The second round of the AFC playoffs are now set. Midseason monster Cincinnati Bengals and perennial powerhouse New England Patriots have both been upset by their wild-card opponents. The fifth-seeded New York Jets are now the team San Diego will face in the divisional round.
New York beat the Bengals 24-14 in Cincinnati to advance to the second round of the playoffs. The Jets nearly missed the postseason, as they were 4-6 in Week 11, suffering a major skid after looking strong in the 3-0 start to the year.
The Jets closed the year 5-1, including a win against Indianapolis where the Colts lead the game but pulled major starters en route to a New York comeback. The victory stemmed a 9-7 record where the Jets took the tie-breaker advantage over the other four AFC teams with same records.
So what do the Chargers face in going up against the New York Jets? A big physical team led by a boisterous coach and rookie quarterback.
The strength of the New York Jets is defense. They excelled in all aspects, going No. 1 overall in total yards allowed across the regular season. They were great against both the pass (first overall) and rush (eighth).
Led by team MVP corner back Darrelle Revis, one of the most effective shutdown corners in the league this year, the Jets' pass defense will be keying on the strong aerial assault of the San Diego Chargers.
With that matchup, Vincent Jackson figures to have a tough game trying to find space.
The Chargers' best opportunity in the passing game will be focusing on Antonio Gates slightly deeper on the field. Safety Kerry Rhodes temporarily lost his starting job due to poor play and figures to be the most exploitable point.
Spreading Darren Sproles wide and utilizing the utility of Legedu Naanee (assuming his status of "questionable" improves into being active come game day).
One potential key to San Diego’s success could be an improved running game. The team was not at all dominant running the football across the year, but spent the second half much improved from their league-worst start running the football.
Running back Cedric Benson managed to gouge New York in Cincinnati’s losing effort, gaining 169 on a mere 21 carries. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer did not fare as well, going 18-for-36 with 146 yards a touchdown and an interception.
Cincinnati had been a power running team with a mediocre passing attack all year, however. They were already the absolute worst scoring team in the playoffs, ranking 22nd in the league with a scant 308 points.
With the tragic loss of deep threat Chris Henry and a slowed Chad Johnson, the team was further hampered. Despite that stale passing game, the Bengals did manage to accrue 30 yards over the Jets' average of 252 yards allowed per game.
The Jets offense is a little bit different matter. The imposing defense kept the Jets alive, despite a sub-par offensive attack that ranked 17th with 348 points scored. The only playoff team that put up fewer points across the year was the team they just defeated.
The Jets are highly effective running the football, leading the league with 172.2 yards a game.
Starting running back Thomas Jones was effectively bottled up by Cincinnati, managing only 34 yards on 15 carries (a 2.3 yard per carry clip). No. 2 back Shonn Greene augmented Jones’ game dramatically, however, gaining 135 yards against a strong Bengals defense.
San Diego will need to put either Eric Weddle or Kevin Ellison up in the box the bulk of the game to slow the power game of New York. They will also likely see hard-hitting middle linebacker Brandon Siler getting extra snaps over Kevin Burnett, signed primarily for his skills in pass defense.
Against the pass, San Diego can afford to sacrifice a safety to help the run defense. New York is helmed by rookie Mark Sanchez, who ranked second-highest in the league with 20 interceptions but worst among starters in interceptions per attempt (one per 18.2 pass attempts, well below interception leader Jay Cutler’s one per 21.8).
Sanchez showed reasonably effective game-management against Cincinnati, putting up 182 yards on 12-of-15 passing. The key factor for Sanchez was eliminating mistakes.
During the middle of the year, Sanchez tossed 18 interceptions across 10 games. Including the Bengals game, he has now gone three straight without throwing a pick.
San Diego will need to force the Jets to win by way of Sanchez’ arm to achieve success. One of the more notable contributors to his three-turnover, three-game stretch was because he only averaged 16.7 attempts during the stretch. His 50 passes in that span have been attempted by some quarterbacks in single games.
With some troubles against power rushing games in the Jamal Williams-less season, and a solid pass defense, San Diego’s efforts will need to be doubled against stuffing the middle of the Jets line and letting defensive backs prove themselves in single coverage.
San Diego should have the power to overwhelm New York. The Jets' defense is a great shutdown team, but the difference between the first and second games against New England speak volumes to how effective a team can be when multiple weapons are in place.
Like New Orleans (handing the Jets their first loss), New England with a healthy Wes Welker (putting 31 on New York), and Indianapolis (putting quick points en route to a five-point lead while starters were in place), San Diego’s strength will be their host of options.
They are not reliant on Vincent Jackson or Antonio Gates, proving able to check down to any number of players to be the big receiver on the day or spreading the passing game into no true leading receiver.
The Chargers should be able to come away with the win. They have the pieces to defeat New York, and now it comes down to execution.
San Diego has spent the regular season getting hot and catching people’s eyes. They have become a trendy pick to make it to the Super Bowl, yet now they have to prove that the late-year praise is warranted.
The first step in that process — topping the Jets in San Diego on divisional weekend.
For a look at San Diego's overall playoff chances: