Entering this season’s playoffs, if one had come to the conclusion that the San Diego Chargers were the team to beat to win it all--it was no longer a unique thought.
Eleven straight wins for the 13-3 Bolts put the entire league on notice, including the formerly perfect Colts (now 14-2), who backed into the playoffs while resting most of their starters.
Armed with a potent offense led by QB Philip Rivers, the Chargers are on a mission to reach the Super Bowl for only the second time ever and the first time since the 1994 season.
They will be facing a seemingly unlikely opponent in the New York Jets, who stumbled to a 7-7 record only to receive two well-documented gifts from the football gods. The Colts and Bengals not showing their “A” game led some pundits to think that Gang Green simply skated in by way of some tiebreakers; that they were not a worthy playoff adversary.
The truth is that the Jets are built to win late in the season, a tenacious defense that is stingy on points (14.8 per game) and the top-ranked rushing game in the NFL which keeps opponents’ offenses off the field. Regardless of how they got here, they beat up on the Bengals last week and are prepared to throw their best punch on Sunday--and tell you how hard they’re throwing it, too.
The Chargers have been here before, recently in fact, and watched Super Bowl dreams go up in smoke in upset home losses at the hands of the Patriots in the 2006 season and the Jets in the 2004 season. With a well-earned bye week coming off that 11-game streak, they look to avenge those losses and put themselves back in the AFC Championship game for the first time since the 2007 season.
Here are three reasons why they will advance...
Jets’ head Coach Rex Ryan loves to bring pressure and he does so as much as any coach in the NFL. However, the Jets finished in the middle of the pack in the league in sacks with 32 during the regular season.
While their team defensive stats are impressive, their No. 1 ranking is as much a function of their outstanding running game keeping opponents on the sidelines as it is the ability to create three-and-outs on every possession.
Philip Rivers is right at the top of his game once again in 2009-2010. He ranked third in the league in passer rating throwing 28 TDs to only 9 INTS and led the league again in yards per pass attempt--widely considered an accurate measurement of a quarterback’s efficiency.
More importantly, Rivers took only 25 sacks this season, which ranked dead last among QBs who played in all 16 games.
The Jets blitz packages do contain the run as well but San Diego’s versatility using the deep threat and the screen game has the ability to rack up yardage in chunks. Rivers will be able to recognize and exploit blitz packages often enough for it to be the single biggest factor of the game.
The Chargers have the Jets beat in nearly every aspect on special teams. Kicker Nate Kaeding had an excellent season hitting on 32 of 35 field goals, perfect from inside 40 yards. It should be noted that the Jets’ Jay Feely was accurate as well but missed six kicks including three inside 40 and kicked 18 fewer extra points.
Jets punter Steve Weatherford missed last week’s playoff game with an irregular heartbeat scare but has been cleared to play this Sunday. Even on his best day, he is a notch below Chargers’ punter Mike Scifres and the net punting average is nearly three yards better in the Bolts’ favor.
Chargers’ RB Darren Sproles will simply be the biggest special teams threat on the field this Sunday as he broke off five 40-plus yards kickoff returns this season, second in the league only to Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs. His ability to change field position will be a major factor and could change momentum in one play.
The “Sanchise” as he has come to be know in New York, asserted himself last week in a massive way by going nearly perfect in their playoff win in Cincinnati. He matched Baltimore QB Joe Flacco’s accomplishment last season by becoming the second rookie ever to win his first playoff game on the road. In fact, Flacco won his second road game as well, advancing to the AFC Championship game before falling to Pittsburgh—a feat Sanchez is trying to duplicate.
However, Flacco went 11 of 22 for only 161 yards at Tennessee and it took three crucial turnovers by the Titans in the red zone to blow that game, a 13-10 loss, in excruciating fashion. Not exactly the stuff legends are made of in this league.
Clearly, the Jets will try to take the pressure off Sanchez just like last week by controlling the clock with the run and playing tight defense.
But, these Chargers are not the Bengals, not by a longshot. Points will be scored. One thing that has proven out over time is that a team needs its QB to make plays, especially in present-day, pass-happy NFL.
I’m not taking shots at Sanchez, his potential is big long-term but that means nothing this week. He may find himself needing to score multiple touchdowns and I simply don’t think this is the week where it will happen. Chargers’ defensive coordinator Ron Rivera will dial up enough pressure and mix coverages enough to create a turnover or two, which will be the death knell for the Jets’ Super Bowl hopes.
Admittedly, my prognostications have been less than stellar this season but I simply don't think the Jets have enough to get it done on Sunday and, frankly, I live in New York and can't bear to hear another week of Jets' fans barking about the Super Bowl...
Chargers 27, Jets 13