Breaking down the AFC Championship Game matchup, Jets at Colts, Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, CBS
1. Can Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis continue to make opponents' No. 1 receivers irrelevant? Revis has had arguably the greatest season by a shutdown corner since 1994, when Deion Sanders regularly erased opponents' leading receivers from the offensive equation with tight one-on-one coverage. Revis has made acrobatic interceptions in each of the Jets' playoff games -- one while defending Chad Ochocinco, the other while tussling with Vincent Jackson while falling to the ground -- and in Manning he gets someone who was picked off twice by safety Ed Reed in a six-play sequence last week, although Baltimore didn't retain the ball after either play (a fumble on the return wiped out one pick, and a penalty negated the other).
Revis' assignment on Sunday could be his toughest. He gets Pro Bowl wideout Reggie Wayne, one of the game's true technicians. Wayne has the speed, hands and savvy to make most cornerbacks look foolish in one-on-one coverage. He finished the season with 100 catches for 1,264 and 10 touchdowns, and his three-yard score just before the half last Saturday broke open the game against the Ravens. It's imperative that Wayne win some of his one-on-one battles because the Jets are expected to double cover tight end Dallas Clark.
Wayne had three catches for 33 yards before being pulled in the Week 16 meeting between the Jets and Colts. Most corners would gladly accept limiting Wayne to those numbers. Revis is not most corners. He said this week he was upset with his performance in that game because, "I didn't want him to catch any balls. Plain and simple."
2. Will the Colts finally pay for being one-dimensional, or will it be the Jets that regret being unbalanced? Indianapolis has run for more than 100 yards only once in its past 11 games. Last week it averaged a paltry 1.7 yards a carry against the Ravens. If the Colts can't run effectively, New York, which led the league in run defense, will have an extra defender to use in pass coverage because it won't have to drop a safety into the box for run support, and it'll also have a deeper playbook in which to delve.
Coach Rex Ryan will be able to get even more creative with his pressure packages, something safety Kerry Rhodes alluded to when he told The New York Daily News: "We are going to try to dictate, have some say-so in what [the Colts do]. Even with Peyton Manning, you get to him a couple of times, he's going to rush his throw. The pressure can affect the way he throws. You don't have to sack him."
The Jets have been equally one-dimensional on offense, although it has been with their run game. They've leaned heavily on backs Shonn Greene and Thomas Jones in hopes of protecting rookie QB Mark Sanchez, who has thrown only one pick (and two TDs) in the playoffs. Greene, a rookie, has run for more than 100 yards and a touchdown in each of the team's playoff games and will face an Indy front that makes up for what it lacks in size with speed and tenacity. Baltimore ran for only 87 yards last week, but averaged 4.6 yards a carry.
3. Will the Colts ultimately regret their decision to sit or limit many of their key starters in a 29-15 home loss to the Jets in Week 16? That decision is the primary reason the Jets are in the playoffs. New York, which needed to win both of its final two games to qualify for the postseason, was in a tough spot early in the third quarter when the teams met Dec. 27. It trailed the Colts 15-10 and had been outgained 254-115 in total yards and 17-7 in first downs. Then fate struck.
With the AFC's top seed and home-field advantage already locked up, Indy coach Jim Caldwell pulled many of his key starters who weren't already sitting out the game, including Manning. The Jets, whose lone touchdown to that point was on a kickoff return, scored 19 consecutive points and out-gained the Colts 178-32 in total yards, 10-1 in first downs and 39-17 in offensive plays.
If the Colts had kept their starters on the field, they probably would have won -- and eliminated the Jets from playoff contention. Now they have to hope New York doesn't prematurely end their season.
A defensive coordinator who game-planned for Manning this season explains the keys to slowing the four-time league MVP:
"You have to make him uncomfortable in the pocket. It's not just about sacks; it's about pressure -- or making him feel pressured even when the rush isn't there. People focus on the edge rushers, but the key with him is getting pressure up the middle. You have to take away his ability to step up in the pocket. You have to get him off his spot.
"On the back end, you have to mix your coverages and pressure packages. If you show him the same thing repeatedly, he's too smart and will kill you. You have to make him think. It's a chess game. Before the snap he's going to give you all those hand gestures and stuff, but you can't get caught up in that. A lot of it is dummy calls. You simply have to play your game and disguise your coverages. Wait until the last moment before shifting, because if he gets a line on what you're doing, he'll dice you up."
The Jets are playing with house money. They weren't supposed to be here -- and probably wouldn't have been here if the Colts hadn't pulled their starters. But they are here, and Manning and the Colts will have a difficult time with them. Still, two things point me toward the Colts:
1) Manning got a good look at what the Jets like to do when the teams meet in December (New York was playing for its postseason life, so it wasn't like the Jets were holding anything back);
2) Sanchez is going to have to make plays in the passing game, and in the postseason he hasn't faced the type of pressure Indy can bring with ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
When I add it all up, it comes out ... Indy 20, New York 13.