carries. Whether they see Hart as a factor around the goal line or a blocker is still undetermined. Hart has barely played, Brown has only had over 10 carries once since Week 3 while Addai gets most of the carries but only over 20 a handful of times this season. Expect to see all three backs get at least 5 carries again this week since the Jets have a solid run defense. IND may want to see what it can get out of Brown in the short passing game as a safety net to potential blitzes that the line doesn't quite pick up as well. I see the Colts moving the ball when they have it but also seeing a couple of frustrating 3 and outs that may flip field position in a close game.
Everyone knows about "Revis Island" by now. You're just not going to have a great game against him. So be prepared to see plenty of the other WR's for IND making plays. Lito Sheppard needs to have a big game on Garcon though. This is another X-Factor that could be exploited. Garcon has shown an ability to get downfield and make the big catch. Austin Collie is young slot receiver that could gain attention as the game goes along. The thing the Jets must do is put the pressure on Manning. If they get him moving around in the pocket, they've got him where they want him. In these types of the games (good offense vs good defense), it's almost imperative for the defense to come up with one huge play to swing the momentum of the game. The earlier the Jets defense can do this, the better. You won't see blitzers get to Manning uncovered often so the NYJ needs to realize that they have to cover the quick passes down field since they'll be blitzing on many downs.
This is the most interesting of the 4 units in my opinion. We all know Mark Sanchez will not beat you. He will lean on his 2 headed monster in the run game, make a few key passes to talented yet unreliable WR's in Jerricho Cotchery & Braylon Edwards. If he can utilize Dustin Keller a bit more, it'll show that the Jets are having their way. By that I mean that the Jets will have the Colts covering their WR's downfield and Sanchez can check down to keep the chains moving & keep Manning off the field. That seems to be the strategy that most would encourage NYJ to use. If they can keep the ball for 35-40 minutes using a ball control offense, strong running game & short-intermediate passing game, they can win this game. They can't afford to air it out or fall down 14-0 in the 1st quarter of this game. If that happens, book the trip to Miami for the Colts. Whether it's because of injuries or youth or whatever, Shonn Greene has proven to be the more reliable ball carrier to Thomas Jones in the past two weeks. He's busted two big runs for the Jets and should see most of the work. Jones runs well inside the 10 yard line so he could very well get a TD in this game. NYJ's offensive line is continually underrated but is getting to show it's stuff the past few weeks. With the great pass rushers on IND's line (Freeney & Mathis), this may be the biggest test for them. Sanchez cannot afford to make any mistakes (INT's, fumbles) when he can just throw it out of bounds, punt and let their defense back on the field. I expect to see the Jets employ the ball control offense and pound IND's defense. Sanchez will make a mistake or two though which will cost the Jets in the long run.
This is a defense that's often not talked about yet is always making plays to give the potent offense short fields. IND will turn you over if you test their secondary and this may be where the game turns. The Jets don't want to admit it but this kind of fast, smaller defense may make Sanchez turn it over. The key will be making Sanchez throw the ball in clear passing downs. To do this, the Colts need to put up a wall against the Jets running game. That's easier said than doen but the Colts did a nice job last week against the Ravens, who were coming into the game off of a 234 yard rushing performance against NE. No big plays from the NYJ running game would be huge as it would force them to stay on the field and methodically move up & down the field. If you give the Jets a big play or two, you could be in trouble. They play well from ahead and would really force the Colts defense into a back against the wall situation. IND has the ability to score quickly if behind but they must make the Jets work their way down the field.
The kicking game is interesting for both teams. As far as I know, Matt Stover will be kicking again for IND. He no longer has the ability to make the really long FG's but has shown over his career that's he's about as accurate as anyone. I'd favor him over Jay Feely (NYJ kicker). Neither team has a great punter but both may see a lot of work on Sunday. The Jets especially could use a few punts down inside the 10 by Weatherford if they want to force the Colts to go up the whole field against their defense. The more short fields NYJ gives IND, the bigger the blowout this game will be. Brad Smith has had some success for the Jets as a wildcat player & I expect to see him out there for a few plays on Sunday. He also returned a kick against the Colts in December's game. A kick return in this game could be just what it takes to swing the momentum and the upset.
Prediction: Indianapolis 17, NY Jets(+7.5) 10
The Jets can win this game, don't be mistaken by my score. I see both teams being really cautious early in this game. These title game atmospheres usually have the feeling out process of a boxing match early on. The team that plays from ahead will have a HUGE advantage in this game. If NYJ can get up 7 or 10, they can run the ball, keep Sanchez from having to win the game and benefit from eating up the clock. The Colts could have this game over by the half if they get up 10-14 points. I just can't imagine the Jets coming back from a deficit against an offense that's going to score some more points in the second half. I see the Colts getting up 10-0 at the half here then the Jets scoring a TD in the 3rd quarter on a long drive. Manning will find Garcon on a 30-40 yard ball with about 8 minutes left to go up 17-7 and the Colts will hold on to the victory in the end. If NYJ can keep this game tied late and get the ball back, I have confidence the Jets can drive down the field to score the game-winning TD or FG. They just have to get into that position.