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Conference title game is where the pressure is really at

Marques Douglas of the New York Jets celebrates

Marques Douglas of the New York Jets celebrates after recovering a fumble for a touchdown in the second half against the Indianapolis Colts. (December 27, 2009) Credit: Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS - As big a game as the Super Bowl may be, some believe there's more pressure in conference championship games because it's so hard to take the last step necessary to get there.

Even Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, a four-time NFL MVP, learned the hard way by throwing four interceptions in the 2003 AFC Championship Game at New England before winning a Super Bowl three seasons later.

Now the Jets have advanced further than most anyone could have imagined and will face Manning and the Colts for the AFC title Sundayat Lucas Oil Stadium. They won impressively on the road at Cincinnati and San Diego, but the pressure that awaits in Indianapolis will be much greater.

Two Jets, defensive lineman Marques Douglas and safety Jim Leonhard, experienced it last season in Baltimore's losing effort at Pittsburgh. "Playing in the conference championship last year, there is a lot of pressure," Douglas said after Friday's practice. "You can't make mistakes. Your mistakes can cost this team our bid to go to the Super Bowl, and nobody wants to be in that situation."

Leonhard said the Ravens weren't especially nervous because they were going against a division rival for the third time that season and knew what to expect. But generally, he said pressure is greater in the conference title game "because all you want to do your entire career is get to that Super Bowl, experience it and win a Super Bowl.''

He added, "All of a sudden, you get one game away, and it's right there. All we need to do is win this game and everything you play for is right at your fingertips. Guys could be a little tighter than even the Super Bowl."

Guard Alan Faneca, who won a Super Bowl ring four seasons ago with the Steelers, said the intensity level goes up the further a team advances in the playoffs. He said teams that "play not to lose" because of the pressure are more likely to lose.

"I've seen it, yes, in other teams I've been on," Faneca said. "But for the most part, this team has been pretty steady, pretty level for the last month or so."

Tackle Damien Woody, who played for two Super Bowl champions with New England, said great preparation relieves pressure by inspiring confidence. "With our preparation and the way our practices have been going, I think we're a very loose football team," he said. "Maybe guys might be jittery a little bit. I'm jittery before every game. But if your preparation is right, you don't have to worry about being all nervous."

Cornerback Lito Sheppard was with Philadelphia five seasons ago when the Eagles finally won the NFC title game after two previous failures. "When we finally got over the hump, it was more of a relief," he said.

But in this case, Sheppard suggested there might be more pressure on Manning and the Colts because expectations are much higher for them. "We know this is definitely the toughest roadblock ahead of us," Sheppard said of the Colts. "We definitely feel like if we can get past this one, we'll take care of the next one when we get there."

If there's one player the Jets have to worry about, you figure it would be rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez. But Woody said, "If anybody gets nervous, it's the veterans because we understand how special these moments are and you don't want to mess it up. Sanchez might think it's supposed to be this way. He was used to success at USC."

You can't always tell by outward appearances, but since pulling out of his midseason swoon, Sanchez has embraced the "game manager" role and his learning curve has accelerated. "I would rather be here studying and asking questions next week because I don't want to go home," Sanchez said. "This is too cool. This is too fun. You might as well."

No doubt, that's cool with his teammates.

New York Sports