Jets vs. Colts: Pressure's On for Mark Sanchez, Peyton Manning
The Jets (11-5) have been a hard team to figure out. One week they'll look like world beaters; the next, they're struggling to get by mediocre competition. There's little question that New York has enough talent to make a Super Bowl run, but consider the task ahead: to get out of the AFC bracket, the Jets will have to win at Indianapolis, New England and either Pittsburgh, Kansas City or Baltimore.
Step one comes Saturday, when the Jets visit the defending AFC champion Colts (10-6), who found themselves in an unusual fight for the AFC South this season -- Indy didn't wrap up the division until Week 17. So will the added stress of a division race hurt the Colts in this one? We'll find out.
Here's a look at this wild-card round game.
Saturday, Jan. 8, 8:20 p.m. ET at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The game will be broadcast on NBC and is the second of two wild-card round affairs Saturday -- the Saints visit the Seahawks earlier in the day.
The Jets and Colts met in Week 16 of last season, in a game that created quite a stir in Indianapolis and nationally. The Colts, 14-0 entering that contest, took a 9-3 halftime lead, then opted to rest Peyton Manning and several other starters. With Indianapolis ahead 15-10 late in the third quarter, backup Colts QB Curtis Painter fumbled and the Jets returned it for a TD. New York would never relinquish the lead, ending Indianapolis' undefeated run and taking a huge shot toward the postseason itself.
Matchup to Watch
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis vs. Jets offensive line
The Jets have allowed just 28 sacks this season, the eighth-lowest total in the league. And Indianapolis had just 30 sacks of its own in 2010, good for 23rd overall. So what's the problem here?
Well, Jets QB Mark Sanchez can get himself into trouble (and also could get his banged-up knees injured) when he feels the heat. In two NFL seasons, Sanchez has thrown 33 interceptions, including 13 in 16 starts this year. Freeney and Mathis are healthy -- something the Colts haven't been able to say at all times in 2010 -- and that means Indianapolis should be able to dial up a solid pass rush Saturday. Freeney and Mathis coming off the edges could pose major issues for the Jets' passing game
New York's Keys to Victory
The Jets must protect Sanchez from the aforementioned Freeney-Mathis duo, but New York can also negate some of the Colts' pass-rushing effectiveness by getting a lead and keeping the game at their pace. That means getting the ground game going with LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene ... and keeping Manning on the sideline.
But Sanchez, if he's given time, has the ability to stretch Indianapolis' defense with Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes, among others, so incorporating a big play or two would definitely take the heat off both Sanchez and the Jets' ground game.
Manning's best attribute has long been his ability to stay composed under pressure, but with a depleted roster of receivers and running backs, the talented QB has struggled at times this season when feeling some heat. If the Jets can get in Manning's face early and often, and force him to uncork some uncomfortable passes, they might be able to limit the Indianapolis attack. But New York must watch out for Indianapolis' running game. The recent re-addition of Dominic Rhodes has helped buoy that unit, and guys like Donald Brown and Joseph Addai can make plays in the running and passing games.
Indianapolis' Keys to Victory
This will be all about quarterbacks' comfort levels: Indianapolis needs to make Sanchez uneasy on one side of the ball, and give Manning time to settle in on the other. We'll be able to tell in one or two Colts possessions how well Manning's being protected, and we might have a pretty good idea about the game's eventual outcome based on that.
If the Colts can't get to Sanchez, then they'll have to go to Plan B. What would that entail? Well, the goal would still be to get into the backfield, but to focus more attention on the Jets' running backs. Limiting Tomlinson and Greene would again shift the focus back to Sanchez -- if the Colts are going to lose, they'd rather force the second-year QB to do the trick, as opposed to getting pounded by New York's running backs.
As we've come to expect from Rex Ryan, the Jets head coach is talking a big game heading into the playoffs. It's not that the Jets can't run the table as the AFC's No. 6 seed and get to the Super Bowl, but is it wise to further motivate Manning, who's already got the memory of last year's Super Bowl loss in his mind? Sanchez could take a big step forward in his development by defeating Peyton at his place, but it's still hard to pick against Manning in this situation. Colts 31, Jets 24