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AFC Championship Preview

In NFL on January 18, 2010 at 6:49 pm

In the eyes of many, the New York Jets shouldn’t even be in the post-season. At one stage they were 4-6, and even late in the season coach Rex Ryan was under the impression that they were already out of playoff contention.

Then they beat the Indianapolis Colts in week 16 when Jim Caldwell pulled his starters and sacrificed his perfect season, and followed that up by battering an uninterested Bengals outfit who also played at reduced intensity.

That came back to bite the Bengals when they lost again in the Wildcard round, and after the Jets jaw-dropping upset of the San Diego Chargers on Sunday night, Caldwell better hope that he doesn’t live to regret his fateful decision to pull Manning and sacrifice a home game.

Jets corner Darrelle Revis hauls in a miracle interception against the Chargers

The Jets won Sunday’s game the only way they could; with suffocating defence. It doesn’t make for the most thrilling of games, but you won’t find a Jets fan who cares about that. Last week, I wrote that Rivers was prone to the odd turnover in close games. He is usually very careful with the ball, throwing only 9 interceptions all season. But all of those came in games that were lost or won by just a score.

Unfortunately for the Chargers, he did it again on Sunday, throwing two interceptions. Incredibly, the two picks came on consecutive passes, and in opposite red zones, likely causing at least a 10 point swing.

He could hardly be held accountable for the one Darrelle Revis hauled in, but throwing a long ball in his vicinity is like dangling a donut in front of Steven Segal. Sure enough, Revis continued his remarkable season with one of the most athletic grabs you’re ever likely to see. Even the commentators were fooled, and Rivers himself was, ahem, less than convinced of its legitimacy as he confronted the refs with eyes bulging and veins popping. But it was legit, and anyone decked out in green and white would tell you that it was every bit as pretty as a Peyton Manning touchdown pass.

That pick probably cost the Chargers points as it was within field goal range. The next one paved the way for the Jets’ go-ahead score and they never looked back.

This one was almost certainly on Rivers. It looked as though one just sailed a little on him, and that was enough for the Jets. A few plays later, triggerman Sanchez found an open receiver in the end zone, and suddenly a game that the Chargers had dominated was slipping away. The dagger came on New York’s next possession, as Shonn Greene sped 53 yards for a 17-7 lead.

Rookie running back Shonn Greene bursts through for the game-winning touchdown

Rivers, as always, came storming back to go over himself and give the Jets fans those familiar jitters, but it wasn’t enough. The real villain of the piece from a Chargers point of view was kicker Nate Kaeding, as this season’s weird postseason jinx struck again. Even the most reliable kickers have got the Grobbelaars at crucial points in these playoffs, and on Sunday it was Kaeding’s turn. A 57 yarder at the half was always a prayer, but misses of 34 and 40 yards were unforgiveable for one of the most solid boots in the league.

That’s twice the Jets have got somewhat fortunate, as Shane Graham also imploded for the Bengals. They can expect no such favours from Matt Stover/Adam Vinatieri next week though.

That’s one of the reasons why the Colts will be a different animal to what Rex Ryan and his overachieving group have faced so far. With their strong running game and lockdown defence these Jets are a throwback team. They operate in a similar way to Baltimore, and they will need to play exceptionally well to avoid the Ravens’ fate.

Coming off the back of a destruction of Tom Brady’s Patriots, confidence was sky-high in Baltimore coming into the weekend’s game. What happened on Saturday night was a surgical operation.

The threat of Ray Rice was neutralised with the minimum of fuss, as he was held to 67 yards. He was rarely blown away, but the Colts kept him to short gains for the most part, and by taking away the big play taken they forced quarterback Joe Flacco to win the game. He couldn’t, as he was picked off twice for no touchdowns.

The Jets will need Mark Sanchez to cause more damage than Joe Flacco managed last weekend

Against the Jets, the formula will be the same. Keep Greene and Thomas Jones from racking up the first downs, and force Mark Sanchez to shoot it out with Peyton Manning.  The Chargers did it for 3 quarters and should have won going away on Sunday, but crucial misfires prevented them from pulling away and all Greene needed was one chink of light for the dagger.

In this respect, the front line defense of guys like Brackett, Mathis, Brock and Freeney will be crucial. If they can keep a lid on the run, the Colts should win easily. If they can’t, it’ll be another tight one. And you don’t want to be dragged into a dogfight with these Jets.

On the other side of the ball, The Colts did what the Colts do against Baltimore, and they’ll almost certainly do it again next weekend. Their 41 yards on the ground gave them just enough to run their play-action, and Manning simply stepped up and gunned it to his receivers all day. Ngata and his ferocious defence were neutralised for the most part, coming up with two sacks and chasing shadows in the secondary all day. Not even Revis could have stopped some of the plays, so perfectly were they executed.

The problem for the Jets defence is the variety of offense they’ll face against the Colts. They didn’t do too well bottling up Antonio Gates, so expect Dallas Clark to do similar damage. Beyond that, it could be a ‘pick your poison’ scenario. Revis can effectively shut down Manning’s premier receiver. But who the hell is that? It changes from game to game, and one shut down corner does not match up too well with an equal opportunities offence like Manning runs.

Expect Colts tight end Dallas Clark to find some holes in the Jets secondary

Whether the Jets can compete in Indy and continue their hard-nosed march ultimately comes down to whether they can establish the run. If they can, then they can get some points on the board and begin to squeeze. As we saw at the weekend, even the very best are prone to mistakes under pressure. In a tight game, a play making defence like the Jets can win you the game with a crucial turnover.

If the Colts defence can shut down the run though, or at least limit the damage, then it’s going to be a long night for the Jets.

I said this about the Bengals and Chargers, but this time I’m more confident. Colts to give up 100 or so on the ground, but win by a couple of scores.

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