It was a somber day at the Meadowlands on Sunday as the Jets played a meaningless game in January. Only this year fans found themselves on unfamiliar ground with a playoff berth already secured. With nothing to play for except the elusive 11th win, Rex Ryan sent out the B-team to thrash the Bills.
In a preseason atmosphere New York's Buffalo beatdown may not have meant a great deal in terms of the season, but a few things standout as sights turn toward the playoffs. The defense posted a shutout without the likes of Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie & Shaun Ellis. Gang Green caused six turnovers including four in the final quarter. Rookie Joe Mcknight got his first real chance to tote an NFL rock, putting up 158 yards on the ground and at the very least turned some doubters into listeners.
Brad Smith ran every explicable play out of the 'Seminole' formation and a lot of it worked. Steve Weatherford dropped his 42nd punt inside the 20-yard line, tying an NFL record. And in his 45th career game Vernon Gholston still couldn't get to the quarterback.
But with Brian Brohm's Bills securely defeated New York must now focus on a trip to Indianapolis to face Peyton Manning in a 2009 AFC championship game rematch. Coach Ryan called the matchup "personal," painting Peyton and the Colts as a nemesis. Rightfully so as Manning has handled Ryan's defensive schemes well, with the only defeat in recent memory coming in a week 16 game in which he was pulled.
In the subsequent playoff showdown Manning threw for 377 yards and 3 touchdowns. He exploited Dwight Lowery and Kerry Rhodes consistently while managing Ryan's array of pressure packages. Quarterbacks struggled last season trying to find the open man under the Jets blitz schemes but Manning repeatedly found the open receiver. On 26 plays where New York rushed more than four, Peyton went 16-24 for 269 yards and two touchdowns. On those 26 plays the Jets recorded two sacks.
But the Colts aren't the same team that went to the Super Bowl last season. And neither are the Jets. Much has been made of the drop in the Jets defense since last season with the focus on the secondary and lack of a pass rush. But how bad was the fall? The Jets finished 6th in pass defense, which is exacerbated by them finishing 1st in this category last year. Their run D finished 3rd overall, up from the 8th spot last season. And the missing pass rush recorded 40 sacks, good enough to be 8th in the league.
Stats can be very misleading come playoff time, but the extra time afforded by resting key players allowed New York to get a little bit healthier. Damien Woody is expected to play Saturday, an important factor in hoping to contain the Colts lethal pass rush. The knee will be tested by Robert Mathis, with D'Brickashaw Ferguson drawing Dwight Freeney on the blind side. The two have combined this season for 21 sacks and six forced fumbles.
Safety Eric Smith will also likely return to action after missing the last three weeks with a concussion. This should provide a boost to the secondary and relief for Brodney Pool from calling defensive sets. With Darrelle Revis blanketing Manning's favorite target in Reggie Wayne (11 per game) a D-Back corps specifically recruited for this purpose must earn its paycheck.
Mark Sanchez has improved in the passing game not just from year one to year two but in the last few weeks. Turf is turf. Elite receivers can capitalize on Indy's surface and the Jets Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes and Dustin Keller outmatch the Colts in this category. Indianapolis is 25th in the run, and Shonn Greene should be able to get to the Bob Sandersless second level. The Jets can run the football, but if they fall behind or into a shootout they simply won't be able to. New York needs stay true to form, dictate the pace with the run and let play-action open up the passing game.
The Jets have a formidable task ahead of them this week, with the possibility of the next even more daunting. To make good on Coach Ryan's bluster of being the best team in football, New York will have to go through six rings to get there. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger stand between Gang Green and potentially the greatest road playoff run in history. Saturday can't come soon enough.