With the Jets-Colts AFC Championship showdown, we have the ugliest-winning team in the NFL taking its Gangrene defense on the road for a match-up against the wonderboy of the league Peyton Manning and the almost universally beloved horseshoes. Most of the country will be in for a shock as the Jets win a hard-fought close game, 21-17.
I predict this game will be like many of the Jets games this year - U-G-L-Y, you ain't got no alibi - UGLY - and that's the way Jets fans like it.
The Jets are a better team than most people think. They lost five of its regular season games by five points or less, and three of those came on last second drives. The point is that the Jets have kept it close in 16 out of its 18 games, and have won seven of their last eight. With its defense and running game peaking at the end of the year, and with QB Mark Sanchez reigning in his turnovers, the Jets are a team brimming with confidence.
The Colts were the regular season's best team, winning fourteen in a row before losing to the Jets in a game that had Manning and Freeney sitting it out beginning in the third quarter. What is left unsaid in all the controversy of Indy giving up on its perfect season is that the Colts were hardly dominating at home before they pulled their starters in the third. Peyton Manning had thrown for a dazzling 192 yards at the time he was sat down, but had no TDs under his belt. The game was 15-10 well into the third when the Jets forced their first turnover deep in Indy territory to get the go-ahead.
The Jets would go on to dominate the ground game in that first match-up against the Colts with 202 combined rushing yards between Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene. Such a high total can hardly be attributed to Peyton Manning, Dwight Freeney, or any of the other star players on the Colts resting for the playoffs while the Jets ran wild.
Nor can it be called a fluke. During the regular season, Indianapolis had a rushing defense in the lower tier at 126.5 yards per game. This is particularly poor given that the Colts usually get out to early and big leads, which forces teams to go to the air more regularly than they would otherwise like to do against Indy's high-flying offense. In summary, the defeat of the Jets was not a "done deal" when the Colts decided to draw the fans' ire by resting their starters. One costly interception the likes of which Manning threw to Ed Reed in the Colts' playoff game against the Ravens, and the Colts' victory would very much have been in doubt.
So flash forward to the Colts-Ravens matchup, when Indy again failed to dominate at home against a Ravens team with similar qualities as the Jets. Blatantly questionable calls by the refs, specifically, inconsistent pass interference calls, gave the Colts a leg up in this one. The Ravens kept it close into the second quarter, when Ed Reed picked off a sailing Manning pass and returned it down to the Colts' red zone before being almost unbelievably stripped of the football by the Indy receiver Pierre Garcon. A subsequent Indianapolis drive saw Manning throw yet another pick, returned again to the Colts red zone, but was called back on a ticky-tack pass interference call that had nothing to do with the pick. If the refs had been consistent, fine; but a previous Baltimore drive was stymied by contact on a Ravens receiver that went unflagged. But the bottom line is that the Ravens could never recover from their blown opportunities and lost 20-3.
The Jets have been better about exploiting opportunities as of late and limiting turnovers (the Ravens had four). If the Jets limit their turnovers in the AFC title game to one or none, and can force one or two on the Colts, the Jets should have the defense to keep it reasonably close. Though the Jets defense does not produce flashy numbers (they had a respectable, but not dominating, 32 sacks in the regular season, and a good, but not great 17 interceptions), the key point is that neither do opposing offenses. The Jets defense was tops in the league in 2009 in points allowed at 14.8 per game, as well as yards per game allowed at a stifling 252.3 yards. The Jets take out opposing teams not by making breathtaking big plays, but with suffocating team tackling and by limiting game-breaking plays by the opposing offense - the Jets truly have a "Gangrene" defense.
There are a few more things for Jets fans to keep an eye on. The special teams could bust open a few big plays (the longest kick return in Jets history came from Brad Smith a few weeks back in NY's first game against Indy), and the running game should keep the Colts out of rhythm at times. The Colts could bust it open, but it won't be by going deep - the Jets excel at limiting big plays (actually, I can't even remember the last deep pass going for a score on the Jets). They are going to have to pick the Jets apart, and with Darrelle Revis limiting Wayne somewhat, that is going to be harder than Colts fans think. While many think Dallas Clark will torture the Jets, New York will probably platoon him, much as they did against Antonio Gates. Everything suggests to me that this will be an ugly game. And if it is, I give the edge to the J-E-T-S.