Breaking down the AFC divisional matchup, Jets at Chargers, Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS
1. If you like fresh faces in the playoffs, the Jets are the team for you. No other team in the NFL's elite eight is as rookie-led as New York, which is getting significant contributions from its top two draft picks -- quarterback Mark Sanchez and running back Shonn Greene -- not to mention rookie head coach Rex Ryan, the quote machine.
Sanchez did more than not lose the game for the Jets last week at Cincinnati, he helped the guys in green and white win it, posting a 139.4 passer rating that was the best ever turned in by a rookie quarterback in the playoffs (with a minimum of 14 attempts). Sanchez this week will try to join Baltimore's Joe Flacco (2008) as the only rookie QBs in the Super Bowl era to win their first two playoff starts. His 12-of-15 passing performance last week against the Bengals set a franchise record for accuracy in the postseason, and he should be especially amped up to play well this week, given that he grew up in Southern California (Mission Viejo) and will have about 100 friends and relatives in attendance at Qualcomm Stadium.
With lead back Thomas Jones slowed by a knee injury last week, Greene, the third-round pick out of Iowa, stepped into the void and turned in the best rookie rushing showing in the playoffs in 10 years. His 135 yards allowed the Jets to control the clock and keep Sanchez in manageable passing situations, and his 39-yard second-quarter touchdown burst tied the score at 7-7 and started a game-breaking 21-0 run for New York. Combined with Sanchez's 45-yard scoring strike to tight end Dustin Keller, the Jets became the second team in NFL history to have rookies run and throw for touchdowns in the same playoff game. I'm sure you remember when the 1933 Giants first turned that trick, with Harry Newman and Max Krause, in that season's NFL title game.
2. It's Vincent Jackson's turn to see if he can handle Darrelle Revis. Big-talking Chad Ochocinco certainly didn't get it done the past two weeks in the Jets-Bengals doubleheader. But that's where things stand with Revis, the Jets' shutdown corner who for my money got jobbed in the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year balloting (I voted for him). He's so good that it seems like it's up to the receiver he's facing to stop him.
Revis picked off a Carson Palmer pass in last week's playoff win, but things get much tougher this week, because he's going against maybe the hottest quarterback in the game, Philip Rivers, and the NFL's most underrated receiver in Jackson.
In the regular season, Jackson led the Chargers in receiving yardage with 1,167, and he's even better in the playoffs, with a 17.8-yard average catch on 22 career postseason receptions. Eighteen of those grabs have produced first downs for San Diego. Jackson is a big (6-5, 230), athletic receiver who can go up and get it if Rivers puts it anywhere in his zip code. As well as Revis has blanketed the best receivers in the game this season, Jackson will provide him with his toughest challenge yet.
3. Can San Diego force the Jets out of their winning formula? New York's blueprint is fairly straight forward. The Jets were the first team since the 2001 Steelers to lead the NFL in both rushing and overall defense, and they try to beat you with a running attack that shortens the game by limiting possessions, and a 3-4 defense that will create havoc with its blitz packages.
Much has been made of the Chargers allowing 4.5 yards per rush this season -- tied for the worst among the 12 playoff teams -- and how the Jets might exploit that weakness to hog the ball all day and play keep-away from Rivers and a high-powered San Diego offense that has scored at least 20 points in every game this season. But the worst of the damage the Chargers allowed on the ground came in the season's first half, when they were struggling with injuries to the likes of nose tackle Jamal Williams. They've been improved on run defense in the season's final two months.
"Statistically you see that over the last 10 games it's a total difference,'' Chargers head coach Norv Turner said. "I think we're in the middle of the pack, 11th or 14th or whatever it is. Early, we were either injured or new, and that's not a good combination.''
San Diego isn't going to beat New York running the ball (the Chargers are 31st in rushing, 88.9 yards per game), so it'll be up to Rivers and his receivers to move the chains and maximize their scoring opportunities. Getting some pass protection and time to throw downfield to receivers Jackson, Malcom Floyd and tight end Antonio Gates will be vital. The Chargers can't afford to get conservative against the best defense they've faced since mid-October. They have to keep swinging for the home run ball, then hit their share.
A defensive coordinator for one of the Chargers' late-season opponents details the challenges of facing Philip Rivers and the San Diego offense:
"We had to throw out a lot of stuff we like to do as far as our designer blitzes, because they have viable options at all five (receiving) positions on third downs. There are people you have to account for at receiver, tight end and out of the backfield. In the past, you really could just key on tight end Antonio Gates and take your chances with everyone else. But Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd are very good receivers. They're play-makers. Jackson is starting to get some attention, but Floyd can really stretch the field on you, and he can really run. And then there's Darren Sproles out of the backfield, and he can be a real matchup problem. You better have someone who can really cover on him. You can't just throw any linebacker on him.
"Credit Norv Turner. It's the same offense he's always run. But he's got the pieces to the puzzle and he's got them all together now. Philip Rivers is really reaping the benefits of all those options this year. And he's been in that system long enough now that he knows where all the answers are. He does a really good job of getting the ball to everyone. The way San Diego has been playing, if you held me down and told me I had to pick a team to win it all, it'd be the Chargers.''
Don't think for a minute that 13-3, second-seeded San Diego lucked out by drawing the 10-7 Jets. New York has won four consecutive games on the road and isn't intimidated by anyone, thanks mostly to the don't-back-down style of its first-year head coach. The Chargers proved they won't panic or wilt with those tough second-half wins at the Giants and Cowboys, and despite winning 11 in a row, it hasn't been all easy street for Norv Turner's club. Four of San Diego's final five wins were by seven points or fewer. The Chargers have matured as a playoff club and should prevail with the help of the home crowd. But I think it's going to be an all-day battle, and don't be surprised if the Jets are protecting a lead for a good bit of the game. Chargers 24, Jets 20.