2010 AFC Championship Preview

It’s been quite the unusual NFL playoffs so far this year. The first round featured several notable upsets, including the Baltimore Ravens’ 33-14 thumping of the New England Patriots and the New York Jets’ 24-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. In last week’s divisional round, though, chalk largely prevailed; three of the four No. 1 and No. 2 seeds won in decisive fashion. The lone underdog to continue on was the fifth-seeded Jets, who beat the second-seeded San Diego Chargers 17-14 in the weekend’s only close game.

This sets up Sunday afternoon’s AFC championship game featuring the Jets and top-seeded Indianapolis Colts and Sunday evening’s NFC championship game featuring the top-seeded New Orleans Saints and second-seeded Minnesota Vikings. What will happen this weekend? Will top seeds continue to prevail, or can the Jets and Vikings pull off upsets? Will aerial offence dominate, or will we see the triumph of smashmouth football? For some informed opinions on the matter, I spoke with a cast of NFL bloggers. The preview of the AFC game is below; go here for the preview of the NFC game.

One interesting subplot in the Colts-Jets matchup is that the Colts were somewhat responsible for the Jets being in the playoffs in the first place. In fact, they were such a long shot to make the playoffs after a 10-7 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 15 that head coach Rex Ryan thought they were knocked out of the playoff picture. They could have been knocked out for good the next week against the undefeated Colts, but Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell elected to pull quarterback Peyton Manning and many of his other starters in the third quarter with Indianapolis leading 15-10. Rookie backup quarterback Curtis Painter fumbled once and threw a costly interception, and the Jets went on to win 29-15 to keep their playoff hopes alive. They then clobbered the Bengals (who had nothing to play for) 37-0 in the final week to seal the deal, and beat Cincinnati again in the playoffs. After last week’s win over San Diego, they’ll now face the Colts again.

Samer Kalaf, who edits the NFL blog Second-String Fullback, said he thought from the start that the Colts’ decision to take their foot off the gas could be costly.

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“I feel like the decision by Colts head coach Jim Caldwell to rest the starters against the Jets was an incredibly terrible decision,” he said. “The Colts had a chance to be the second team to go undefeated in a 16-game regular season. They decided to give that up for extra rest. That was a terrible decision and I thought it would bite them in the ass. I think it has now as they face the Jets in the AFC Championship, and I stand by my opinion and will be incredibly eager to see how their decision plays out in the game on Sunday.”

Much of the debate around Caldwell’s decision considers the merits of resting starters. Some have argued that Indianapolis’ 20-3 thrashing of Baltimore last weekend proves the Colts were wise to take it easy for the last few weeks of the season, but Kalaf doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t feel like it really had an impact on the Colts’ win against the Ravens,” he said. “Joe Flacco isn’t a dominant quarterback and the Colts were able to contain the Baltimore run game. I feel they would have been able to do it even if they were on normal rest.”

In fact, Kalaf argued that the Jets’ upset of the Chargers suggests taking it easy may hurt more than it helps. The Chargers were dominant for the second half of the season, but didn’t play particularly hard in their final game against Washington with nothing on the line and then had a bye week before facing the Jets. Kalaf said the Chargers’ talent was enough for them to advance deep into the playoffs, but their offence looked out of sync against the Jets.

“This season, I expected the Chargers to go very far, considering them for an AFC Championship and possibly a Super Bowl,” he said. “The way they played against the Jets last week proves how rest doesn’t mean anything, and how it can actually hurt a team. San Diego never seemed to be synchronized while New York was making outstanding plays throughout the whole game.”

Some have suggested that the Colts’ beneficence in allowing the Jets to make the playoffs might pay off for them, as 13-3 San Diego looked like a more formidable opponent than 9-7 New York. Kalaf said the records may be deceiving, though, as the Jets’ strengths could prove more difficult for Indianapolis to counter.

“Matching both teams up with the Colts, I would honestly have to say the Jets would have a better chance of defending against Indianapolis,” he said. “The Chargers have a great offence, but their defence is near the middle of the league in most categories. The Jets are much better at defending, especially passing defense with shutdown corner Darrelle Revis, and that will stifle Peyton Manning and the Colts. Reggie Wayne will be very scarcely available to him and Indianapolis could be forced to turn to rushing the ball, which would be unfortunate for them as they are one of the worst running teams in the league this season.”

Kalaf said both teams are pretty one-dimensional, as this matchup pits the Jets’ hard-hitting defence and punishing ground game up against the Colts’ athletic pass-oriented attack. He said the key for a Jets’ victory will be getting Manning off his game and finding success with the run offensively.

“The Colts have nothing good with their rushing game this season and Mark Sanchez has been the equivalent of JaMarcus Russell, with sadly more effort,” he said. “It’s going to come down to beating and bruising the guy in the No. 18 Colts jersey. If the Jets defence can do that, the Indianapolis offence will be a non-factor, and the Jets can do what they do best by pounding the Colts front line with Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene while letting Mark Sanchez have minimal chances for turnovers.”

Kalaf said he doesn’t want to root for the Jets thanks to their divisional rivalry with his Patriots, but he thinks they’ve got a significant chance to win this weekend.

“It’s punishable by death to root for a divisional rival (Pats fan here) but I think the Jets will pull the huge upset over the Colts,” he said. “It would be poetic justice to the team that thought a perfect record will curse them.”

Joe Caporoso edits Turn on the Jets for the Fanball Sports Network. He said the Jets’ success so far isn’t quite as surprising as many have thought.

“At the start of the season, I picked the Jets to go 10-6 and make the playoffs as a wild-card team,” he said. “I figured they might steal a game in the playoffs, but back in August, it was hard to picture a team with a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback going to the AFC Championship Game. At the start of the playoffs, I felt confident because of how well they were running the ball and how their defence was playing. Also, I loved the match-up with the Bengals in the first round. I wouldn’t have gone so far as to say they were favourites for the Super Bowl like Rex Ryan did, but I did believe they could do some damage.”

Caporoso said he likes the Jets’ matchup this week, as their physical run game might wear down the Colts’ defence.

“I think as long as the Jets run the ball right up the middle, they will be fine. The Colts are too fast to attempt outside runs or tosses. Eventually the Colts’ undersized front seven will wear down. On defence, it is always hard to stop Peyton Manning, but I think the Jets could keep their offence to around 20 points, which will give them a great chance to win the game.”

Oddly enough in a quarterback-oriented league, much of the Jets’ success has come in spite of rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, not because of him. He finished with only 2,444 yards passing, 23rd in the league. He only completed 53.8 per cent of his passing attempts and threw 20 interceptions and just 12 touchdowns. His quarterback rating of 63.0 was 28th in the league. Caporoso said the criticism of Sanchez has been fair, but his play has improved in recent weeks.

“Sanchez was simply turning the ball over way too much in the middle of the season,” he said. “Fortunately, he has become more careful over the previous few weeks and realized he just needs to be a game manager and allow the running game and defence to carry the Jets.”

Caporoso said the Jets are good enough in other areas that Sanchez doesn’t need to be outstanding for them to win.

“I believe they could win if he plays solid-but-not spectacular,” he said. “They beat the Chargers with him only throwing for 100 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. If he can improve on that slightly and play closer to the way he did against the Bengals, the Jets will be in great shape.”

Caporoso said there are many similarities between this Jets team and the 2005-2006 Pittsburgh Steelers, who became the first wild-card team to win the Super Bowl. The Steelers also focused on running the ball and playing strong defence; in fact, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger only completed nine of his 21 passing attempts in the Super Bowl, throwing for 123 yards and no touchdowns while being picked off twice. This bodes well for the Jets.

“I think it is a fair comparison; both teams were constructed in a very similar way,” he said. “Keep in mind that the Steelers shocked the Colts in the playoffs that season by beating them in Indy. Hopefully the Jets can duplicate that on Sunday.”

Caporoso said he thinks the Jets can pull off the upset.

“For some reason, I am confident in the Jets winning this game,” he said. “I believe running the football and defence are the two keys to winning a championship, and the Jets do both those things better than the Colts. The Jets are going to come into this game loose and confident. I think they will weather the early storm, head into halftime in a close game and escape with a 23-20 victory.”

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