How 'Bout Them (Big) Apples? Jets Soar
SAN DIEGO -- Could it be true? Could Rex Ryan really be on to something? Most everyone who exists outside the New York Jets' bubble laughed and smirked at Ryan when he boldly declared the Jets the favorite in the NFL tournament. Plenty of eyes rolled when Ryan revealed his vision board for the rest of the season: three wins on the road against higher seeds, a trip to the Super Bowl, followed by a victory parade two days later through Manhattan's downtown streets.
He was a fool, an entertaining buffoon who gave good press conferences and spoke a big game. Maybe it's time we move a step back and take a better look at Ryan, because tucked inside all that bluster is a brilliant genius who just might know what he's talking about.
Y-E-S, yes, yes, yes. The Jets are very real, very dangerous, and very, very convinced they are a team of destiny, much like a certain band of cocky underdogs who shocked the world 41 years ago. The San Diego Chargers might agree, once they figure out how they got sucker punched in their own house.
By the time the Jets were done punishing the Chargers Sunday, the home team's sideline at Qualcomm Stadium looked as if walking zombies had overtaken it. Philip Rivers couldn't stop sneering, pouting. Poor Nate Kaeding, his eyes glazed, stared hard at the ground, as if he were wishing it would just swallow him whole. Norv Turner's ears burned from the beating he was taking by the home crowd, which will never forgive him for that onside kick, another gruesome call adding to the chronicles of Charger playoff flops.
Across the way, the scene was a happy blur of told-you-so chants and fist pumps and basic delirium. The game ended on another ad-lib by Ryan, a decision to go for it on fourth-and-a-foot on San Diego's 31, the Jets holding onto a skinny 17-14 lead, the clock winding down. Of course the Jets would go for it: more than being the top rushing team in football, Gang Green oozes confidence like sweat leaking out of pores. Thomas Jones, stuck in the backseat for most of the day while Shonn Greene shone, took the handoff and pushed through the pile off right guard for three yards, for the first down, for the win.
"It's amazing how one yard can feel that good," Jones would say later, after he had shushed what had been a raucous and rowdy crowd convinced they were going to witness the Chargers' 12th straight win and another trip to the AFC title game.
A couple of Jets rushed over to Ryan, their rookie coach, and looked as if they were about to carry him off the Qualcomm Stadium field right then and there. Bart Scott, the linebacker who'd follow Ryan into a lion's den if the coach asked him, decided this probably wasn't the right time to risk a broken back, and he settled on wrapping his arms around the big fella. Woody Johnson, the Jets' owner whose estranged 30-year-old daughter Casey died earlier this month, found himself surrounded by players and Jets' fans, and for maybe the first time in weeks, Johnson smiled. Someone wondered how Johnson felt and, in barely a whisper, he replied, "Good. Proud and good. Very good."
For the first time since 1998, the Jets are headed to the AFC championship game. They take on the Colts next Sunday in Indianapolis, a delicious replay of the game that launched the Jets on this wondrous ride. Dan Dierdorf might be the only person alive to actually believe the Colts' decision to rest their front-liners for the final 20 minutes in the Jets' 29-15 victory over Indianapolis three weeks ago is "totally in the rear view mirror. Non-issue. Non-story. Resting worked."
Sure it did, if you ignore how the Colts trashed their chance to go undefeated and make history, if you wonder how the AFC playoff ledger might look had the fully-armed Colts won that day and shut the barn door on any hope the Jets had of making the playoffs. Non-story? Ryan began talking about it as the gloss was still settling on the Jets' 17-14 divisional win, and by the time the week is over, he'll no doubt discuss the non-issue roughly another thousand times.
"I don't know if Santa Claus will be that good to me again. But I will say that I'd like to see Peyton Manning not play this week," Ryan said in the giddy afterglow of guiding the Jets to what just might have been their greatest upset since Joe Namath turned his own bold guarantee into a Super Bowl win in 1969.
Harp all you want on the Jets' good fortune, on how they snuck into the postseason because the Colts and then the Bengals rolled over like submissive pooches, on how lucky they were to catch two playoff teams on days when the kickers couldn't kick straight. Another New York football team rode good fortune and a bit of luck all the way to a championship parade two seasons ago. The Jets, the only wild-card team still alive, are beginning to look as if they've captured the Giants' charm, as if they might soon be catching passes with their helmets the way David Tyree once did. (Sorry Patriot fans, we can only imagine your pain.)
Ryan's masterful game plan began to unfold during Saturday night's team meeting, when he showed his players highlights of Mike Tyson in his prime. It was the final twist to the message Ryan had been preaching all week about playing smashmouth, punch-the-other-guy-in-the-face defense. Ryan didn't bother showing Tyson biting an ear, but you wouldn't have known that after watching the Jets maul the Chargers, until their high-flying offense could barely sputter.
Rivers, extremely talented and slightly emotional, never got into a rhythm with his deep throws, probably because the Jets got into his head early and refused to leave. "We rattled him, you could tell," said Scott, who had predicted the game would be "brawler versus the boxer," with the brawling Jets coming out on top. Ryan masterminded schemes that limited the damage from all those Charger weapons. His defense prodded Rivers into throwing two interceptions on back-to-back passes, and kept Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates, LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles in virtual handcuffs.
Rivers' second pick, a game-changing mistake at the end of the third quarter, illustrated the Jets' ability to turn even the finest quarterback into a bowl of mush. Scrambling away from the blitz, Rivers heaved the ball into a kind of nowhere zone toward Gates, who hadn't turned around. Jim Leonhard, smallest guy on the field, intercepted the ball on the Chargers' 27, returned it to the 16, lost his helmet (again) and proved (again) that his baby-face veneer is just a ruse designed to hide a street-fighter's toughness.
Three runs and another stupid penalty on the Chargers later, Mark Sanchez, the rookie quarterback, rolled to his right, kept rolling, pump-faked, looked like he might slide (and Ryan would have a coronary), remained patient and finally found Dustin Keller in the end zone, giving the Jets a 10-7 lead. Greene, the rookie running back, allowed the Jets to exhale on their next possession, after he exploded through the line, bulldozed a safety and galloped 53 yards through the open field for the longest scoring run in Jets playoff history.
"A lot of people didn't know about me, but they know about the Jets," said Greene, whose neck is adorned with a heart tattoo and the inscription "Cheryl" -- a tribute to the woman who raised him, his grandmother Cheryl Greene. All around the Jets locker room are fresh stories like Greene and Leonhard. There is Sanchez, the jumpy kid who's made his share of rookie mistakes (all those interceptions, chowing down on a hotdog on the sideline, his errant slides that earned him the nickname "knucklehead" by his coach) but returned home to Southern California and calmly won his second playoff game on the road. There is Scott, the passionate leader of a suffocating defense; and Darrelle Revis, who always manages to make bigger receivers disappear; and an offensive line that is as bonded as any military unit; and Jay Feely, a kicker who doesn't seem inclined to choke when so many of his contemporaries are doing just that.
And there is Ryan, the coach who dared his players to believe when nobody else did after they were left for the buzzards barely a month ago. He builds his vision boards, plans victory parades and figures if he puts it out in the universe, it surely will come true. Sure, Manning might pass for 400 yards next Sunday and leave revenge tracks all over the Jets. Just as the Chargers were supposed to run laps around the Jets en route to their date with the Colts, but Ryan knew better.
"We believed the whole time, the whole year," Ryan said. "It probably wasn't the popular choice, the popular opinion, but here we are. We don't have to apologize to anybody. It's just old-fashioned, ground-and-pound football and throw some completions and then play great defense and here we are."
Could the formula, so brilliant, so simple, work another two weeks? A month ago we'd have laughed at such silliness. Now? "Don't get caught up in the words coach says," Scott said. "Pay attention to the content. He speaks the truth." Only a fool would dare argue that.