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Jets provide more gripping drama with stunning upset of Chargers

SAN DIEGO -- I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict the Colts will play their starters the whole way against the Jets this time.

They'd better because this Rex Ryan-coached team is nothing you want to fool with, at least not the way Indianapolis fooled with New York the last time it faced the Jets in Week 16's infamous "Rest-gate" episode at Lucas Oil Stadium.

That's the game, of course, that gave Ryan's team its unlikely wild-card path to the playoffs, and I'm assuming both the Colts and Chargers might be regretting Indy's approach to resting its starters in the second half of that matchup. Come to think of it, I know San Diego thinks it was a damnable idea in the wake of the Jets' stunning 17-14 upset of the Chargers in Sunday's AFC Divisional round playoff game at a crestfallen Qualcomm Stadium.

"It was ugly, but that's how we play," Jets linebacker Bart Scott said of the aesthetic quality of the win that put New York in the AFC title game for the first time since the Bill Parcells era in 1999. "This isn't the Golden State Warriors (or) the Phoenix Suns. This is the old-school Pistons. It's going to be ugly. It's not entertaining. I know the league and a lot of guys would prefer to see [the Chargers] so they can build it up, but we got them old grimy Jets here, so tune in if you want to."

Oh, we'll tune in all right. How can anyone turn away from this Jets season now? It's the most gripping weekly drama the NFL has going in the playoffs, with the favorites winning everywhere else in the divisional round and the three teams that looked invincible for so much of the year -- the Colts, Saints and Vikings -- easily punching their tickets to the conference championships.

The more I watch these Jets (11-7), the more I see shades of the 2007 Giants, with their memorable wild-card run to the Super Bowl, played entirely on the road. After back-to-back New York wins at Cincinnati and San Diego, who can be entirely sure that some very recent history isn't repeating itself?

It's the Jets alone who have shown the potential to surprise this postseason, and yet nothing they accomplished before Sunday remotely prepared us for what they did to San Diego (13-4), the hottest team in the league with 11 consecutive wins entering play. The Chargers were two days shy of having not lost for three months, and yet New York kept hanging around all afternoon as San Diego self-destructed beneath an avalanche of uncharacteristic mistakes and missed opportunities. Oh, and the Chargers' season-long, franchise-record streak of scoring at least 20 points in every game this year? That's gone, gone, gone, too.

"We knew it was going to be an all-day event, that's for sure," said Ryan, the ever-confident rookie Jets head coach. "We were just fortunate to come out on top. [Now] we'll see what happens in the matchup that probably nobody wanted. But too bad. Here we come."

The Jets are on their way to the AFC title game in Indianapolis because they kept pounding away in their Shonn Greene-led running game even after they fell behind 7-0 early in the second quarter; decided to challenge the Chargers' bevy of dangerous receivers with a more physical style of coverage; and because they refuse to believe that starting a rookie at quarterback dooms them to postseason failure.

First, let's explore the Jets' decision to switch to strictly man coverage in the second half, a move that allowed New York's physicality to show through on defense, and seemed to weaken the resolve of the Chargers offense. The Jets all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis said as much, calling out San Diego's receivers for being soft. That's my word, not his. But I don't think he'd disagree.

"They're a finesse offense, and we felt that we're a physical team," said Revis, whose flat-on-his-back interception of Philip Rivers in the third quarter personified both the Jets' effort and their ability to make the improbable happen. "In the first half, they had us on our heels a little bit. But we came in here [at halftime] and just adjusted in the second half. We said let's stick to what we've been doing the whole season. Let's play man coverage and get physical with these guys.

"Let's blitz and do what we do. Let's put some pressure on them. One thing you can do with big receivers is get physical with those guys. We came out with the mindset of let's out-physical these guys, and we had the upper hand on them at that point."

Revis and the Jets defense wound up surrendering 298 yards on 27 of 40 passing by Rivers, but it intercepted him twice, forced him to fumble once, sacked him twice, and prompted his first bad game in an otherwise superb season. The Chargers started an abysmal 1 of 8 on third downs, and managed only 4 of 13 conversions the whole game, despite moving the ball at the very end against New York.

Though San Diego recovered Rivers' fumble when he was hit by blitzing Jets safety Kerry Rhodes on 3rd and 13 from the Chargers 43, the play, which came with San Diego trailing 10-7 with 10:20 remaining, served notice that New York had the Chargers squarely on the run.

"Sometimes when you hit the quarterback, the whole team feels it," Ryan said, quite tellingly.

The Jets being the Jets, the real turning point of the afternoon came with New York refusing to go away from its top-ranked running game, even when it was being overwhelmed by the San Diego defensive front early on. The Jets run because that's their mindset, and when Greene broke a 53-yard touchdown run for the eventual game-winning points with 7:17 remaining, New York's get-tough approach on that side of the ball was vindicated as well.

"When you keep running the ball, keep pounding it, it's going to break at some point," said Greene, who finished with a game-high 128 yards on 23 carries, after having just 35 yards on nine attempts in the first half. "We like to wear teams down at the end of the game."

There was one more dramatic chance for New York and its running game to impose its will on San Diego, and it came in the game's final two minutes, with the Jets facing a fourth-and-1 at the Chargers 29, protecting its three-point lead with 1:09 remaining. Others in the press box assumed Ryan would either try and draw San Diego offside, or pooch punt it inside the Chargers 10. But not me. I was certain New York would run it and go for the kill right then and there. Thomas Jones went two yards up the middle, and the game was over.

"Our guys believe in that philosophy," Ryan said. "There was no way we weren't going to run our bread-and-butter there. It was just basically, 'Hey, let's be true to ourselves.' They know what we're going to run, but let's put T.J. back there and do our thing that we've done all year, and that's run that power."

By now, these Jets also believe in the resilient Sanchez, the rookie who started the season on fire, struggled horribly in the middle and late in the schedule, and has now rediscovered his moxie and big-play touch. Sanchez finished 12 of 23 for just 100 yards passing, but he was intercepted just once, threw the go-ahead touchdown (a 2-yard pass to tight end Dustin Keller), and managed New York's win with ever-increasing aplomb.

"I try not to think about stuff like that," said Sanchez, when asked his thoughts at being one game removed from playing in a Super Bowl as a rookie. "Just roll. Just keep going, and keep playing. Don't change a thing. I'm definitely not shaving. I'll wear the same stuff and go to the same places to eat, and study like crazy."

Some will say the Chargers' beat themselves on this day, and to be sure San Diego deserves a mountain of blame for its sloppy play, a very dubious and unsuccessful late-game onside kick call by head coach Norv Turner, and those three crushing Nate Kaeding missed field goals (36, 57 and 40 yards, despite entering the game with an NFL record 69 consecutive conversions of less than 40 yards).

But to call the Jets lucky to be here is sounding more hollow with each passing week. New York keeps winning the New York way, and even if the Jets can count on getting Peyton Manning for all four quarters next Sunday in Indianapolis, there's nobody in Ryan's locker room who will back down from next week's challenge.

"They know we're a good football team and all that kind of stuff," Ryan said. "Do we know they're a great team? Of course. There's no question. I don't know if Santa Claus is going to be that good again, [but] I will say it: I'd like to see Peyton Manning not play this week."

Sorry, Rex. I'm afraid it's out of the question this time. But then, you have only yourself and your Cinderella football team to blame for that.

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