A position-by-position breakdown of the Jets-Colts AFC Championship Game on Sunday.
Mark Sanchez is growing up in a hurry. He no longer is a wide-eyed rookie. He is a player who has experienced the ups and downs of a regular season, and has now led his team to two playoff victories. He wasn't spectacular vs. San Diego; he will likely need to be nearly perfect to beat the Colts.
Thomas Jones was the star of the regular season, but the playoffs have belonged to rookie Shonn Greene. His combination of power and breakaway speed make him a constant threat to go the distance whenever he touches the ball. The Colts' smallish defense isn't built to handle the heavy dose of Greene and Thomas that it will see.
Braylon Edwards has the size and speed to be special, but he has created serious doubt about the reliability of his hands. TE Dustin Keller is the most dependable guy here, and Sanchez will look for him in the end zone. Otherwise, this isn't a real strength and the Jets won't ask Sanchez to do much with his arm.
After a dominant day run-blocking vs. the Chargers, there's every reason to believe New York's offensive line will have another strong performance vs. a defensive front that features smaller, quicker players. The key will be for OTs Damien Woody and D'Brickashaw Ferguson to handle the Colts' quick and talented pass-rushers.
DE Shaun Ellis broke his hand on the first play vs. San Diego. He'll wear a cast and be available. Mike Devito will probably continue to replace Ellis on first and second down as he did vs. the Chargers. With no running threat from Indy, this group should be able to focus heavily on rushing the passer.
Outside linebackers Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas need to bring as much heat as possible, because that's the Jets' best hope for success. Inside linebackers David Harris and Bart Scott will be part of the creative blitz package that the Jets will unleash on Manning. They'll also see to it that the Colts get nothing going on the ground.
Through two playoff games, Darrelle Revis is living up to his billing as the best CB in the NFL. He has done an excellent job of keeping top receivers in check. In addition, he's making big plays. FS Kerry Rhodes and SS Jim Leonhard are big hitters and playmakers, but they'll have their hands full with Clark.
As the Chargers learned the hard way, poor kicking can be deadly in the playoffs. The Jets don't have that concern with Jay Feely. He also gives them a reliable backup to solid P Steve Weatherford. Brad Smith, who also is featured in the Wildcat formations, is dangerous on kickoff returns. Jerricho Cotchery is solid returning punts.
Rex Ryan has quickly become the national media darling of the postseason. Reporters love his unguarded comments and they're making extensive use of his bold predictions and funny one-liners. The guy also can coach. He had his team ready to play its best vs. the Chargers and put together an outstanding defensive game plan to stifle a high-powered offense.
There's no doubting this team anymore. The Jets have proven that they do, indeed, belong here and are good enough to go the distance. After pounding the Bengals, they had no problem competing with a so-called elite opponent. They're physical and fearless. Even if the Jets don't win, the Colts will know they were in a game.
Peyton Manning didn't show any signs of rust vs. Baltimore. He looked exactly like the guy who performed well enough to win a fourth NFL MVP award. His greatest challenge will be handling the Jets' aggressive blitzing. Manning is vulnerable against pressure up the middle, but it's hard to see him not coming up big in this game.
The Colts were terrible at running the ball during the regular season, and nothing has changed so far in the playoffs. The Colts, led by Joseph Addai's 23 yards on 11 carries, averaged 1.7 yards per carry vs. the NFL's third-ranked defense. They aren't likely to do any better vs. the league's top-ranked unit, or even try. This is a passing team, period.
Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark form as dominant a pass-catching duo as any in the NFL. Wayne should hold his own vs. an outstanding secondary. Clark is going to present headaches because he has the size, strength and athleticism to deal with safeties who try to get physical. Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie also will make an impact.
The Colts don't even pretend to muscle up and run the football. What center Jeff Saturday and his linemates do best is keep Manning well protected for the many times he will drop back and throw. The Colts allowed an NFL-low 13 sacks in the regular season. The challenge for this group will be to correctly anticipate the Jets' exotic blitzing.
This group doesn't have the size or the strength to effectively deal with the league's best running game. If the Jets run the ball well enough, they'll be able to keep the Colts' front seven on its collective heels. But there will be some situations where DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can turn up the heat.
The Colts will rely on the considerable quickness and playmaking skills of MLB Gary Brackett, WLB Clint Session to deal with the Jets' outstanding running game. There's little hope of shutting down Greene and Jones, but containment is possible. The linebackers will also be part of creating coverages designed to confuse Sanchez.
FS Antoine Bethea and SS Melvin Bullitt have emerged as two of the NFL's better players at their respective positions. They should do an effective job of minimizing the Jets' most reliable pass-catcher, Keller. They'll also do what they can to try and prevent Greene and Jones from making game-breaking runs. The Colts' corners shouldn't be challenged too much.
It would be easy to assume the Colts would have been nervous about entering the playoffs without Adam Vinatieri, who is recovering from knee surgery. But they weren't, thanks to Matt Stover, who was money on both of his field goal attempts vs. Baltimore. Rookie P Pat McAfee did a solid job in his first playoff game.
Jim Caldwell felt as much pressure as any coach entering the postseason. His part in the decision to pass on perfection and rest Peyton Manning and other starters through the final two games of the season set him up for heavy ridicule if the Colts had lost to the Ravens. But he had his team focused to play its best.
The Colts played with a purpose vs. Baltimore. Even if all of the players didn't agree with the decision not to go for 16-0, they certainly performed as if they wanted to take some of that intense heat off of Caldwell and team president Bill Polian. Peyton Manning is on fire, and that's a problem for even a great defense.