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Jets playoff hopes rest on undefeated Colts

Quarterback Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York

Quarterback Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets gestures on the field against the Buffalo Bills. (December 3, 2009) Credit: Getty Images

What's at Stake:

If the Jets win, their quest for a postseason berth remains alive. They’ll still need to end the season with a win against the Bengals next week, and there’s even a way they can control their own destiny if they win today and certain teams lose. That’s the long-term effects of a victory. In the short term, a win would end the Colts’ remarkable 23-game regular-season winning streak and hand them their first loss in 15 games this season.

If the Jets lose, they’re pretty much done and will have wasted another one of the seemingly nine lives they’ve received over the last month or so. They’ll likely look back on last Sunday’s brutal 10-7 loss to Atlanta as the game that cost them a legitimate shot at vaulting themselves into the playoffs. Then again, if they can’t find a way to beat the Colts, they’ll be added to the club with the last 23 teams who’ve been unable to knock off Peyton Manning & Co in the regular season.

3 players the Jets have to stop:

QB Peyton Manning: The three-time NFL MVP is having another one of his amazing seasons and could be in the midst of his best campaign if you ask Colts head coach Jim Caldwell. Manning is tied with New OrleansDrew Brees for the league lead in touchdown passes with 33 and is tops in overall yardage (4,213), yards per game (300.9), completions (365) and attempts (532). He’s completed a whopping 68.6 percent of his attempts an has only been sacked 10 times in 542 dropbacks.

TE Dallas Clark: The seventh-year pro is one of only two tight ends among the league’s top 20 in receiving yardage, joining San Diego’s Antonio Gates. His 997 receiving yards places him 16th, but he’s tied for sixth in receptions with 89 and his 10 touchdowns are good enough to tie him for fourth place, leaving him one behind the leaders. He can hurt you by catching short passes and he can also go deep, as he did earlier this season when he scored on an 80-yard touchdown.

DE Dwight Freeney: Although the speedy eighth-year Syracuse grad probably won’t see extensive duty because they’re saving him for the playoff run, the Colts will likely be using him in third-down situations where he can simply rush the passer and do what he does best. Freeney is fifth in the league in sacks with 11.5 and registered one in two consecutive games before playing in a limited capacity against the Jaguars in Indianapolis’ last game on Dec. 17.

3 Jets who have to play well:

QB Mark Sanchez: The rookie quarterback has taken a few steps back of late and isn’t making nearly the same smart decisions that he did earlier in the season. He’s falling into a nasty pattern of not learning from his mistakes and trying to do a bit too much, especially at the game’s outset. He’s eyeing his receivers too much and isn’t checking the ball down enough to his running backs in the flats nor is he getting the ball to his hot reads when his first options are blanketed. Against a team like the Colts, the last thing he can do is turn the ball over and give Indianapolis more offensive possessions.

RB Thomas Jones: The Jets are going to need lengthy, ball-controlling type drives to keep the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands, so that means Jones needs to run for at least triple digits for the Jets to have a legit shot. Jones, the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher with 1,219 yards, has run the ball at least 20 times in eight of his last nine games and gobbled up 99 yards of more in three of his previous contests. But he also had a critical unnecessary roughness penalty in the second half against Atlanta last week that ended up backing the Jets out of field goal range, just one of the many maddening plays down the stretch that wound up costing the Jets dearly. Today would be a good time to make amends.

CB Darrelle Revis: The Pro Bowl cornerback was handed the Curtis Martin MVP award this week as the team’s most valuable player, and it’s easy to see why given the way he’s shut down some of the NFL’s top receivers. The Jets will need him to continue that trend today since he’ll likely be lined up on Reggie Wayne, who’s second in the league in receiving yards with 1,210. Wayne had 132 yards and a touchdown on five receptions in the Colts’ last outing, so he’s coming off his best game since mid November. Revis hasn’t faced Wayne before and he’ll have to be on top of his game from the opening snap against the three-time Pro Bowler.

The wild card:

Colts first-year coach Jim Caldwell has been coy about how long his starters will play -- if at all. Indianapolis isn’t focused on finishing the season undefeated, so there’s not much incentive for Caldwell to go with his key players long unless he simply wants to keep them from getting too rusty going into the postseason. The injury risk is always a factor, too, so if things aren’t going the Colts way and they are getting beat up a bit much for Caldwell’s liking, he could always yank them and turn the game into a preseason contest from the Colts‘ perspective.

How the Jets win: It all starts with Peyton Manning and they must find a way to get to the Super Bowl XLI MVP and rattle him a bit. Of course, not many teams have been able to do that and Manning is very adept at avoiding the pass rush. But they can’t simply sit back and let him pick the defense apart. Winning the turnover battle is also paramount, as is having a balanced attack on offense and controlling the clock with long sustained drives.

How the Jets lose: If they get off to a slow start and turn the ball over multiple times, it’s curtains. It bears repeating: the last thing the Jets can do is give the Colts a short field or extra possessions because Indianapolis’ potent offense will capitalize nearly every time. The Jets aren’t built to win shootouts, so if the Colts get rolling on offense and throw up more than 20 points, it could be a long afternoon. The Jets also can’t get caught up in the “how long will so-and-so play?” questions because if they take the Colts’ backups lightly, they might get burned.

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