Sunday, January 9, 2011

Reaction: Jets 17, Colts 16

I've been too busy smiling from ear to ear to start writing this post. After a tight football game throughout, the Jets made just enough plays in the 4th quarter to pull out a 17 to 16 win at Lucas Oil Stadium over Rex Ryan's personal nemesis, Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

The first half was as sluggish as one could imagine, with the Jets failing to put up a single point. Mark Sanchez was awful. There's no sugarcoating it. He was terrible in the first half, missing a lot of throws high and long, negating the fact the Jets were running the ball with success. When the Jets finally got in scoring range, he made an ill-advised and poor throw that was intercepted by Justin Tryon.

Fortunately, the defense was great. The first three Colts drives ended in three-and-outs, and it wasn't until their fifth drive where Peyton Manning found paydirt. Pierre Garcon burned Antonio Cromartie and Brodney Pool, and Manning did not miss him. Cromartie was beaten badly, and Pool took a bad angle to the football, leading to the 57-yard touchdown.

Just like last year, Garcon was the difference-maker offensively for Indianapolis. He had less than half the receptions this time with 5, but he still had 112 yards and that long touchdown. Antonio Cromartie struggled to deal with Garcon's quickness, particularly on a few slant patterns. On the other side of the field, even Darrelle Revis's biggest fans probably wouldn't have guessed Reggie Wayne would be as non-existent as he was. Wayne ended up with one catch for one yard. Revis was all over him all game long, and Manning, like most quarterbacks this season, would not test him. For good reason.

The Jets would get the ball to start the second half, with a 7-0 deficit. Rex Ryan ripped into his football team in the locker room, particularly the offense and Cromartie for allowing the long touchdown. The team responded. Led by a dominant offensive line, the Jets gashed the Colts on the ground in the second half. With Sanchez struggling, the Jets kept the ball on the ground more, and it worked. In their first drive, the Jets marched 63 yards on 10 plays, 8 of them rushes.

The Colts responded with a decent drive of their own, culminating in a 47-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal, but the Jets picked up where they left off on their second drive. Starting off at their own 13 yard line, the Jets, drove the length of the field, with no play going longer than 11 yards. 10 minutes of game time later, the Jets were in the endzone, giving them their first lead of the game of 4 points.

Once again, Manning got the ball, and once again, he moved the ball well before the Jets finally stiffened and forced another field goal, holding the lead. The last play of the drive was a 3rd-and-7 draw play to Dominic Rhodes. It was the third time in two drives that Manning audibled to a draw play on a 3rd-and-7 or more, but this time, the Jets were there to stop it. Vinatieri made the kick, and it was a 14-13 Jet lead.

The Jets appeared to go three-and-out after Santonio Holmes dropped a catchable pass on third down. But Taj Smith of the Colts ran into Steve Weatherford, prompting a five yard penalty, and giving the Jets new life. Once again, the Jets ran, ran, threw incomplete, and punted, and this time, nobody ran into Weatherford who booted his fourth touchback of the night, tying his season total in that stat.

From there, it appeared to be a slow death for Gang Green. Manning went from his own 20 to the cusp of field goal range in just four plays. But when Manning needed one more first down to ensure the Jets not getting another chance, his pass barely fell incomplete on 3rd down. Vinatieri was given a 50-yard field goal attempt to take the lead, and Vinatieri did what he normally does, drilling a clutch kick in the playoffs to give his team the lead.

Only the Jets weren't done. Antonio Cromartie returned the kickoff 47 yards to the Jet 46. Sanchez then settled down, finding Edwards on a slant for 9, Holmes on an out for 11, and finally Edwards down the sideline for 18 yards to set up Nick Folk's game-winning field goal. Folk made it, saving his Jet career and the season, and sending the Jets to New England.

It certainly wasn't perfect. Sanchez looked horrible for most of the game. The defense couldn't force any turnovers. But the Jets regained their identity of a ground-and-pound running team, finishing with 169 yards on the ground. As a result, they won time of possession by 7 minutes and held Manning to just three drives in the second half.

The Jets have been a resilient team most of the season, and today was no different. They were down 7 at halftime, and they trailed with under a minute left. But they made the plays when they had to. That's the bottom line.

Can the Jets beat the Patriots? That's the key question now. New England is usually dominant at home and after a bye week, but the way they've played for the last month, a week off couldn't really make them much better than they are now. The same questions remain: can Sanchez make enough plays? Can the Jets get any pressure on Tom Brady?

All that matters now is that they have the opportunity. That's all you can ask for at this point. After getting revenge against the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year, now they have a chance against the team that embarrassed them just over a month ago. Stage one of the gauntlet has been complete. It's one thing to defeat a banged up Colts team. It's another to knock off Tom Brady and the 14-2 Patriots. But anything can happen. Just look at the Seahawks knocking off the Saints. Or, if you want a Jets' example, look back to week 2 this year, when Gang Green handed the Pats one of their two losses. It won't be easy, and Sanchez needs to play light years ahead of last season. But if the Jets can continue to play solid defense and run the ball like they did today, they have a chance.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Jets vs Colts Preview

New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts
January 8, 2011, 8:00 PM, NBC
Lucas Oil Stadium

After a year of waiting, it's finally put up or shut up time for Rex Ryan's Jets. The offseason was dedicated to finding enough players defensively to beat the Colts, and now, against a beat up Colts squad, the Jets have their chance. Rex Ryan is 0-9 lifetime against Peyton Manning, but with no Dallas Clark, no Austin Collie, and a defense missing several starters, they won't have a better chance to pick off the Colts than now. Being on the road is an obstacle, but unlike last year, the Jets probably have a better team than the Colts, and it's up to proving that on the field. This game here may be the biggest game in Rex Ryan and Brian Schottenheimer's coaching career because unlike last year, the Jets have the personnel to win this game.

When the Jets have the ball...
The Colts' run defense has been maligned all season, but three straight strong performances to close out the season give them some confidence heading into the playoffs. However, in each of those games, they faced one-dimensional running offenses, so they stacked the box and dared them to throw. Jacksonville, Oakland, and Tennessee were all able to throw the ball fairly well, but not well enough to win. Against the Jets, expect the Colts to do more of the same, daring Mark Sanchez to beat them. Sanchez's shoulder sounds like it's okay, but he's a hit-or-miss quarterback. However, he has much better weapons on the outside than any of those teams.

The key is for the Jets to come out and back the Colts defense off a little. Look for the Colts to stack the box again, opening up the passing game on early downs for Sanchez. Schottenheimer needs to trust him to throw the ball on first down. Doing so could allow the Jets to move the ball down the field in chunks and open up the running game for later.

When the Jets do run the ball, Shonn Greene needs to be a big factor. In last year's game, Greene was running very well, starting to gash the Colts defense. His physical running style needs to pound the Colts in the second half. LaDainian Tomlinson can be sprinkled in, particularly on passing downs, but Greene is the better back right now. Now is the time to unleash him.

The biggest strength the Colts have on defense is a set of dynamic pass rushing ends in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. D'Brickashaw Ferguson will likely matchup against Freeney, a key matchup to match all day between an elite pass rusher and an elite pass blocker. Mathis will go against either Wayne Hunter or Damien Woody. Either player can be beat off the edge occasionally by Mathis's speed. Look for a lot of plays with Hunter or Robert Turner eligible at tight end, particularly on passing downs, to help in pass protection. With Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Dustin Keller, Jerricho Cotchery, and a runningback all rotating in and out, there will be enough weapons on the field where the Jets should be able to move the ball. Not to mention the wildcard factor of Brad Smith, who will get a few chances under center as well as handle kick returns in this game. He's a threat any time he has the ball in his hands.

This Colts' defense is hanging on by smoke and mirrors right now. As long as the Jets don't fall into a predictable pattern, they should be able to move the ball. The Colts will play bend-but-not-break defense, but near the endzone, they stiffen up a bit. The Jets need to fight through that and stick the ball in the endzone. They have the personnel to do it. And with Peyton Manning on the other sideline, the Jets need all the points they can get. This is a big game for Brian Schottenheimer, as the Colts' defense can absolutely be beaten, especially if he calls a game that keeps the Colts backpedaling and Sanchez in a rhythm.

When the Colts have the ball...
As always, Peyton Manning runs the Colts' offense. Manning threw more passes than any other quarterback in the NFL, and he had one of the shakier seasons of his career. But his stats look strikingly similar to last year's, even without Dallas Clark and Austin Collie for significant chunks of the season.

This is the game where the loss of those two players will be as big a factor as ever. The best way to beat the Jets is by exposing the linebackers and extra defensive backs in coverage, and to do that, you use tight ends and slot receivers. Clark and Collie may be the best at those particular roles in the NFL at this point. Jacob Tamme is a nice young player, and Blair White works hard, but they aren't nearly as good as the men they are replacing.

However, while Clark and Collie remain out, Joseph Addai is back. Addai ran for 80 yards in last year's AFC Championship, and added a 21 yard touchdown in the regular season battle. He's also the best weapon the Colts have in the passing game out of the backfield. Putting a linebacker on him is a mismatch in the Colts' favor, and Manning can exploit that.

On the outside, the Jets' cornerbacks match up well with the Colts' primary receivers. Darrelle Revis has been great once again this year, only this time around, teams aren't even challenging him. Last year, the man Revis primarily covered, Reggie Wayne, was not a big factor, as Manning exploited Dwight Lowery, Lito Sheppard, and Drew Coleman. Wayne will again see Revis opposite him, meaning Pierre Garcon vs Antonio Cromartie will be a huge matchup. Garcon posted 11 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown in last year's AFC Championship game, but the Jets didn't have Cromartie, a tall, fast athlete who has had a good career against Manning. Both Garcon and Cromartie are inconsistent players. That might be the matchup to watch, as both can make unbelievable plays, and both can suffer mental lapses. One of those players will likely make an impact play to help win the game for his team, so watch out for those two.

The good news for the Jets is that Colts OT Ryan Diem is unlikely to play with a back injury. The Jets have struggled all season to get a consistent pass rush, but with Diem out, that's a big hole at right tackle that will be filled by a rookie free agent. If Jason Taylor and the Jets' edge rushers can generate pressure and force Manning out of rhythm all game, the Jets will almost certainly win this game. More likely, they will get spurts of a pass rush, but Manning will make his fair share of plays.

The Jets are a better team than the Colts at every position except quarterback and pure pass rusher. New York runs the ball better, stops the run better, and stops the pass better than Indianapolis, the keys will be just how dominant Manning and the Colts' passing game can be, and whether or not the Jets can convert yards into points. But when all is said and done, the Jets have more ways to make big plays on all three facets of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. Manning has to be in peak form to win this game and probably put up 30 points or more. It's certainly possible, but he has to outplay Sanchez by a lot, and the Jets will put their fair share of points on the board.
Jets 30, Colts 24

Monday, January 3, 2011

Jets dominate Bills 38-7, prepare for Colts in playoffs

In essentially an exhibition game, the Jets whipped the Buffalo Bills 38-7 to close out the regular season.

The Jets held out LaDainian Tomlinson, Shonn Greene, Darrelle Revis, and Antonio Cromartie, while Mark Sanchez played just one series, not throwing a single pass. Other starters like Nick Mangold and Dustin Keller barely played at all. And even without all of these players, the backups stepped up and not only won the game, but imposed their will on the Bills.

Buffalo was relegated to third string quarterback Brian Brohm, and it showed. In just his second career start, he was overwhelmed by the Jets, who forced six turnovers by the time the game was over. The Bills' offense managed just 162 yards and zero points. The only touchdown was scored on an ill-advised throw by Mark Brunell that Bills' safety Jairus Byrd returned 37 yards for the score.

It was a simply dominant performance by the defense. The only chance the Bills had of scoring was on their very first drive. But safety Emanuel Cook stripped Steve Johnson, and Dwight Lowery recovered it. The Bills never returned to the red zone the rest of the game.

Offensively, without the quarterback, runningbacks, and center, it was a very stripped down Jets' attack. But it didn't matter. Rookie Joe McKnight became the workhorse, getting 32 carries for 158 yards. The much maligned rookie had a huge game, showing patience and burst through the hole, as well as showing off talents returning punts, catching passes, and covering kicks. Fullback John Conner also added 44 yards and a touchdown on 8 carries in a game where the backups received most of the playing time.

You couldn't have written a better script for the Jets. They got the win in dominant fashion while still able to rest their starters. Momentum switches week to week, but a performance like this without the team's stars must be a confidence boost heading into the playoffs.

With Kansas City losing to Oakland, the Indianapolis Colts clinched the #3 seed and the right to host the Jets in the first round of the playoffs. Peyton Manning's team ended the Jets' season last year 12 months ago on the same field, prompting Rex Ryan to acquire Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson to improve the secondary. Now is the time to prove the Jets have made the necessary strides.

Obviously, it's more desirable to face a Matt Cassel-led team than a Manning-led team in the playoffs, but the Colts are a shell of what they were last season. Arguably, Manning's two favorite targets, Dallas Clark and Austin Collie, are injured, and the running game has been inconsistent all season. Defensively, Indianapolis has struggled stopping the run, and the secondary hasn't made many big plays this season. Any team with Manning at quarterback is very dangerous, but the Jets may be the better team.

If the Jets can get by the Colts, their revenge tour would continue in New England. There's a very good chance the Jets need to face Manning, Brady, and Roethlisberger on the way to the Super Bowl, all on the road. This is the hole the Jets have dug themselves. Now, their backs are against the wall. Four wins in a row will bring the first Super Bowl title to the green and white since 1969. Nobody thinks the Jets can do it, but as long as Rex Ryan is inspiring the team, you can never count the Jets out. For despite all of Ryan's bravado, the Jets remain the underdog, albeit a dangerous one.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Jets vs Bills Preview

Buffalo Bills (4-11) at New York Jets (10-5)
Sunday, January 2, 2011, 1:00 PM
New Meadowlands Stadium

With a playoff spot in hand, the Jets close out their regular season Sunday against the lowly Bills, who have actually gone 4-3 after an 0-8 start. With the Jets not at full strength, resting players before the playoffs next week, Buffalo has a chance to finish above .500 in the last half of the season. But quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's playing status is in doubt, and without him, the Bills don't appear to offer much of a threat. As for the Jets, the only way they can upgrade their playoff seed is by winning and having Pittsburgh lose and Baltimore win. So expect to see a lot of backups in the game, including backup quarterback Mark Brunell, for an extended period of time.

When the Jets have the ball...

Mark Sanchez has bounced back after a pair of bad games with back-to-back strong performances against Pittsburgh and Chicago. In an essentially meaningless game, Rex Ryan still plans to play Sanchez to preserve his hot hand heading into the playoffs. With a young quarterback short on experience, it's only a bad decision if he's either awful or he gets hurt. More repetitions couldn't hurt for him. Buffalo is the 4th ranked pass defense, but that's exaggerated because of how often they're behind. The Bills did intercept Sanchez five times right next door last year, so there is some potential for a bad game.

The Bills have a few solid players on their defense, namely DT Kyle Williams, LB Paul Posluszny, and a solid secondary. Last week, they ran into the Patriots buzzsaw which ate the Bills alive with the short passing game. The Jets have been playing well, but with the Bills trying to redeem themselves after last week's embarrassment, a good showing here would be a good omen for the playoffs.

It's been the run defense which has hurt Buffalo this year. They are dead last as a unit in stopping the run. The Bills haven't allowed many long runs, but they can be gashed for consistent positive yardage, as the Jets did in the first matchup. Both Shonn Greene and LaDainan Tomlinson ran for 100 yards that game. With the running game looking to have a signature moment to show it's productive again, this will be a game the Jets try to regain their swagger running the ball.

As far as subs are concerned, Sanchez probably will not play the whole game. Even if it's close, I expect Ryan to eventually pull him. Also, look for young players like Joe McKnight and Vladimir Ducasse to get extended looks. This is a prime time for the Jets to evaluate some young talent for the future. McKnight will probably be the fourth quarter runningback, seeing if the rookie can do something to give the fans some hope for the future.  And, of course, Mark Brunell will play, bringing a short passing game and very little else to the field when he comes into the game.

When the Bills have the ball...
Like the Jets, gameplanning for the Bills depends on who plays quarterback for them, and that will be a gametime decision. Ryan Fitzpatrick has brought respectability back to the Bills in recent weeks, but he was awful last week and didn't practice all week. Former Louisville star and Packer washout Brian Brohm would get the start if Fitzpatrick can't go.

No matter who starts, however, the offense will begin and end with the running game. Fred Jackson is an underrated all-purpose back whom the Bills will feed to try to keep the Jets' offense off the field, especially if Brohm starts. In 3 of their 4 wins, Jackson has rushed over 100 yards. It's also the last chance Buffalo has to show off the 9th overall pick, C.J. Spiller, a highly touted rookie who hasn't made much of an impact this season.

The Jets bring a stout run defense into the game, but they've been humbled in back-to-back weeks by Rashard Mendenhall and Matt Forte. Both ran very well against the Jets defense. Again, the Bills will be a nice tune-up for the playoffs, with a run-first offense led by a two-headed rushing attack, not dissimilar to what they could face in Kansas City in round one of the playoffs. Shutting down Jackson and Spiller would be a very encouraging sign, and it should lead the Jets to victory if they can do that.

The one place on the field the Jets are most likely to rest players is in the secondary. Safeties Jim Leonhard, James Ihedigbo, and Eric Smith will all be out, while cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie will likely play part-time to rest hamstring and groin injuries respectively. The Bills' Steve Johnson has become a major weapon with 1001 yards and 10 touchdowns in his third season. With good size and deceptive speed, he could be a difficult matchup for Drew Coleman, Marquice Cole, or Kyle Wilson, whenever Revis and Cromartie are out of the game.

If Fitzpatrick plays, the Bills have a chance to put up a few points against the Jets' backups through the air. Until last week, the Bills had been relatively solid at keeping their quarterbacks upright. It will be hard for the Jets to manufacture a pass rush. This could be a week to try new things and see if they can get some confidence in getting after the quarterback with the playoffs just a week away. Rex Ryan challenged the defense to get better. This is the final tune-up before the playoffs begin. Expect the defense to come out inspired after last week's debacle, but the lack of personnel could be an issue.

With no word on Fitzpatrick and no clarity on just how much Rex Ryan will play his starters, it's hard to predict this game. It's most likely meaningless for the Jets other than securing an above .500 record at home in their first year at the New Meadowlands Stadium. Both teams were embarrassed last week. I really think the difference in this game could be who starts at quarterback for the Bills. The Jets will run the ball well in this game, but if Fitzpatrick plays, he could move the ball a little through the air against the Jets' younger secondary. Five turnovers last week nonwithstanding, he usually is better at taking care of the ball and making quicker decisions than Brohm, who has not made his mark in the NFL at all. It sounds like Brohm is going to play. In that case, look for the Jets' exotic blitzes to force the inexperienced quarterback into several mistakes and for the Jets running game to overwhelm the Bills in a similar script to the week 4 blowout.

Jets 27, Bills 17 (if Fitzpatrick plays, 27-24 Jets)