FLORHAM PARK, N.J.
Even if it ends Sunday with a loss to the great Peyton Manning, this season will have far exceeded anyone's reasonable expectations for the Jets.
Rookie coach. Rookie quarterback. New system on defense. Who wouldn't consider a run to the AFC Championship Game a terrific year?
No one, that's who. Even Rex Ryan, who boldly predicted his first day on the job that the Jets would meet President Obama one day soon in a White House ceremony honoring the Super Bowl champions, didn't predict it would happen this quickly.
But as crazy as this might have sounded back then - or even now, considering the Colts are favored by more than a touchdown - it's not so ridiculous to think the Jets can pull this thing off.
I think they're going to do it.
A Joe Namath guarantee? Nah. Even Joe Willie didn't want to go that far when he talked with Newsday's Tom Rock the other day. "I know this team can win,'' Namath said. "They've proven that." And he did see a lot of the Super Bowl III champion Jets in Ryan's group, that feeling of "don't tell us we can't do something."
Well, I think the Jets are going to do that something against the Colts. I think they're going to beat them.
Won't be easy, for sure. It never is when Manning is the quarterback. But there is something unique about this team - kind of like the 2007 Giants at this stage of the playoffs.
Back then, it was Eli Manning going on the road to face the venerable Brett Favre at Lambeau Field. Eli had helped the Giants beat Tampa Bay and Dallas, and he outplayed Favre in brutally cold conditions. Two weeks later, the Giants pulled off one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets ever against the 18-0 Patriots.
Now Mark Sanchez will look to pull off a similar stunner against Eli's big brother.
I'm not about to say that Sanchez is ready to out-perform Peyton, because he's not. But if enough goes right around him, and if Sanchez doesn't turn the ball over, there is no reason to think the Jets can't win.
How do they do it? They follow the three-pronged formula that got them this far:
1. They do their best to keep Manning off the field by using their "ground-and-pound" approach. The Jets were the top rushing offense in the NFL, and the emergence of rookie Shonn Greene, with back-to-back 100-yard games, has continued that success in the postseason. With Thomas Jones having had a career year, he remains a threat, even if his carries have declined in the postseason. I have a feeling Jones can be more effective against the Colts, who are more of a speed defense than the Bengals and Chargers are.
2. Use the pressure defense that has been so effective, particularly late in the season. You have to be careful with Manning, because he's almost impossible to sack (10 all season). But the Jets can put pressure on him and force bad throws, even interceptions. There's a very good chance the Jets can make the Colts almost exclusively pass-oriented because they're so good at stopping the run. Indy's rushing offense also has had problems all season.
3. Sanchez remains turnover-free. After a 3-0 start, the kid turned into an interception machine, throwing 14 in his next seven games. But he hasn't turned the ball over in three of his last four games. Cause and effect? Absolutely. With Sanchez still adjusting to the pro game, his biggest job is not throwing touchdown passes in bunches; it's not screwing it up with turnovers. And with the key throws he's made recently in pressure situations, his performance has been just what the Jets have needed.
Ryan admits there's nothing fancy about his old-school, smashmouth approach, and no one would argue that it matches Manning's aerial artistry. But that doesn't mean it's not good enough to keep this playoff roll going and get the Jets back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 41 years.
Unlikely? Absolutely. Impossible? No way. Jets 23, Colts 20.