There’s an immense hump Rex Ryan and his Jets must climb on Saturday night in Indianapolis if they are to realize their well-documented Super Bowl dreams (8 p.m., NBC).
It’s almost poetic for the Jets (11-5), beginning this year’s journey to Super Bowl XLV on the same field where last year’s ended — the Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium. Last January’s 30-17 loss in the AFC Championship Game defined the Jets’ offseason strategy. Gang Green made aggressive transactions for former Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie and former Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor to strengthen the “organized chaos” defense Peyton Manning routinely decimates.
With Manning at the Colts’ helm, Indianapolis (10-6) will always be a dangerous offensive team. The 13-year quarterback makes a playmaker of any eligible receiver, regardless of the schemes an opposing defense concocts. That’s why the best defense against Manning is a clock-killing offense.
Starting up “War Machine” Greene
The complexion of last year’s AFC Championship game changed drastically when then-rookie running back Shonn Greene was injured early in the second half. The Jets’ 17-13 lead disappeared when Greene was no longer available to pound 4.1 yards per carry. Now healthy and rested after sitting in Week 17, the 226-pound bulldozer should be trusted to power his way through the Colts’ undersized, 25th-ranked run defense. If all three of Indianapolis’ 235-pound starting linebackers — Gary Brackett, Clint Session and Pat Angerer — manage to shed their blockers, they will still need help from the secondary to keep Greene from exploding into the open field.
Lock Manning into ‘Alcrotraz’ on Revis Island
Simply put, the Jets sent a conditional third-round draft pick in 2011 to San Diego for Cromartie because Manning dissected Gang Green’s NFL-best defense a year ago. Colts receivers Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie hauled in 18 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns in the AFC title game, exposing every defensive back not named Darrelle Revis. Flustering Manning is difficult, but making him hesitate shouldn’t be too tough if Revis and Cromartie shift assignments to confuse the matchups and Colts’ option routes.
The Week 17 confidence boost
The Jets defense forced six turnovers against Buffalo last week, and they did it mostly with backup players who had been picked apart during the preseason. Marquice Cole’s five-tackle, two-interception performance could be the boost the second-year corner needed before facing Colts tight end Jacob Tamme and receiver Blair White. Dwight Lowery recorded an interception and is settling in at safety after replacing injured leader Jim Leonhard. And Jason Taylor notched his first sack since Nov. 14. Getting these defenders into a rhythm is critical against Indy’s league-best passing attack.
Set the tone in the zone
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are responsible for 21 of the 30 sacks notched by the Colts’ 13th-ranked pass defense. Their quickness on the edges may force Mark Sanchez into an even quicker release. The second-year quarterback will need to identify his mismatches before the snap and exploit them underneath the Colts’ zone. Since Freeney and Mathis can’t play every down, the short-passing game and rush attack should tire the pass rushers and make the Colts susceptible to deep one-on-one passes, such as last January’s 80-yard touchdown hookup between Sanchez and Braylon Edwards.
Defensive backs, frontward and sideways
Given the Jets’ inconsistent pass rush, Gang Green must avoid blitzing every defender against the Horseshoes’ NFL-best offensive line (only 16 sacks allowed). Without pressure on Manning in the previous playoff matchup, the Jets’ glaring weaknesses were in passes to slot receivers, tight ends and anything a healthy Revis didn’t cover. By overloading the field with defensive backs, the Jets can throw a blanket over Manning’s receivers without worrying about the Colts’ AFC-worst running game. It may not have shown much this year, but the Jets’ sixth-ranked pass defense is the best of all AFC teams currently in the postseason.
Follow Angel Navedo on Twitter: @NamedAngel