What's at stake?
If the Jets win, their unbelievable journey will have reached the final possible stop: Super Bowl XLIV in Miami on Feb. 7. This barely more than a month after the team thought its postseason chances were finished, only to have a new life and win four straight games, including playoff upsets over Cincinnati and San Diego. They would either get the Saints, which would be a rematch of their Oct. 4 loss in New Orleans, or take on the Vikings and old friend Brett Favre. It would be the team's first Super Bowl appearance in 41 years, providing their starved fan base with something that seemed unthinkable after the Dec. 20 last-minute loss to Atlanta.
If the Jets lose, they'll obviously be disappointed, but there's no shame in saying they were the AFC's runner-up despite having a rookie quarterback and a rookie head coach. The Jets would finish the season with an 11-8 record and have the foundation laid for another potential deep run next year since their top-ranked defense will have had a full season and two training camps to learn the scheme. Sanchez would also have a season under his belt and the Jets will probably loosen the reins next season. But general manager Mike Tannenbaum has some tough financial decisions to make and it will be interesting to see how the offseason shakes out.
3 players the Jets have to stop:
QB Peyton Manning: Santa Claus can't help out now. The four-time NFL MVP won't be getting pulled in the third quarter this time around. The only way the Jets won't see him on the field is if they knock him out with an injury. Manning threw for 192 yards in his two-plus quarters of action Dec. 27, but was held without a touchdown. The Jets did throw him off his game a bit. Five times he had a receiver open in one-on-one coverage and he misfired on each. He's nearly impossible to sack, but the Jets must get a few hits on him to move him off his spot and make him uncomfortable.
WR Reggie Wayne: The Colts' go-to receiver caught three passes for 33 yards in the first meeting between these two teams and he and Manning just couldn't seem to get into a rhythm, partly because of lockdown cornerback Darrelle Revis doing his thing. The four-time Pro Bowler had his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season and ranks second in franchise history in receptions (676) and yards (9,393), and his 52 touchdowns since 2004 ranks fifth in the league. Wayne and Manning have hooked up for completions 668 times, the second-highest total in NFL history.
DE Dwight Freeney: The speedy eighth-year Syracuse grad got a couple of gift sacks in his brief cameo against the Jets last month, although neither were the fault of left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Freeney is a pass-rushing specialist, forming a formidable tandem with fellow defensive end Robert Mathis to wreak havoc up front. He racked up 13 1/2 sacks this season, his sixth season of double digits. He's also very adept at creating turnovers, leading the NFL in forced fumbles since 2002 with 36.
3 Jets who have to play well:
QB Mark Sanchez: The rookie quarterback is about to play in the biggest game of his young life, but claimed he's more excited than nervous. He can become the first rookie quarterback to win a conference championship game since the merger and be the first rookie QB to play in a Super Bowl if he can lead the Jets to a victory. The suddenly superstitious Sanchez (notice that weird beard?) has completed 24-for-38 for 282 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the postseason. But there's a good chance he'll need to throw for at least 200 yards for the Jets to have a real shot at hanging with the Colts.
RB Shonn Greene: Quickly turning into a well-known weapon, the rookie has burst onto the national scene and supplanted veteran Thomas Jones as the Jets' featured back because of his combination of power and breakaway speed. He leads the NFL in rushing this postseason with 263 yards and two touchdowns on 44 carries. He's already racked up the two longest runs in franchise postseason history, topping the 39-yard touchdown run he had in the wild-card win over Cincinnati with a 53-yard score against the Chargers a week ago. With the Jets looking to control time of possession, they'll surely ride the young legs of Green hard in this one.
S Kerry Rhodes: Although he banged his right knee in practice Thursday, he was fine and was a full go in Friday's final practice and the Jets are going to need him to play as well as he did last week. He had a big strip sack of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and also stuck recovered a critical onside kick with 2:12 remaining. Rhodes also did a good job checking tight end Antonio Gates in the second half after the Jets went back to more of a man-to-man scheme and junked the zone they had been playing. He'll probably be matched up with tight end Dallas Clark a lot Sunday.
The wild card
The Jets handled the Qualcomm Stadium crowd last week, which veteran left guard Alan Faneca said was the loudest he's ever heard at that stadium. But the noise factor could play a role in what should be a boisterous Lucas Oil Stadium. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said he has a saying, "Keep your poise in the noise." So the Jets brought in the heavy artillery this week to prepare for what should be an off-the-charts decibel level. They had 14 speakers blasting in Friday's practice, pumping the likes of Trick Daddy's "Let's Go!" on one side of their indoor practice field while artificial crowd noise blared on the other side. Handling the noise is a key on offense, otherwise it could lead to false starts and put the Jets in uncomfortable second- and third-and-longs.
How the Jets win
The Jets' formula for success has been rather simple lately, and they're going to have to follow the same blueprint if they plan on hoisting the AFC Championship trophy on the turf field during the postgame celebration. They must ride the NFL's No. 1 rush offense and control the clock to keep the Colts' offense off the field. The Jets' top-ranked defense must contain Manning and that Colts' aerial attack and not give up the huge, backbreaking chunks of yardage. The Jets are also 10-0 when they win the turnover battle. So they need to be on the right end of that category again for them to have a legitimate shot at pulling off their third consecutive upset.
How the Jets lose
They can't get off to a slow start and fall behind by a large margin because they aren't built to play catch-up. It's imperative for them to take care of the ball and don't turn it over multiple times. The Jets can ill afford to give the Colts a short field or extra possessions because Indianapolis' high-scoring offense thrives on cashing in those turnovers into points. If they can't hold the Colts below 20 points and keep Manning's receiving corps in check, it's going to be tough for them to pull it out and capture the AFC title.