A year after he promised to build a bully's defense that would one day carry the Jets to the White House lawn, Rex Ryan's vision stands two good Sundays from reality. He confused Carson Palmer in Cincinnati, pushed around Philip Rivers in San Diego, only to earn an afternoon with maybe the best quarterback of this generation.
Can Rex and the Jets knock around Peyton Manning and the Colts?
"I think the big thing with Peyton is, you have to do something, whether that's blitzing, whether that's having a guy beat somebody up front, you've got to try to get [him] off the spot," Ryan said this week when asked how to make Manning miserable.
Ryan concluded that hitting Manning was the best way.
"He's seen it all, but you just hope there is a slight hesitation where he's not able to just sit back and fire it at will on you," Ryan said.
Of all the mini-battles in Sunday's AFC Championship, the chess match between the four-time MVP and the NFL's No. 1 defense in yards allowed could be the one on which the game turns. Last Saturday, against a similarly feisty Ravens defense led by two future Hall of Famers, Manning was patient, efficient and largely untroubled.
He completed 30 of 44 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns. Though safety Ed Reed picked off two of Manning's passes, Reed fumbled one back to the Colts and the other was wiped out by pass interference, the kinds of blunders tough to overcome against a quarterback of Manning's talents.
On Sunday, the Jets might only get a few plays to turn the game their way -- a tipped ball at the line of scrimmage, a jump ball in the secondary, a forced fumble in the pocket that is rolling around on the turf. Will Manning be willing to test cornerback Darrelle Revis, who will spend most of the game blanketing Reggie Wayne? Can the Jets slow down an offense that can beat you with the 14-play drive or the one-play drive?
"When a chance is presented to make a play, somebody has to make a play," said linebacker Calvin Pace, who promised that the Jets defense won't stop blitzing just because Manning has a 114.0 passer rating against it. "Blitzing is what we do. We can't change our style up just because we're playing against the great Peyton Manning. We have to go. But in the event we don't blitz, we [still] have to get on him."
The key against Manning isn't necessarily the blitz, but the sack. In 16 playoff games (eight wins, eight losses), Manning has been sacked only 22 times against an array of pressure defenses. Nearly half of those sacks came against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had five sacks in a 21-18 win over the Colts four years ago, and the New England Patriots, who had four sacks in 24-14 win over the Colts five years ago.
Against Baltimore last Saturday, the Ravens sacked him just twice in the Colts' 20-3 win.
"Nobody likes getting their quarterback hit," Ryan said. "I do think it has an effect on your whole football team. I'm the same guy that brings up the point about a big hit will alter the course of the game more than anything else -- more than a turnover, more than a touchdown. The challenge of hitting Peyton Manning [when] they've given up 10 sacks, I don't want to say [it's] impossible, but clearly it's going to be a huge challenge. I think we'll be able to disrupt him some."
Ryan has built his reputation on it. And now, one victory from the Super Bowl and two from history, he will test it against the very best.