The Jets were fighting for their playoff lives back on December 27 when they visited the Colts, who already were shutting down the regular season with the AFC's No. 1 seed locked up. Peyton Manning and his teammates were still trying to complete an undefeated season, but when the starters were pulled in the third quarter, Indianapolis lost 29-15. When Manning left the game, his team was up 15-10, but the Jets had held Manning without a touchdown pass and felt they could beat the Colts next time around. Well, the rematch is here, and the Jets come in to Indianapolis this weekend full of confidence.
Here are the three pressing questions that must be answered for this game:
1. Can the Jets get pressure on Manning?
Some teams reject the idea of pressuring Manning. They feel they're better off playing rope-a-dope, and keeping the Colts in front of them. Rex Ryan rejects that concept and, as always, will bring the heat. The highest rated regular-season quarterback against the blitz was Philip Rivers, and by my count, the Jets called a blitz nine times in the first half and kept the pressure on all game long.
The Jets blitzed 80 percent of the time on third down this season and close to 50 percent on second downs. In the last seven games, the Jets' defense has given up just three touchdown passes but has recorded nine interceptions, 16 sacks and another 24 hits on quarterbacks. The most impressive thing about the Jets' pressure package is that nine different defenders account for the 16 sacks. Can Manning figure out who is really coming and get rid of the ball quickly?
Last week the Colts were all about the short pass attack with no reception over 20 yards. This week may be more of the same. Don't count on the Colts' league-worst running game to support the passing, especially since the Colts' running backs only managed 22 runs for 62 yards (2.8 yards per carry) in the first meeting. Teams that beat Manning get him off his launch point, and I would not be surprised to see 20-30 pressure calls by the Jets in this game.
2. How effective will the Jets run?
The Colts are an undersized speed defense built to rush the passer and play coverage. Their inside three-player triangle of DT Daniel Muir, MLB Gary Brackett and DT Antonio Johnson have to face All-Pros Alan Faneca and Nick Mangold, and an underrated Brandon Moore. The Jets will not waste time running the ball outside on sweeps and tosses, which plays into the hands of the Colts' speed. They will run right up the gut.
Last week, the Jets' run game produced 169 yards by dominating the inside. As the Colts prepare, they will break down New York's last seven games and see a two-headed monster of Thomas Jones and rookie Shonn Greene that has averaged 43 carries and 188 yards. The last time they met, the Jets ran it 44 times for 202 yards, and we will see more of the same this week. That kind of rushing keeps Manning on the sideline and rookie QB Mark Sanchez out of trouble.
3. Who are the X-factors?
Every game has an X-factor, who doesn't spend much time in the limelight, but has a chance to play a big role. For the Colts, my choices are WR Austin Collie and whoever the kicker is (Matt Stover or Adam Vinatieri). Collie is a rookie playing in the shadows of Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, but with Jets CB Darrelle Revis bouncing back and forth covering the two stars, Manning will look elsewhere. Over the past five games, Collie has been targeted 27 times and has 17 receptions and three touchdowns -- one more than Wayne over that span. As for the kickers, either Stover or Vinateri is facing a team that, in two playoff games, saw the opposing kicker miss five field goals.
The Jets' X-factor has to be CB Lito Sheppard, who starts opposite Revis and will draw either Collie or Pierre Garcon. Manning will test Sheppard early, and if he likes what he sees Sheppard will get tested 15-20 times. With all the man-to-man calls, Sheppard has to stand up to the challenge.