Saturday, January 16, 2010

Divisional Round: Jets vs Chargers Preview

New York Jets at San Diego Chargers
Sunday January 17, 2010, Qualcomm Stadium

The Jets are coming in riding a wave of confidence having won five of their last six, but the Chargers can one-up the Jets in the regard as they have now won 11 straight. Rex Ryan has been talking up this team all year, and a win this week would validate everything he said and put the Jets squarely on the map not just for this year but for years to come. Meanwhile, San Diego has been one of the better teams in the NFL for about five years now, but they can never get over the top in the playoffs. Marty Schottenheimer got fired for going 14-2 and losing in the divisional round. Norv Turner wants to avoid a similar fate.

When the Jets have the ball...
Focal Point: The Jets want to run the football. This is no secret in the NFL. Everyone knows the Jets want to run the football, so saying the opponent will put eight guys in the box and stop it is a fallacy. It's been tried before. Gang Green just keeps running regardless, and they do it at 4.5 yards per carry. San Diego allows the same average, and good rushing attacks have posted good numbers against them, so there's no reason the Jets' offensive line shouldn't be able to push the Chargers around a bit and move the football. The Jets will run until San Diego proves they can stop it, and while they should come out amped early, as the game moves along, the defense will be tested again and again, and the Jets should start to wear the defense down a little by the end of the game.

The Quarterback: Mark Sanchez has had his ups and downs last week, but he was extremely efficient last week against Cincinnati, and he hasn't turned the ball over in four of the last five games. The Jets want to hide him as much as possible, but he has shown he can make plays when he needs to, particularly in play action and while on the move. The key is to keep him comfortable by not putting him in 3rd and long situations. If the running game is as effective as it should be, Sanchez won't have to do a ton. His job is to make a play or two in the red zone to score touchdowns and to not turn the ball over and give the Chargers good field position.

Key Players: Shonn Greene is the flavor of the week at runningback while Thomas Jones ran for over 1400 yards in the regular season, but Greene is the much more explosive back, and his ability to run over and by defenders will be key. The Jets can get as many yards as they want, and the Chargers won't care unless those yards translate into touchdowns. That hasn't always been the case, and the Jets let a couple games slip away because of that. Greene is the Jet most likely to convert big plays and scoring plays, but Jones is reliable and has broken a number of long runs as well this year. If the Jets have a chance, one or both backs needs to play very well.

X-Factor: Braylon Edwards doesn't get thrown to a ton, but he is the one big playmaker in the passing game for the Jets. His ability to get open deep has led to many chances for points recently, but he hasn't always caught them. If he has an opportunity to score a touchdown in this game, he has to make the catch. If he does, the Jets' offense will have some balance and actually be able to put up some points. Edwards's presence has turned Jerricho Cotchery into the primary short receiver. Cotchery can make some plays, but Edwards has that rare size-speed combination that can make him uncoverable at times. Unfortunately, that's meaningless if he won't hang onto the football.

Don't Forget About: Brad Smith was the biggest factor in the Jets getting into the playoffs the last two weeks, returning a kickoff for a touchdown against the Colts and having a huge game taking direct snaps against Cincinnati week 17. He was pretty much irrelevant last week, so San Diego might not expect Smith as much this week, but he will remain part of the gameplan and get a few chances to make some plays. Also, the Chargers will actually put up some points against the Jets, so Smith will have more chances to return kicks. San Diego has given up some big plays on special teams, so it's not unreasonable to ask Smith to break a long one.

Everyone Else: Cotchery is an underappreciated receiver who just gets the job done. He has sure hands and moves the chain for the Jets. He's done everything the Jets have asked of him this season. Dustin Keller is a constant threat at tight end in the passing game. He had 99 yard and a touchdown last week, where he showed his great athletic ability.  David Clowney, on the other hand, is a bit of an enigma, but he can get down the field, and when he's in the game, he's always a threat to go deep. Like Clowney, Danny Woodhead hasn't made an appearance in a while, but if the Jets get behind, he could be in on 3rd downs catching dumpoff passes.

Prognosis: The Jets are the better team in the trenches, so the Jets should be able to run the ball effectively. As long as the defense keeps the score down on the other end, the running game should be able to control the clock and put Sanchez in favorable 3rd down situations that he can pick up. If the Jets could do that against the Bengals' defense, they should be able to do it against the Chargers, who have been mixing and matching pieces on defense all season long. If the game is close late in the game, the Jets should be able to run the football well enough to either control clock or to give Jay Feely chances late to win the game.

When the Chargers have the ball...
Focal Point: San Diego wants to move the ball down the field. They average more yards per attempt than anybody in the NFL because they have physical specimens who catch the ball from a strong-armed, accurate quarterback. During their 11-game winning streak, San Diego has jumped on their opponents early, outscoring opponents 83-16 in the first quarter.

The Quarterback: Philip Rivers is the man in charge of this high powered offense. He loves to take chances down field to his tall targets. Rivers threw 28 touchdowns this season to just 9 interceptions, so it's not easy to turn him over. The key for the Jets will be to keep the number of deep passes to a minimum and to hold the Rivers and the Chargers to touchdowns not field goals. If they can force an interception or a fumble, all the better, but it won't be easy.

Key Players: Antonio Gates should be Rivers's main target with Vincent Jackson seeing a lot of Darrelle Revis across from him. Revis will probably be shifted around and see some Gates as well, but the Jets really don't have an answer for the future Hall of Famer. Revis, Kerry Rhodes, Eric Smith, Donald Strickland, and even Lito Sheppard will probably get chances, but it will be up to Rex Ryan to find ways to confuse Rivers and keep Gates from killing them. Jackson has the ability to make big plays at any moment, though he has disappeared at times. If he faces Revis most of the game, that could happen again.

X-Factor: When Rivers isn't chucking it deep, he'll be throwing plenty of screen passes to Darren Sproles. The undersized scatback is tough to corral in the open field, and with both David Harris and Bart Scott nursing injuries, they will have even more trouble covering Sproles. Rex Ryan loves to blitz, so the Jets need to not overcommit and let Sproles break big plays. Against Baltimore, a blitz-happy defense like New York, Sproles had 7 catches for 124 yards, including an 81-yard touchdown. The Jets need to do whatever they can not to let that happen again and not overpursue because the speedy Sproles is a big play waiting to happen in the open field. He's someone to watch on special teams as well.

Everyone Else: LaDainian Tomlinson has clearly fallen a long way not to be mentioned until this part of the column. Norv Turner will try to feed him after seeing Cedric Benson's success last week, but the burst is mostly gone for LT, and the run blocking is subpar. He has 12 touchdowns, but the Chargers at times tried to feed him touchdown late in games when they were up big. Malcom Floyd is a distant #3 or #4 on the totem pole in the passing game, but he's a big receiver who can make plays down the field just like everyone else. Lito Sheppard should have the upper hand for the most part, but Floyd is dangerous if the Jets let him go. Legedu Naanee is the Chargers' third receiver, but with only 24 catches, his opportunities are limited. Mike Tolbert, the fullback, is another check down option, particularly in the red zone when defenses forget about him.

Prognosis: It is a tall order to stop the Chargers' gargantuan passing game, but if any team can do it, it's the Jets. With the NFL's premier shutdown cornerback in Revis, the Jets can focus most of their attention on Gates and Sproles. The Jets will blitz a lot to try to throw Rivers off his game, and it should work a little, but the Chargers' weapons are too talented for the Jets to completely shut them down. Look for Sproles to be a constant annoyance. The big question is, as good as the Jets have been statistically, can they stop Philip Rivers when he has a chance to win the game? Rivers has had a knack for the late comeback in his career so far, and the Jets allowed David Garrard, Chad Henne, and Matt Ryan all to score the gamewinning points to beat the Jets this season. If the Jets' defense wants the respect it deserves, they can't let Rivers add his name to the list of quarterbacks who have caused heartbreak for the Jets and their fans this season. If they can stop Rivers late, they can earn it on the field.

Prediction
San Diego will probably start with the ball, and their goal is to get ahead early and force Sanchez to throw the football. Turner might decide to slow things down and try to establish the running game first, given his history, so the Jets may be able to get a stop. Things may be a bit slow to start, but eventually, the scoring will pick up, as Gates will be able to exploit one on one coverage and the Jets will struggle to sack Rivers. However, the Jets should be able to score because there's no reason to expect the Chargers to stop the Jets' running game. Jones and Greene need to keep the ball out of Rivers's hands and win the field position battle, and they should be able to. Eventually, the Jets should be able to shut down the running game for the most part and force San Diego to be one-dimensional. It may be the case of the last team having the ball winning. But in the fourth quarter, the Jets will be able to run the ball if they're in the game and put San Diego in a tough position. It won't be easy, but I see the Jets winning this game and heading to the AFC Championship game on the strength of Greene and Jones and the defense making some key stops.
Jets 27, Chargers 20