Breaking down the AFC wild-card battle, Jets at Colts, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC
1. Jets-Colts, it's personal this time. At least that's what Rex Ryan is slinging this week. The Jets' chirpy head coach is tired of losing to Peyton Manning and the rest of the guys with the horseshoes on their helmets, and he tried to take the offensive on that front in yet another attempt to fire up his locker room and maybe crawl ever so slightly into the heads of his opponents.
"Is it personal? Yes, it's personal,'' Ryan said. "It's personal against him, Reggie Wayne, all those guys, yeah. [Dwight] Freeney and [Robert] Mathis and those other dudes? Absolutely. I respect the heck out of the guy [Manning], but I'm going to beat him one day. I just hope it's this Saturday.''
This will be the Jets' third trip to Indy in the past 54 weeks, and of course the game is a rematch of last year's AFC Championship, which New York led at halftime but wound up losing 30-17 to end its feel-good wild-card playoff run. Manning scorched the Jets secondary for 377 yards and three touchdowns in the title game, and has pretty much owned Ryan-led defenses in his career. He's 5-1 against them, with 1,513 yards, 12 touchdowns and two interceptions, including a 2-0 mark in the playoffs. And even the loss wasn't really a loss, coming in Week 16 of last season, when the Colts led in the third quarter but pulled Manning in favor of backup Curtis Painter as part of their rest-for-the-playoffs approach.
Ryan and Co. used that AFC title-game loss to the Colts as motivation all offseason, with New York going out and loading up on big-name acquisitions like cornerback Antonio Cromartie, LaDainian Tomlinson, Santonio Holmes and Jason Taylor in an effort to overtake the defending AFC champions. We'll see if the shopping spree starts paying off Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. Nobody did more to its roster or talked more about a Super Bowl trip this year than New York. But the time for talking is over, and now the Jets get another shot at slaying the Manning monster.
Is it personal? Yeah, sure, whatever you say, Rex. But as always, more than anything, it'll probably come down to personnel. But that just doesn't sound as sexy, does it?
2. Will the Colts out ground-and-pound the Jets at their own game? During the course of their season-ending (and season-saving) four-game winning streak, the Colts have looked nothing like the club that couldn't run the ball or stop the run in its first 12 games. Indy is the first team to make the playoffs without a 500-yard rusher since the 1998 Packers, but the Colts are getting enough production on the ground to win of late.
Indianapolis finished 29th in rushing with 1,483 yards this season, but 534 of those yards (36 percent of its season total) came in the last four games, when the Colts averaged 4.5 yards per rush and 133.5 yards per game. That's compared to 3.5 yards per attempt and 79.1 yards per game over their opening 12 games. Manning's interception problems came when defenses were able to make Indy a one-dimensional offense. But the Colts are keeping teams honest with their ground game now, and the addition of ex-Colt and UFL standout Dominic Rhodes has helped spark the late-season resurgence of the running attack.
When it comes to stopping the run, the No. 3-ranked Jets are one of the best in the NFL, giving up just 3.6 yards per rush and 90.9 yards per game. But the Colts have been right there with them lately. After allowing 142.8 yards per game and 4.8 yards per rush in going 6-6 through 12 games, Indy has clamped down on some big-name running backs -- Chris Johnson, Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew -- in giving up an average rush of 3.5 yards and fewer than 80 yards per game.
The last time the Colts were running the ball and stopping the run this well heading into the playoffs? Four years ago, when they were also the AFC's No. 3 seed, and used it as a springboard to the only Super Bowl championship since the franchise relocated to Indianapolis.
3. The Jets defense needs to rush back to the forefront in the playoffs. In the course of losing three of its last five games, New York gave up 23.4 points per game, including that 45-3 shellacking at New England and a 38-34 loss at Chicago. The most glaring issue for the Jets has been their inability to consistently pressure the quarterback, which is usually the trademark of a Ryan-coached defense that favors the liberal use of blitz packages. New York finished with 40 sacks, good for eighth in the league, but the Jets just haven't been very disruptive on defense down the stretch, and even Ryan concedes the unit has lost some of its swagger.
Look for Ryan and Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to dial up some early blitzes against Manning, but they can't over-do it on that front. The Jets blitzed Manning on almost two-thirds of his drop-backs in last year's AFC title game, and Manning thrived, picking apart New York's secondary in the second half especially. The Jets will need to pressure Manning with just their front four at times, making sure they don't leave themselves too vulnerable in pass coverage.
Every defense talks about the importance of getting someone in Manning's face, but few accomplish it because No. 18 has the quickest release in the game. He took just 16 sacks this season (one per game), and always knows where his hot receiver is, even though he has been forced to do without security blankets like the injured Dallas Clark and Austin Collie for large portions of the year. Chances are New York isn't going to get to Manning often, but the Jets at least have to try to speed up his decision-making and clutter up his passing lanes. They've seen what happens when they don't, and the outcome isn't pretty.
A defensive coordinator for one of the Colts' late-season opponents details how Indianapolis righted its faltering offense and earned a record-tying ninth consecutive playoff trip:
"The Colts started winning again when Peyton Manning really bought into re-committing to their running game. They needed to have some balance on offense, because when Manning had that three-game stretch with all those interceptions (11), he was really forcing the ball due to the fact they had no running game whatsoever. He was taking too much on his shoulders and trying to do it all. But they really have done a good job since then of mixing in the run. They're not trying to win the game running the ball, but they are trying to run it and make sure you know they can run it.
"It used to be when Peyton turned around handed the ball off, and it got stuffed, he'd be frustrated and disappointed. As if he was saying, 'I didn't want to do that, but the look of the defense told me I had to do it.' He didn't like it. But the biggest difference now is Peyton is OK with it. He's on board. He's like, 'OK, this whole run thing is going to help me in the passing game. It's a good deal.' And that mentality has changed the whole dynamic of their offense.
"The Colts have done a good job of making people respect their running game, and their defense has really stopped the run lately. If Indy can make Mark Sanchez beat them, the Colts are going to win the game. The Jets won't be balanced enough on offense, and they can't win if they don't have a big game running the ball. If the Jets can run the ball, they can win. If they can't, it's game over.''
The Colts have essentially been in playoff mode for five weeks now, and that gives them a big advantage in terms of finding and maintaining a postseason intensity level as quickly as possible Saturday night. The Jets just haven't looked the same since New England undressed them on that Monday night in Foxboro, and it's been a while since New York has put together consecutive impressive performances. Unlike last year, when the Jets didn't even think they'd make the playoffs and then somehow did, playing free and easy when they got there, the bar of expectation is set so much higher this time around. Ironically it's the once-left-for-dead Colts who are instead playing with house money. The Colts playoff run might not be a long one, but I like their chances to be the only home team to survive the first round. Colts 24, Jets 20.