This is what players call a "hat and T-shirt game." Winner gets to play for hardware.
I'm finding it quite challenging to put the words "Jets" and "Super Bowl" in the same sentence. But that's what's at stake at Lucas Oil Stadium. We've already this week addressed the aftermath of the dramatic win in San Diego. We've reviewed the Vegas line, win probability and key stats. And we've even taken on the key antagonist in the Jets' "us vs. the world" mentality that's served them so well since Christmas.
Let's begin an extensive analysis of this championship game with Peyton Manning and the Colts' offense versus the Jets' "Global Swarming" defense.
When the Colts have the ball: A big subplot this week is that Manning has an advantage because he's seen the Jets in Week 16 and then played Jets-lite (i.e. the Ravens) last week. But why isn't that an advantage for the Jets? They have tape on what Manning wants to do against certain looks and can now force him to do something else, presumably less desirable. Isn't this like in basketball where the team sees what the offense wants to do and then calls the timeout to force them to change that?
Indy has a very simple offense that employs a three-wide look to foil 3-4 defenses. The three wide receivers force a safety to cover a slot receiver, creating a mismatch. I believe the Jets should should switch to a 2-4-5 defense, especially with Shaun Ellis battling a broken hand and thus playing with a cumbersome cast. Generally, a team will run you silly if you try that, but the Colts' running game stinks (30th in rushing yards per play).
The other reasons 3-4 teams stubbornly stick with this formation (and remember, you can't change it on passing downs because the Colts don't huddle) is that they don't want to take pass rushers off the field. But the Jets blitz with the small guys anyway. Give the Colts that amoeba look the Jets showed often last week in San Diego -- nine or 10 guys standing at the snap and walking around, refusing to declare their intention (who is rushing and who is dropping). Manning will be ready for this -- he's ready for everything -- but this seems the most direct path to defensive success.
The other issue is how the Jets should employ Darrelle Revis, the only corner in the league subject to this sort of debate. Essentially, do you want to shut down one guy totally, say, Reggie Wayne, or shut down a different guy on every play? I don't know the answer, but I suspect against a guy like Manning, it's of marginal significance. Personally, I'd dare Manning to beat me first with his running game and then with his inexperienced receivers.
When the Jets have the ball: The conventional wisdom also says that the Colts just faced a Jets-like offense and smothered it. But New York has better receivers than the Ravens, a better offensive line and a runner who combines power and explosion in Shonn Greene. New York also has a healthy and mobile quarterback in Mark Sanchez; Joe Flacco has been hobbled by a bad hip for weeks.
This Colts' defense is significantly different than what we've grown accustomed to under Tony Dungy. First-year coordinator Larry Coyer has Indy blitzing frequently. Against Baltimore, the Ravens were essentially shut out after driving 87 yards for a field goal on the opening drive.
Are the Colts' unimpressive defensive rankings unduly influenced by those two late games where they rested starters (even though they only rested the starters for about 4 1/2 quarters)? I went back to my defensive rankings from mid-December and found this Colts unit to be average- to-below average in yards per rush (15th), red-zone possessions (19th), third-down percentage (30th) and sack percentage (19th). This is an average unit. Ignore the hype about their great team speed. All NFL defenses are fast.
Prediction time: Sanchez is going to have to make three or four big plays. The running game is going to have to pop one or two big runs. And the defense or special teams is going to need to generate a score or put the offense in easy scoring range at least once. That's five to seven big plays to match the half-dozen or so you know Peyton Manning is going to make, sooner or later.
I think the Sanchez part of his victory equation is going to come up short. I was shocked to see that the Jets finished with only seven fewer passes of 25 or more yards than the Colts, on far fewer attempts. But taking the chance on big plays means taking risks, and the Jets are not going to do that unless they have to -- by which point it will be too late. They're most likely to come up a play or two short. Perhaps Manning is very subpar, which he has been at times in the postseason -- 8-8 career, 24 touchdowns, 18 picks, 85.2 quarterback rating. But he hasn't had bad games since 2007 against, of course, a Rex Ryan defense (39.6 quarterback rating in a win against Baltimore in that Indy Super Bowl year). Colts 20, Jets 17.