Friday, January 22, 2010
Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts is a compelling match-up for many reasons. There is a lot we know about it, including the fact that the Jets ended the Colts undefeated season just a few weeks ago by beating their "Jayvee" squad. But, the key question now is whether the Jets can beat the Colts "Varsity?"
This contest pits two first year head coaches with polar opposite styles. Jim Caldwell is reserved and understated, having tutored under gentlemanly Tony Dungy. Conversely, Rex Ryan is bold and outspoken, learning from his life long role model- and clearly sharing the DNA of- his father, Buddy Ryan. Caldwell tends to blend into the background in a small market, while Ryan is front and center in the country's largest setting.
Ryan has already proclaimed that he would be shocked if his team does not advance to the Super Bowl. Although this elicits memories of his father's style, it is not pure braggadocio- but, rather calculated and purposeful. Ryan wants his young, upstart team to believe in itself. He knows that half the battle will be won in the minds and attitude of his players.
Don't expect a return salvo from Caldwell. He is content to simply focus on his game plan and preparing his players for Sunday's rematch. Caldwell also knows that although the Jets had five less wins in the regular season, they will present a stiff challenge to his #1 seeded club.
As different as they are, the two coaches do share one thing in common, though. Both have outperformed expectations in their rookie seasons, albeit for different reasons. Ryan is trying to advance the Jets to the Super Bowl with a rookie behind center, while Caldwell is stepping into the shoes of a coaching icon with a totally revamped staff that created some reported player unrest in the offseason.
The two teams are also a contrast in styles. The Colts rely on a prolific, pass happy offense to score lots of points and keep its middle of the road defense off the field. Conversely, the Jets rely on their stingy defense to give their conservative, run oriented offense a chance to win.
While New York is led by first year quarterback Mark Sanchez, Indianapolis is anchored by one of the most accomplished signal callers in league history. And, make no mistake about it, Peyton Manning is clearly the "on the field" offensive coach, often animatedly running the "no huddle" and calling plays at the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, Sanchez wears a color coded wrist band that is the NFL's equivalent of "Quarterbacking for Dummies."
Ryan is careful not to ask too much of Sanchez and takes pressure off him by dialing up a steady diet of run plays that leans on a strong offensive line and two talented backs. Veteran Thomas Jones racked up more than 1,400 yards and 14 TD's during the regular season, but has yielded to rookie Shonn Greene in the postseason to do the heavy lifting. Greene has amassed 263 yards rushing over the first two playoff games, averaging 6 yards a pop.
The Jets strengths and tendencies match-up well on paper with the Colts, since they struggled against the run in the regular season. It also limits the impact of defensive end Dwight Freeney, who is one of the NFL's fiercest pass rushers.
In last weekend's game against the Ravens, the Colts defense stepped up to limit running back Ray Rice. Besides having fresher legs due to a week off, defenders aggressively swarmed to the ball and dared quarterback Joe Flacco to beat them. It is highly likely that the Colts will use a similar approach on Sunday, so Sanchez will need to avoid negative plays and selectively take advantage of opportunities presented to him.
Not surprisingly, the biggest star and most influential player on the Jets plays on the defensive side of the ball. Cornerback Darrelle Revis continues to shutdown the best receivers opponents have to offer, so a great deal of his focus will be alternated between Manning's top two targets- Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark.
Another favorable factor for the Jets relates to their style of defensive play. They do not rely heavily on rotating personnel, which provides less opportunity for Manning and the Colts to exploit weaknesses with the "no huddle" package.
A real key for New York will be to avoid getting down early by anything more than one score. If Indianapolis maintains a lead and the Jets can no longer afford to continue banging away on the ground, they could force Sanchez into turnovers that would kill any chance of an upset.
Manning will likely come out firing in hopes of dictating the tempo. The Colts do not want to get into a low scoring defensive battle since it is more probable that the more physical Jets would wear them down over the course of the game.
On paper, a 14-2 team hosting a 9-7 team wouldn't seem to be a very compelling contest, but the opposite is true. One interesting story line relates to the game being a rematch of Super Bowl III that provided credibility to the upstart AFL when the heavy underdog Jets followed another brash leader to an upset win over the Colts. This time around, Ryan plays the part of Broadway Joe with his pre-game bravado.
Another story line tests conventional wisdom that good defense and a strong running game beats a good aerial attack in the NFL postseason. So far, this formula has served the Jets very well, but there is a reason that they won five fewer games than the Colts.
Of course, the most interesting aspect is that the Jets wouldn't even be here if not for their come from behind, upset win over the then unbeaten Colts. The irony is that Caldwell may have gift wrapped the Jets postseason invitation with his decision to pull Manning and other starters a few weeks earlier.
Previously, the regret had centered on the Colts losing a chance at making NFL history with a perfect season. Caldwell shrugged it off and reiterated that his only objective was winning the Super Bowl. In a weird twist of fate, he may yet regret the decisions made a few weeks ago because the Jets may be the team best equipped to derail a trip to Miami.
The Colts clearly have the best regular season resume, including this season's league MVP, but the match-ups favor the Jets. It is also worth noting that on the way to a 14-0 start, Indianapolis had a string of comeback victories. And, although Manning has had a spectacular career, his work in the postseason has been more pedestrian.
New York should be able to contain the Colts lackluster running game while committing a safety to cover Pro Bowl tight end Clark. With Revis blanketing Wayne, the Jets will force Manning to lean on inexperienced receivers Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon. Meanwhile, the Jets should be able to chew up yards on the ground and keep Manning off the field.
Against the odds, it says here that history can repeat itself and the Jets can beat the Colts Varsity.