Sore shoulder and all, Mark Sanchez delivered key throws when the Jets needed them the most in the wild-card victory at Indianapolis. His three playoff wins are the most in the history of the franchise, putting him ahead of Joe Namath. Sanchez can't let Bill Belichick fool him with coverages. He needs to be aggressive, but must take his shots selectively as he did vs. the Colts.
LaDainian Tomlinson looked like he still had some juice left with his 99-yard, two-touchdown rushing/receiving performance against the Colts. Shonn Greene answered the call to step up in the playoffs with 70 yards on 19 carries. Both need to make substantial running contributions in this game to help thwart the Patriots' efforts to force Sanchez into mistakes, which is much easier to do on third-and-long.
Braylon Edwards has become a consistent playmaker who is more than capable of having success against the NFL's 30th-ranked pass defense. He made a strong statement with his spectacular grab that set up the winning field goal at Indianapolis. Santonio Holmes' late-game drop notwithstanding, the Jets got strong work from this group. Tight end Dustin Keller, a go-to target, helped more as a blocker against the Colts.
In the second half of the Colts' game, this group showed the dominance it lacked for much of the regular season. Center Nick Mangold and his linemates blew open holes that allowed the Jets to control the tempo and, from the start, gave Sanchez excellent protection. It will take an even stronger effort vs. nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Losing tackle Damien Woody (Achilles) is a blow.
This looks like the weakest area of an otherwise stellar defense. Anchored by nose tackle Sione Pouha and with solid play from defensive end Mike DeVito, the line was solid against the run in the wild-card game. But the Colts aren't exactly known for their ground attack. Where it fell short was rushing the passer, a big problem against Peyton Manning and a potentially larger one against Brady.
There's no getting around the disappointment that this group didn't put much heat on Manning. The Jets rely on their linebackers to get pressure, and they need to rise to the occasion. One sack by outside linebacker Calvin Pace won't cut it. Still, inside linebacker David Harris made numerous tackles all over the field, and Bart Scott came up with a big stop late in the game.
Brady didn't throw anywhere near cornerback Darrelle Revis in Week 13. Given the Patriots' success that night and Revis' exceptional performance against the Colts, that's unlikely to change in this game. That means Antonio Cromartie, who struggled badly when the teams last met, must come up with a huge performance or Brady will torch him the entire game.
With his winning field goal at Indianapolis, Nick Folk has earned his place among all-time clutch Jets kickers. That capped a solid performance for the special-teams unit. With Brad Smith injured, Cromartie came up big with a kickoff return that helped set up Folk's game-winner. Punter Steve Weatherford can make Brady's job more difficult with good directional kicks.
Maybe Rex Ryan can't help himself. Every time he stands in front of a microphone, he feels compelled to antagonize the opposition. In the end, his negative comments about Brady's work ethic won't matter nearly as much as his ability to devise a scheme that will force the near-flawless QB into blunders. Ryan also needs to get his team to believe 45-3 was a fluke.
Cocky or not, this team has won three playoff games in Ryan's two seasons at the helm. Winning at Indianapolis was an enormous achievement, even if it was helped by the fact the Colts were missing several key players and Jim Caldwell's bizarre decision to call a timeout that helped set up the winning field goal. But the Jets still aren't in the Patriots' class.
Tom Brady had better numbers in 2007, but this probably is the best season of his career. He has the offense working with machine-like efficiency as he gets maximum production from every available pass-catcher. Rex Ryan can take his shots at Brady's work ethic, but the results -- especially with so much youth in his supporting cast -- would strongly suggest they are without merit.
You can bet Danny Woodhead will run with a vengeance against the team that cut him during the preseason, just as he did in the Monday night mauling of the Jets. His lack of size makes it hard for defenses to find him. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Woodhead might lack star power, but are capable of burning opponents that focus all of their attention on stopping Brady.
Since trading away Randy Moss early in the season, the Patriots have mostly used a short-to-intermediate passing attack driven by Wes Welker's crafty route running and heavy involvement of talented rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. It's hard for the Jets, whose blitz-happy defense often puts them in man-to-man coverage, to handle. Deion Branch's return after four-plus seasons in Seattle has been seamless.
Besides allowing only 25 sacks and giving Brady ample time to be brilliant, this unit did plenty to legitimize New England's running threat. The line's turning point came when guard Logan Mankins returned after missing nearly half the season because of a contractual holdout and played well enough to make the Pro Bowl. Tackles Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer are keys to handling the Jets' pass rush.
It isn't exactly a one-man show, but a combination of injuries around him and his immense talent make nose tackle Vince Wilfork as critical to this position as Brady is to QB. Wilfork, who could either tie up blockers or line up at defensive end, must be at his best to help slow down Tomlinson and Greene. The Jets did have 152 rushing yards in Week 13.
Inside linebacker Jerod Mayo is a tackling machine that thrives when Wilfork is able control things up front. Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, who was slowed by injuries in the regular season, is the Patriots' most effective pass rusher. He needs to cause some discomfort for Sanchez that the Colts failed to produce. The same is true for Rob Ninkovich, who has shown he can make plays.
If there is one reason for the Patriots to hold their collective breath, this is it. They're about to see how the youngsters back here can hold up under playoff pressure. Through the first half of the season, their coverage was disastrous. It has improved significantly since. With standout rookie cornerback Devin McCourty leading the way, this group's development shouldn't leave Sanchez drooling too much.
Kicker Shayne Graham has hit all 12 of his field-goal attempts since replacing injured Stephen Gostkowski, but he did struggle in the playoffs with Cincinnati last year and doesn't have great range. Another concern is Graham's lack of distance on kickoffs. He might do some squib-kicking to help minimize the returns of Cromartie or Smith. Brandon Tate is a return threat for New England.
Once again, Ryan talks about a "personal" matchup with an opponent. This time, it's Bill Belichick, whom Ryan readily admits outcoached him in Week 13. But after only two seasons as a head coach, is Ryan really in any position to equate anything he's done with that of one of the greatest coaches in NFL history? The Patriots' bye should only make this gap wider.
After marching through most of the regular season with the look of the NFL's best team, it's hard to see it all come to a screeching halt here. The Patriots scored more than 30 points in each of their last eight games. Their defense doesn't look like a liability anymore. And they showed, with that beat-down on Monday Night Football, how they play when they're angry.