The obvious player to watch here will be Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. After injuries to Pro-bowl tight end Dallas Clark, runningback Joseph Addai and numerous defensive starters, Manning carried the Colts to their 10-6 record and AFC South title. In last year’s game, Manning dominated all Jet defensive backs not named Darelle Revis and threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns. Colts recievers Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon combined for 274 yards and two TDs and the Colts managed to survive even though Revis held Reggie Wayne to three receptions for 55 yards.
But much has changed since last year. The most glaring difference will be the Absence of Dallas Clark and Austin Collie who are both on IR. Jacob Tamme has steped up at he tight end position but lacks the experience of Clark. Wayne and Garcon are both healthy, but Wayne will most likely not be targeted very often and Garcon and Manning have had many communication issues and Manning does not have the same confidence in Garcon and Tamme as he does in Wayne, Clark and Collie. The other starting receiver for the Colts is undrafted rookie Blair White who had a good first season after joining the team after the first of Collie’s three concussions.
The Jets have also added another cornerback opposite Darelle Revis (who made the pro-bowl despite not having an interception this year, most likely due to the fact that most quaterbacks are afraid to throw the ball to his side of the field). Former Charger Antonio Cromartie has had a rough season adapting to opposing quarterbacks targeting him more often, but has experience in the playoffs and the speed to keep up with Pierre Garcon. Third cornerback Kyle Wilson as well as safeties Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo will match up against the other Colts receivers in the Jets typical man-to-man defense.
The other part of the Colts Offense has been non-existent all year after Joseph Addai was injured. Donald Brown and Mike Hart combined to form the NFL’s forth worst running game. Addai is now healthy and the Colts have added Domonic Rhodes, but the Jets forth ranked run defense should be able to hold the Colts ground attack. But despite all this, the Jets can not count out Peyton Manning who is sure to take the game into his own hands and challenge the Jets defense.
The Jets intend to keep the game-plan they’ve employed all year long: put pressure on the QB while their DBs play man-to man. This strategy did not look good though against top quarterback such as Aaron Rodgers of the Packers and Tom Brady of the Patriots. Last week against the Bills, though, the Jets kept pressure on quarterback Brian Brohm all day long and forced him to throw three interceptions. The Colts offensive line is better and Manning clearly handles pressure better, but the Jets will rely on pass rushers Calvin Pace, Shawn Ellis, Jason Taylor and Brian Thomas to put hits on Manning and force him to make bad throws.
Offensively, if the Jets can stop two players, their offense should be able to run and pass successfully against the inexperienced Colts defense. Unfortunately, those two players happen to be Pro-bowl defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis who have combined for 20 sacks on the season and are easily the best pass rushing duo in the league. Facing them will be pro-bowl Left Tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and veteran right guard Damian Woody who is back from knee surgery after missing the last three games of the regular season. If the Jets line can give quarterback Mark Sanchez time to throw, the Jets should be able to put up the same numbers they did against the third ranked Chicago Bears defense.
But the main brunt of the offense needs to come from the Jets’ runningbacks. Shonn Greene and Ladanian Tomlinson were both rested last week and should be fresh when they play against a Colts defense that was playing to clinch the playoffs last week. Greene came alive last year in the postseason and his performance convinced the Jets management to release starter Thomas Jones and trade Leon Washington. Tomlinson is a future hall-of-famer who has plenty of playoff experience and will have success if the week off can bring him back to the way he played in the first half of the season. The Jets need their running game to set up their passing game which, lead by receivers Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards, has made big, clutch plays all year long.
The Jets have also seen success from their wildcat offense and ran it a lot against the Bills just to give the Colts coaches another thing to think about. Brad Smith rushed for 60 yards on two plays against the Bills and as a former college quarterback, is also a threat to throw the ball. Smith is also a dangerous return man who has given the Jets two major victories against the Steelers and the Bengals.
If the Jets can cut down turnovers and keep the ball away from Peyton Manning, they can upset the third seeded Colts and punch their tickets to Foxborough.
Prediction: Jets 31, Colts 27