Face-to-Face: Jets vs. Colts
Matt Snyder: Everyone likes to label the Colts a finesse team who can't keep up in a slugfest, but last week they manhandled a team that is pretty similar to the Jets. They beat the Ravens 20-3, but it was more than the score. They stacked the box and built an early lead, which translated to Joe Flacco having to pass 35 times in comparison to only 13 carries for Ray Rice. The previous week, Flacco attempted just 10 passes while both Rice and Willis McGahee carried the ball at least 20 times. Now, the Jets offensive formula is similar to the Ravens, so how can they avoid suffering the same fate in Indy?
Josh Alper: It's a bit of a misnomer to say that they built an early lead. It was a 3-3 game deep into the second quarter which made the Ravens' decision to rely so heavily on Flacco a bit of a surprise. The Jets won't do that, even if they're down by a score in the second half. They fell behind 7-0 in each of the last two weeks and never wavered from their commitment to the run and low-risk passing plays. They didn't pick up their first first down until halfway through the second quarter against the Chargers, but they knew that they were better off sticking with their strengths until they bore fruit.
That said, falling behind by more than one score will make things exceedingly difficult for the Jets. They can't turn into a throwing team all of a sudden because we've seen far too often this season how Mark Sanchez responds to that kind of responsibility. I think the Jets will stick with what's worked for them, perhaps mixing in a few early down passes to try and keep the Colts guessing, and, as ever, hope that their defense keeps their offense in a position to make plays late.
I realize it's not a sexy answer, but things were working out okay for the Ravens until they made two of their characteristic penalties to help the Colts break their back in the last seconds of the first half.
Let's turn this around now. Last week, the Jets faced a very good passing team with a ho-hum rushing attack and caused them all kinds of problems. We all know how good Peyton Manning is, but we also know how his playoff history is riddled with mediocre performances against aggressive opponents. How can the Colts avoid another one?
Snyder: Simply put, I don't think the Colts are going to miss opportunities like the Chargers did. They had many chances to put the Jets away by increasing that 7-0 lead and failed to take advantage. They threw two interceptions -- including a circus-catch by Darrelle Revis -- and missed three field goals. Of those five bad plays, changing only two of them would have resulted in a Chargers victory.
Rivers is a great quarterback and has had his fair share of playoff success, but he's not Peyton Manning.
Alper: Will that happen to Manning? Probably not, but the Jets defense is playing better than anyone else in the game right now and it would be silly to discredit their chances of coming up with a scheme that's going to give Manning a hard time. It's true that the Colts scored 15 before deciding it was a preseason game, but they also missed a bunch of opportunities to score in the first half. At some point you have to wonder how much teams are missing opportunities (offensively, anyway as Nate Kaeding clearly has health problems) and how much the Jets are stopping them from taking advantage.
Snyder: Furthermore, the Chargers didn't have an adequate game plan in terms of running the ball. They fed the obviously washed up LaDainian Tomlinson 12 carries and Darren Sproles only three (which, with the help of a 22-yard run, amounted 33 yards). The Colts will better pick their spots to run the ball in addition to Peyton keeping the chains moving with short passes.
And, really, they don't have to run that much. Rivers threw for 298 yards on the Jets and did enough to win -- their kicker just let them down. I'm expecting Manning to throw for around 300 yards while limiting mistakes.
Speaking of the pass defense, do you expect Revis to stay on Wayne in order to shut him down, or will he play all over the field like he did last week?
Alper: I don't see any reason why not. The Colts present the same kinds of problems in terms of the ability to spread the ball around and Revis is the best player on the defense. It would also serve to help give Peyton one extra thing to think about when he's waving his arms around and barking before the plays.
That ability to confuse Manning is going to be the key for the Jets defense. Confuse isn't even the right word, because I don't know if that's even possible, but showing dozens of looks, myriad blitzes/fake blitzes and coverage packages will make Manning think twice before making plays. Everything you wrote about last week's game with the Chargers is true, but it leaves out a pretty significant switch at halftime from predominantly zone coverage to predominantly man in the second half. Rivers was much less effective from that point, regardless of who Revis was guarding, until the final Chargers drive of the game.
Do you think the previous matchup, a.k.a. the day the Colts quit, has any bearing on this game?
Snyder: Manning and the Colts have been hearing for the past three weeks about how they pissed away their chance at an undefeated season, how Manning-era Colts are chokers and have "only" won the Super Bowl once, and that they are going to lose at home. They are mature, motivated and well-prepared. Not only that, but they already have a blueprint on how to beat the Jets. They were beating them 15-10 when they took Manning out of the game and had already removed Joseph Addai (who, by the way, had 40 yards and a touchdown on just six carries before leaving), Reggie Wayne and a few others back in Week 16.
Alper: No matter how much motivation the Colts might have because of past failures and a desire to redeem themselves for quitting in Week 16 of an undefeated season, it's hard to come up with a scenario that leaves the Jets as less motivated than any opposition. Argue with Rex Ryan's methods, his confidence or his diet if you like, but you can't argue that his players aren't going to play for him.
One player we haven't mentioned yet is Jim Leonhard. The Jets safety has had a terrific postseason as both a blitzer and covering passes. His versatility and ability to make plays from various positions on the field is something I'd expect to see Ryan utilize on Sunday and it wouldn't be surprising to see him make a big play. What underhyped Colts player pops out to you as someone to watch?
Snyder: I'll go with Antoine Bethea. The Colts defense is pretty underrated and they showed what they can do last week. Bethea picked off Flacco and if the Jets have to pass much more than 15 times, there's a good chance he gets another pick. He's got some ballhawking skills. Also, he's a very important part of stopping the run on the second level as the Colts attempt to stack the box. I like him for a big game. I guess we have a safety theme, huh?
I do think Dallas Clark is going to play a key role. Revis will be used all over the place, but he won't be used predominantly on a tight end. Clark's got to pick up the slack when Revis is blanketing a wideout (and it's not like Lito Sheppard sucks, either).
Overall, despite the run the Jets are on right now and how much they have taken on the persona of their first-year head coach, the Colts are just too good to lose right now. They can win any kind of game they need to, and this one will be another slow-down game like last week -- just a closer one.
I predict the Colts win 17-6 and get one step closer to shedding this "Braves of the NFL" talk. What's your prediction?
Alper: We share our opinion of the nature of the game. It's going to be a slog and will probably wind up looking a lot like each of last week's games as well as last year's AFC Championship Game between the Steelers and Ravens. We part ways when it comes to the ultimate winner, however.
I think the Jets wear down the Colts defense and the clock with the run while containing Manning and the offense enough to keep thing close. They'll hit one big play -- I'm hearing a Braylon Edwards redemption song -- in the second half and make an improbable trip to Miami after a 19-16 victory.