Jets Defense Lets AFC Championship Slip Away
"Up 11 points with this defense?" Jets safety Jim Leonhard said. "We feel like we should win that game."
That they did not -- and that as a result the Colts will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl -- will bother the Jets for a long time. Because you can say anything you want about their surprise run, their exceeded expectations and the great year they just had, but the fact is that the best defense in the NFL had an 11-point lead in the final minutes of the first half and lost the game.
"We tried everything," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "We tried man, tried two-man, tried zone ... you name it. But Peyton Manning, you've got to give him credit, man. He's one heck of a quarterback, and we had some issues."
It had all started so well. The Jets got two early sacks against Manning, hit an 80-yard touchdown bomb and built that 17-6 lead without even getting their top-ranked running game in gear. Rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez was playing well, and the defense -- which hadn't allowed more than 15 points in a game since Nov. 22 -- was rattling Manning in ways that made you feel as if the Jets were really going to pull this thing off.
"I've always thought, against Ryan's defense, that it may take a little time to figure out what they're up to," Manning said. "The key is, while you're figuring it out, don't turn it over."
The thing is, that point where the game was 17-6, where the Jets felt like they had the Colts right where they wanted them? That's the point where Manning felt like had it figured out. Had it not been for a Joseph Addai fumble that set the Jets up on the Indy 29-yard line, Manning might have burned the Jets on the drive before. But after a Jay Feely field goal put the Jets up 11 with with 2:16 left in the first half, Manning went to work. He threw passes of 18, 46 and 16 yards, the last for a touchdown and all to Austin Collie, in a span of 48 seconds, and suddenly the Jets' halftime lead was just 17-13.
"That really took some of the wind out of our sails," Ryan said.
There were a number of things happening, none of them good. First, cornerback Donald Strickland left the game with a groin injury, which left the Jets' secondary thin and weak. They'd already decided to start Dwight Lowery over Lito Sheppard at cornerback in the game, and because of Bart Scott's ankle injury they found themselves using seven defensive backs on an unusual number of plays.
But on those particular passes Collie caught over the middle, leading up to and delivering the touchdown, the Jets covered poorly. On the 46-yarder and on the touchdown, they blitzed, but the secondary mistakenly rotated "both ways," as Leonhard put it, leaving the middle wide open.
"You can't do that against the Colts," Leonhard said. "You can't give them an easy touchdown."
So the Colts actually had some momentum going into the half, while the Jets felt as though they should have been up by more. And when the Jets failed to make anything out of the opening possession of the second half, Manning stayed on his roll. A touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon with 8:08 left in the third quarter put the Colts on top for good.
"We couldn't get off the field," Ryan said. "They just kept moving downfield on us. And that's frustrating, to say the least."
Part of the frustration came from the feeling that they were outmanned. Ryan said Scott's ankle was worse all week than it was portrayed and that Scott was "a one-legged man out there." And after Strickland left the game, the Colts went to three-wide sets in an effort to take advantage of the weakened secondary. In particular, Manning wanted to see what he could get against Lowery.
"I saw they started Lowery, and that was kind of a surprise, because I thought Lito (Sheppard) played well for them all year," Manning said. "So when a guy's making his first start in an AFC championship game ... you have to kind of check that out a little bit."
Yes, Manning was rattled early by the pressure, but he'd studied and he was ready for Ryan. He said he spent time last week looking at tape from a 2005 game in which the Colts beat the Ravens (for whom Ryan was defensive coordinator) 24-7, and he said some of the defensive looks he saw Sunday were similar to those Ryan used in that game. So even when it was 17-6, Manning felt like he could come back on the Jets' defense.
Conversely, even while they were seemingly dropping like flies, the Jets' defenders thought they could stop Manning from making the comeback.
"At 17-6, we thought we were in a good position," safety Kerry Rhodes said. "But it just wasn't good enough today. They turned up the heat on their side of the ball. And once we stopped getting pressure on (Manning), he was just doing whatever he wanted to do with the ball."
The Jets' locker room was a festival of head-shaking. The defensive linemen were at a loss to explain why that interior pass rush, so fearsome in the early going, was absent in the second half. The secondary took the blame for the whole thing. Strickland was sick about not having been able to finish the game.
"We were on a roll, and when I went out, some things changed and then they got on their roll," Strickland said. "I think I could have been a difference-maker, but now it's all what-ifs."
The one thing the Jets' defense knows for sure, though, is this. No matter how banged up they were, no matter how much time was left and no matter how good the guy with the blue No. 18 jersey is, they had an 11-point lead, and the best defense in the league should have been able to hold it.