With the Baltimore Ravens' 33-14 drubbing of the New England Patriots in the books, the Chargers now know the identity of their first playoff opponent. The New York Jets will come to town to face the No. 2 seed Chargers in the fourth and final game of next weekend's divisional round.
The Jets are playing their best football at the right time. After improbably sneaking into the playoffs with a strong push at the end of the regular season (after they'd even been written off by their own coach several weeks earlier), the Jets dismantled the Cincinnati Bengals for the second consecutive week in Saturday's wild card contest, scoring a 24-14 victory in a game that was never really that close.
On the face of things, the Jets face an extreme and unenviable challenge next weekend. Traveling across the country with a rookie quarterback to face a well-rested and high-powered opponent undefeated since mid-October, they are sure to be a heavy underdog on the odds board.
But if there's anything we know, it's that Jets coach Rex Ryan and his club don't particularly care. They fully expect to be the AFC's Super Bowl representative come next month, as Ryan has been confidently telling anyone who will listen in recent days.
But, setting aside Ryan's optimistic bravado, should the Chargers be worried about the Jets? In this writer's opinion, they most certainly should.
The Jets' strengths are ones that traditionally translate into playoff success in the NFL.
In the regular season, they led the league in rushing offense, scoring defense, and total defense. They are big, tough, and strong in the trenches, on both sides of the ball.
Thomas Jones and Shonn Green form one of the league's premier tailback tandems, and cornerback Darrelle Revis is quite possibly the best defensive player in the NFL.
Predictably, the Jets' greatest liability has been the inconsistent play of rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez. His 20 interceptions this year have included several of the game-killing variety, and his inexperience (along with his nondescript cast of receivers) has made it difficult for the Jets to win games in which their running game is shut down or in which they fall behind early.
Against the Bengals on Saturday, however, Sanchez played perhaps the most efficient and effective game of his young career. He showed confidence in the pocket, good decision making, and the ability to make strong throws under pressure and on the run.
Although he only had to attempt 15 passes for the game, his 139.4 passer rating established a new NFL playoff standard for rookie quarterbacks, and by a wide margin.
If the Jets are to escape San Diego with a victory and advance to the AFC Championship Game, their margin of error will be razor-thin.
They will have to take an early lead, use their running game to chew up time-consuming drives and keep the Chargers offense off the field, force multiple turnovers on defense, and win a low-scoring game.
This is no small task to be sure, as the Chargers have scored 20+ points in 22 consecutive games, but it's not an impossible one if the Jets can play mistake-free football, particularly at the quarterback position. If, however, they get into a situation where they have to trade touchdowns with the Chargers, this game will be over quickly and could get quite ugly.
From the Chargers' perspective, the keys to victory are simple. Just do what you've done for the last 11 weeks. Score in the red zone, defend the red zone, win the turnover battle, and limit your mistakes.
If the Chargers are able to continue their recent first quarter dominance on the scoreboard and stake themselves to an early lead, they will force the Jets out of their ground-based comfort zone and gain a huge advantage. If the Chargers can build a multiple-possession lead at any point in the first half, this game could be as good as over at that point.
The Jets are not a team that's built to overcome big deficits, and Mark Sanchez simply cannot win a battle of arms against Philip Rivers.
In the end, although the Jets are a worthy opponent playing their best football and should be respected as such, they lack both the playmakers and the firepower to hang with the Chargers for 60 minutes of playoff football in a hostile road environment.
Prediction: Chargers 28, Jets 17