SAN DIEGO -- Who would have ever predicted that in Week 16, when Peyton Manning was told to exit that so-called meaningless game against the New York Jets and the Indianapolis Colts were being booed by their fans for not wanting to be perfect, that it would all lead to this?
In yanking Manning and other starters in the third quarter with their team ahead by five points, the Colts' decision-makers were looking to preserve starters for the postseason. In the process, the Jets rallied for a 29-15 victory that set them up for the playoff-clinching win they got the following week against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Here are five key questions surrounding the AFC title game:
1. Did the Colts make a mistake?
The Jets aren't just hot. They're sizzling. They've now won four consecutive games. They pounded the Bengals in the wild-card round at Cincinnati. And, with the league's top-ranked defense, they were able to shut down one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL and force enough mistakes that made a difference in a close game. Like the Chargers, the Colts thrive on their ability to score. Like the Chargers, they aren't a particularly physical bunch.
2. What can the Jets take from the previous game?
Jets coach Rex Ryan and several of his players say there are plenty of things that they can take from that previous game with the Colts that will be useful in their preparation for Sunday's rematch. Maybe so. The Colts did have their starters on the field for three quarters. Manning was giving a full effort. However, you have to wonder just how much true game-planning the Colts did on either side of the ball. After all, they had clinched a No. 1 playoff seed two weeks earlier, so they clearly were mindful that they were being scouted closely by potential playoff opponents.
3. Is Sanchez ready for the pressure of a title game?
Can a rookie quarterback possibly be prepared for what it means to play for the conference title? Definitely. The kid is pretty much numb to pressure. He shows excellent poise, even when things aren't going well. If pressure hasn't gotten the better of him to this point, it probably never will. When Sanchez struggles, it isn't because he is feeling too much pressure. He struggles because he's a rookie and there still is plenty for him to learn.
4. Can Manning have success against the Jets' D?
Manning and his high-flying passing attack can have success against the top-ranked defense in the league, but it won't be easy. Manning will need to be patient and avoid being frustrated as he tries to get a handle on the Jets' wide variety of blitz combinations. He also has to avoid allowing himself to be deceived by the many covergae and blitz disguises the Jets will throw his way. Manning has pretty much seen it all. He should be able to trust his experience and his receivers, and have his usual success.
5. Can the Colts ground the Jets' running game?
The Jets also featured the league's top-ranked rushing game. Meanwhile, the Colts defense ranked 24th in the league against the run. While this appears to be a mismatch, it probably won't matter. The Colts have been on the wrong end of the time-of-possession battle before, and it hasn't prevented them from being successful. Remember when they had the ball for all of 15 minutes in that Monday night victory at Miami? If the Colts lose, it likely won't be because their defense gave up too many rushing yards. It will likely be because Manning couldn't deliver enough big plays and enough points.