2009 NFL Playoffs – AFC Championship Game Preview

Multipurpose threat Brad Smith leads the J-E-T-S against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game

 

NEW YORK JETS (11-7) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (15-2) (Sunday, CBS, 3:00 PM ET)      

Broadcast Team: Jim Nance and Phil Simms

The pressure will be on the Colts to prove that they can win after “resting” key players down the stretch of the regular season in order to be prepared for the games that count. Colts President Jim Irsay said before resting players at the end of the regular season, “We’d love to get to 16-0. But the biggest focus is going to be on being prepared for that first playoff game.” This game is a direct rematch from Week 15 of the regular season, which many are calling “Rest-Gate”, right down to the venue.  Unfortunately for angry Colts fans, let’s go back to what happened back then.  The Indianapolis Colts, who were 14-0 and had already wrapped up the AFC’s No. 1 seed, came into the game riding a 23-game winning streak with a chance to match the perfect 1972 Dolphins (NFL’s only undefeated Super Bowl winner) and 2007 New England Patriots (16-0 regular season).  But unfortunately we all know that they  lost for the first time to the New York Jets by a score of 29-15.  The game was a  “C’MON MAN” moment for the Colts’ fan base.

The “real” Colts, namely quarterback Peyton Manning, left the crucial game in the 3rd quarter.  Holding true to their organizational philosophy, the Colts’ first teamers  after staking their second stringers to a 15-10 lead, took a seat on the bench — 5:36 left in the third quarter.  Subsequently the Jets outscored Indy  the rest of the way, putting up 19 unanswered points.  Of course Jets’ fans will not say it was a G-I-V-E-U-P, but who are they fooling.  Colts’ backup quarterback Curtis Painter was awful, to say the least, as he produced putrid numbers of 4/11 passing for 44 yards, 0 TDs and 1 interception in an effort that made most Colts fans long for former quarterback Jack Trudeau.  The former Purdue signal caller’s biggest play of the game, a fumble recovery for a touchdown by the Jets, came immediately after Colts’ fans realized Manning was done for the game and serenaded the young quarterback with boos.  Painter was hit by NY Jets linebacker Calvin Pace and lost the ball, with Marques Douglas recovering and scoring.   It was all downhill after Painter’s gaffe as the Jets added a  2-point conversion making the score 18-15 and New York never relinquished the lead.

After the game, Manning as he always does, said all of the right things.  The 4-time NFL MVP said, “Until any player in here is the head coach, you follow orders and you follow them with all of your heart. That’s what we’ve done as players. We follow order”.   But the loss robbed the 2009 Colts (Manning, Freeney, Wayne, Brackett, and others) of walking in destiny with the 1972 Dolphins (Cszonka, Griese, Warfield, Scott, and others).   The Colts may not have thought “resting” players was not a “give up”, but to their fans, it was.   “I don’t blame them a bit, man,” Colts’ center Jeff Saturday said after the loss. “I probably would have booed, too. I don’t blame them. They pay to come see us win games, and we didn’t get it done.”  The Colts’ management is hoping a trip to the Super Bowl will sooth their fans and Sunday’s game definitely is huge to say the least. 

The NY Jets are a tough physical team that loves to run the football with emerging rookie running back Shonn Greene (has posted back-to-back 100-yard games in the playoffs) and veteran Thomas Jones (over 1200 yards in the regular season).  Plus Gang Green also features an attacking defense led by shutdown corner Darrelle Revis.  If the Colts are to succeed and shut-up their very disgruntled fan base, QB Peyton Manning (regular season stats: 393-571, 4500 yards – 2nd in NFL, 33 TDs (first in AFC), 16 INTs, and a 99.9 QB rating) will need to protect the football and make some plays down the field to his multitude of weapons including Pro Bowl WR Reggie Wayne, TE Dallas Clark, and emerging youngsters Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. 

Even as good as Manning and his offensive passing weapons are, the Colts must find a running game to keep the Jets from pinning their ears back on every play —  led the NFL this season allowing 14.8 points per game.  “That’s the best defense I’ve played all year.  Against the run and against the pass, they’re really prepared”, said Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson after his team’s loss to the Jets last week.  Running backs Joseph Addai (219 rushes for 828 yards, 3.8 ypc, and 10 TDs) and Donald Brown will need to find a way to move the chains against the Jets’ high level tackling team.  The Jets can get pressure from variety of places (LB Calvin Pace – team leading 8 sacks,  LB Bryan Thomas, DE Shaun Ellis and others), but the key hitting the quarterback on every pass play – ala Rex Ryan’s Father Buddy Ryan’s former Eagles defenses of the late 1980’s – so Revis (6 INTs, which was 3rd in the AFC) and the rest of the secondary can get turnovers. 

On defense, the Colts will have to apply pressure from DE Dwight Freeney (13.5 sacks) and the rest of their D-line as Jets rookie QB Mark Sanchez (regular season stats: 196-364, 2444 yards, 12 TDs, 20 INTs and 63.0 QB rating) is essentially a caretaker right now.  The goal of Jets’ offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is to pound the rock by his huge offensive line filled with current and former Pro Bowl players (center Nick Mangold, guard Alan Faneca, OT Damien Woody, and OT D’Brickshaw Ferguson) while making the youngster throw 20 times or less.  However Freeney and the rest of the Colts small and quick defense will need to shutdown Jones and Greene as the Jets love to use their ground attack on the way to “ugly” wins.  Last week , the Colts shut down the Ravens’ powerful running game on their way to a 20-3 win.  And Indianapolis will need another strong performance this Sunday against the Jets’ top-ranked ground attack (172.3 yards per game).  Of last week’s effort against the Ravens, Caldwell said, “Our defense did not allow them to move the ball and get in a position to score.  They just did a great job overall.”  Watch for Colts’ safety Antoine Bethea (4 INTs in 2009) as the former Howard University hard-hitter has taken over for injured former Pro Bowl player Bob Sanders.

There is no love lost between these two teams going back a ways  as the Jets will forever be known as the team that put the AFL on the map in 1968 by beating the old Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in Miami, Florida.  These two teams have met two other times in the postseason with the Jets’ currently holding a 2-0 edge, but the Colts own a 40-26 edge in the regular season series.  And now the Colts and Jets are firmly at the center of the national “Rest or Play to win down the stretch” debate. 

LV’s Pick:  This is a tough one as every bone in my body wants to say that the Jets are red-hot while the Colts just want to prove everyone wrong about “resting” players to win.  The absolute key to this game will be the Colts ability to take away the Jets’ NFL leading running game and thus forcing Sanchez to beat them.  The Jets are a tough team, but I just don’t believe you can hide your quarterback in the playoffs.  I believe that the Colts will find a way to force Sanchez to make plays and that will make all the difference – Colts 27, Jets 20

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

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