CINCINNATI -- Jets head coach Rex Ryan passed out an itinerary to his players this week detailing all the activities he has scheduled for the next month -- wild-card game, divisional playoff game, AFC championship game and Super Bowl. "It even had the Super Bowl parade," said cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Ryan may be presumptuous, but so far, the Jets are following his itinerary to the letter. The team that supposedly did not deserve to be in the playoffs thumped the Cincinnati Bengals in the first-round, 24-14, and no one can say they did not earn it.
The Jets might have been gifted a game two weeks ago in Indianapolis, and again last week against the Bengals at the Meadowlands, but they won all on their own Saturday night. They did it with a rookie coach, a rookie quarterback, a second-string running back and a kicker moonlighting as a punter.
Three first-round playoff games feature rematches from last week, and if the opener is any indication, momentum really does matter. After being blown out by the Jets six days ago, the Bengals convinced themselves that they had not been trying. They could not make the same case twice.
On a day that USC coach Pete Carroll was reportedly preparing to escape to Seattle, two of his former quarterbacks squared off in Cincinnati. On one side was Carson Palmer, the former Heisman Trophy winner who has been in the NFL for seven mostly successful seasons. On the other was Mark Sanchez, the rookie who Carroll did not believe should leave early for the NFL after last season.
Sanchez thoroughly outplayed his elder, completing 12 of 15 passes for 182 yards, while becoming the first-ever rookie to pass for better than 70 percent in a playoff game. But the most important number on Sanchez's stat sheet was 0. After leading the AFC this season with 20 interceptions, Sanchez has now gone three straight games without a pick.
The Jets have the running game to protect Sanchez -- second-string tailback Shonn Greene rushed 21 times for 135 yards -- but he is starting to earn more rope. Rolling out of the pocket midway through the second quarter, Sanchez hit tight end Dustin Keller for a 45-yard touchdown, in which Keller dragged safety Chinedum Ndukwe the final 10 yards to the end zone.
Keller has come to represent a safe place for Sanchez. When the Jets' lead was cut to seven in the fourth quarter, Sanchez again looked for Keller and found him for a 43-yard catch-and-run. Jay Feely followed with the game-clinching field goal, but that was only one of Feely's many contributions. After starting punter Steve Weatherford was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat before the game, Feely filled in as the punter for the first time in his NFL career. Feely put three punts inside the 20-yard-line, forcing the Bengals to mount prolonged drives against a defense that simply does not allow that.
Much has been made of the playoff drought in Dallas, which dates back to 1996, but Cincinnati's extends much farther. The Bengals have not won a postseason game since 1990, and this was their first chance since 2006, when Palmer tore his ACL on the first pass he threw -- a 66-yarder to rookie receiver Chris Henry.
The Bengals became one of the sweetest stories in the NFL this season, due in part to their underdog status, their roster full of unwanted players, and Henry's death in December. The Bengals hung on to win the AFC North, but at the end, they looked exhausted. In two weeks against the Jets' relentless defense, they managed just two scores.
Like the Bengals, the Jets are also playing for a greater cause. Owner Woody Johnson is mourning the death last week of his daughter, Casey, and after Saturday's game, Ryan presented him with the game ball in the Jets locker room. "He shed a few tears," said safety Kerry Rhodes.
If the Jets are to honor Johnson and follow Ryan's itinerary for more than another week, they will have to take out either the Colts or the Chargers in the second round. Sanchez, fresh off one upset, will be matched up against MVP Peyton Manning or MVP candidate Philip Rivers.
"They're both easy," Ryan said. "Just kidding."