Think back to Week 16 of the NFL season.
The Jets were still alive for the wild card but would have to leapfrog a number of teams in the field who were all fighting for the same two spots. They were also squaring up against the undefeated Indianapolis Colts.
Jets Head Coach Rex Ryan joked in a press conference that week that he felt the Colts should sit and rest starters like Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne.
Up by five points in the third quarter, Colts head coach Jim Caldwell did just that, taking out Wayne, Dallas Clark, and Manning and giving rookie Curtis Painter the keys to the offense.
It was like a new driver getting the keys to a Corvette but it was missing two wheels.
Without Manning and Co. in the game, the Jets scored 19 unanswered points and won the game 29-15. The victory ended the Colts' shot at perfection and put the Jets in control of their own destiny for the playoffs.
The Jets, with a strong history of putting themselves in great position to achieve only to shoot themselves in the foot, have taken care of business.
They put a beat down on the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17 to clinch their playoff berth, going up 27-0 at the half before the Bengals rested their starters.
They went to Cincinnati the following week to put another beating on the Bengals in the wild-card round, and then Sunday held the No. 2 seed and high octane San Diego Chargers to just 14 points and—thanks to three missed field goals from Nate Kaeding—won the game.
Now the Jets have come full circle. They sit one victory away from reaching the Super Bowl. The team standing in their way: the Indianapolis Colts.
How did this all happen?
A response to that is, should people really be surprised?
The majority of people say that football teams win in the playoffs by running the ball and playing tough defense. The New York Jets are ranked first in both categories.
On defense, cornerback Darrelle Revis has emerged as one of—if not the best—corners in the NFL and has led the Jets to give up the least amount of passing yards, as well as the least amount of passing touchdowns in the league.
Revis shut down elite receivers. He squared off against Houston’s Andre Johnson and Carolina’s Steve Smith, as well as matching up twice against New England’s Randy Moss, Buffalo’s Terrell Owens, and Cincinnati’s Chad Ochocinco.
None of those players caught more than five passes in a game for more than 35 yards, and they all combined to score only one touchdown (Randy Moss was the only one to accomplish the feat, and it was in the second time the two teams met).
He had six interceptions, good for fifth in the league, and returned one of them for a touchdown.
Thomas Jones was the third leading rusher in the regular season in both rushing yards and touchdowns, all while fumbling the ball only twice the entire season.
In the playoffs, Shonn Greene is first in both rushing yard and touchdowns.
The Jets' ability to run the ball has also had a fantastic effect on their quarterback, rookie Mark Sanchez.
Bolstered by his nicknamed “Sanchise,” Jets fans were in a fervor after starting 3-0 with Sanchez playing at a high level. However, the team then lost six of their next seven games, and the rookie from the University of Southern California had thrown an astonishing 14 interceptions in those losses.
Turnovers will cost you the game, and Mark Sanchez’s mistakes proved deadly. In eight wins—he didn’t play in the victory against Tampa Bay—he threw only three interceptions, as opposed to the 17 he threw in seven losses.
In the Jets' recent run—starting in Week 16 against the Colts, one week after losing to the Atlanta Falcons, where Sanchez threw three interceptions, through the game against the Chargers—Sanchez has only thrown one interception.
He’s also thrown more than 20 passes in only one of those games. He threw 19 passes against the Colts for 106 yards, 16-for-63 yards against the Bengals the first time around, 15-for-182 in the rematch, and 23-for-100 yards against the Chargers.
The Jets have limited his touches, thus creating fewer opportunities for Sanchez to turn the ball over.
Even with the Jets' strong emphasis on the rush, almost bypassing the passing game, Jones, Greene, and Wildcat trigger-man Brad Smith have run wild against opposing defenses.
It also helps that the Jets have three Pro-Bowlers on the offensive line—D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Alan Faneca, and Nick Mangold—clearing open gaps for the backs to plow through.
More importantly, though, is the improved team character of the Jets.
In past seasons, the Jets didn’t really have an identity. They would start off well only to fall apart as the season went on. Last year’s signing of Brett Favre only compounded that problem.
While he is a talented player, it did the Jets no good to have a player who is the living definition of inconsistent. Favre took his chances, but you never knew if it would wind up in a touchdown or an interception.
Heck, no one even know if he wanted to play at the end of the season or for what team he really wanted to be a part of.
But in came Rex Ryan.
After 10 seasons as a defensive coach with the Baltimore Ravens, he was given the head coaching position with the Jets. Ryan came in with a very specific vision of how football should be played. He believed first and foremost in a tenacious defense followed by a strong running game.
In the offseason, he brought two of his students from Baltimore, linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard. They knew Ryan’s system, had seen it work, and could convince the other players to follow him and believe in him.
He also instilled confidence in his players. While he may talk a lot, he believes in his players, and in a press conference after making the playoffs, he insisted the Jets were not the underdogs in the playoffs but the favorites.
When Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Ryan took time to argue in support of Darrelle Revis.
The players bought into Ryan’s scheme. They believed everything he said about them. Now they are in the playoffs. They believe in the system, they believe in their coach, and now they believe in themselves, making them extremely dangerous.
Their story is very similar to that of another Ryan coached team—the 2000 Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens relied on a record-setting defense and focused heavily on the running game on offense, led by rookie running back Jamal Lewis’ 1,364 yards rushing. They earned a wild card. They had a quarterback, Trent Dilfer, whose main responsibility was just to manage the game and not turn the ball over.
The Jets have an almost identical makeup, and their coach was a major part of that Super Bowl-winning team.
They have a tall order in front of them. Peyton Manning is the league’s MVP and will be looking to avenge that loss and prove that had the Colts played everyone they would’ve remained undefeated, at least for that week.
The Jets, of course led by Ryan, don’t buy the fact that they only won that game because Manning sat. They are out to prove that they are for real.
Who will prevail is up for debate, but there is definitely one thing you should expect from this game.
Expect Curtis Painter to be handed nothing but the clipboard.