Mark Sanchez's throwing shoulder is so sore, he didn't even attempt a pass in a Week 17 cameo appearance against Buffalo. He has gained confidence in each game, but you still wonder how much of the offense he is trusted to handle. Against the quick-striking Colts, the Jets can't afford to rely solely on their run game. They'll need some big passes of their own.
LaDainian Tomlinson, who received a much-needed rest last week, is slowing down. But his receiving skills are still valuable. Shonn Greene hasn't been the force the Jets were expecting after his strong finish last season. It's time for him to step up. WR Brad Smith is a Wildcat running threat. The Jets will look to pound a smallish Colts defense that is vulnerable against the run.
TE Dustin Keller leads a balanced passing attack that will likely make him the featured target against the Colts' zone coverage. Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes provide big-play capability, although it remains to be seen how effective Sanchez can be throwing deep. Tomlinson, who is frequently called upon to catch passes out of the backfield, could be busy trying to slow down Indy's pass rush.
This group isn't as dominant as it was a year ago, which is mainly why the Jets' running game doesn't consistently overpower opponents. Still, the game plan will be to try and outmuscle the Colts up front. That will place the onus on C Nick Mangold to open holes inside. The return of T Damien Woody from knee surgery should help vs. the speed of Indianapolis' pass rush.
Given how well Manning handled the Jets' various blitz combinations in the 2009 AFC Championship Game, it is incumbent upon DE Shaun Ellis and the rest of this unit to produce their share of pressure. Otherwise, it's too easy for Manning to take advantage of the Jets' man-to-man coverage. The Colts' poor running game should allow the line to focus most of its attention on pass-rushing.
ILB David Harris leads a corps that is largely responsible for the fact the Jets' defense finished the season ranked third overall and third against the run. They hope to provide a reality check to Addai and Co. OLBs Bryan Thomas and Calvin Pace, who were instrumental in the team's 40-sack season, are the key to the highly difficult chore of rattling Manning.
Rex Ryan and the rest of the Jets' decision-makers have to be encouraged about their defense's ability to hold up against the Colts' passing attack much better than it did in last year's AFC title game. That's because CB Darrelle Revis isn't the only player capable of succeeding in one-on-one coverage. The addition of CB Antonio Cromartie adds a dimension the Jets lacked a year ago.
K Nick Folk has been reliable down the stretch. He will need to be in top form in what figures to be a close, competitive game that could very well be decided by a late field goal. P Steve Weatherford does a nice job of pinning opponents deep in their own territory. Brad Smith is always a threat to go the distance on kickoff returns.
Rex Ryan's boastfulness and general outlandish behavior create unnecessary distractions. There's an argument that the more heat he puts on himself, the less there is on his players. But the players feel it, too. The offensive scheme also is geared toward minimizing pressure on Sanchez. Ryan is determined to get revenge for losing the chess match to Manning in last year's AFC Championship Game.
This team doesn't have the look of the Super Bowl club Ryan has insisted it is since before the start of the season. With his bum shoulder and the need for more development, Sanchez simply isn't playing well enough to carry the Jets that far. But they do have what it takes to beat a Colts club with seemingly too many eggs in the Manning basket.
Maybe Peyton Manning didn't do enough to win a fifth MVP award, but he did plenty to get the Colts into the playoffs. Injuries to his key targets have forced him to carry even more of the offensive load. There was a stretch when Manning seemed to buckle, but he has regained his razor-sharp form. He relishes the chance to exploit the Jets' highly aggressive defense.
Although running is hardly their strong point, they have improved in this area, especially after getting Joseph Addai back from a neck injury and with the emergence of Donald Brown. Dominic Rhodes' return also has helped. However, the Colts have no illusions about their offensive identity. They are a pass-first team, and won't likely try to do much to test one of the NFL's best run-stuffing units.
Season-ending injuries have taken away three of Manning's most reliable pass-catchers: TE Dallas Clark, Anthony Gonzalez and Austin Collie. Amazingly, Manning has managed to keep the passing game humming. He still has Reggie Wayne, who will be challenged in his matchup with CB Darrelle Revis, and Pierre Garcon. The biggest difference-maker could very well be Jacob Tamme, who has been impressive as Clark's replacement.
It's the same formula as always: C Jeff Saturday and his linemates specialize in trying to keep Manning upright while he continually drops back to throw. The chore figures to be a bit harder against the Jets' 3-4 defense, which uses a wide variety of blitzing and shifting meant to keep the quarterback and pass-protectors constantly guessing about the direction from where the pressure will come.
For the season, the stats say the Colts can be trampled on the ground. But lately, they've done a better job of stopping the run, and it is mainly because of the work of 300-pound DTs Fili Moala and Antonio Johnson, who have more than held their own vs. strong rushing attacks down the stretch. DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are still dynamic pass-rushers.
Besides the stout presence of Moala and Johnson, the Colts also are getting some solid contributions from this group. Gary Brackett is healthy, and has played exceptionally well through the latter part of the season. The Colts also are getting strong play from a pair of youngsters, Kavell Conner and Pat Angerer. Against the Jets, they'll need their linebackers to be at their swarming best.
It's hard to determine just how comfortable the Jets feel about putting the ball in the air, but they likely will be tempted to do so. This, by far, is Indy's greatest weakness, thanks to injuries that have forced backups of backups to assume key roles. The best hope for this unit is that S Antoine Bethea can help keep Keller from doing too much damage.
K Adam Vinatieri is as good a money player as you'll find anywhere this time of year. With four Super Bowl rings, he laughs at postseason pressure. Second-year P Pat McAfee is mostly solid, and has the benefit of having already been through a Super Bowl run. Rhodes gives the Colts a decent threat on kickoff returns while Blair White is steady handling punts.
It's easy to simply say that Manning is solely responsible for the Colts' ability to overcome the many injuries this club has had to deal with. But give some credit to Jim Caldwell and his assistant coaches for their role in keeping things together with a roster that has included more than a dozen players who weren't with the team in the opening week of the season.
You never want to pick against Manning under any circumstances, let alone in the postseason. But you wonder when having so much of the team's success dependent on his consistent brilliance will run its course. Even the best quarterbacks need help, and so much of his has been taken away by injuries. But Manning just might be able to will the Colts to one more win.