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Jets fly into AFC Championship wearing glass slipper

Jets fly into AFC Championship wearing glass slipper

By Tony Moss, NFL Editor

Rex Ryan has been down this road before.

It was 2000 when Ryan, then an assistant coach with the Baltimore Ravens, was part of a team that played great defense, was questionable offensively, played its best football near the end of the year, reached the playoff field as a wild card, and burned through the postseason field en route to an unlikely Super Bowl title.

Except for that last part, which is still open for negotiation, you could be describing the 2009 New York Jets. The Jets' Cinderella tale, which began when the team rose from the ashes of 4-6 to reach the playoffs, continued with Sunday's stunning 17-14 road upset of the San Diego Chargers.

San Diego hadn't scored fewer than 20 points all season, but a Jets squad that has now allowed just 75 points over their last eight contests (9.4 per game) held them well below that total. The Chargers didn't run the ball (61 rushing yards, including just 24 on 12 carries for LaDainian Tomlinson), and though Pro Bowl-bound quarterback Philip Rivers ended up with 298 yards through the air, it was two balls that he completed to the wrong team that swung the football game.

On a 3rd-and-8 play in Jets territory with fewer than five minutes to play in the third quarter and the score 7-3 in favor of San Diego, Rivers lofted a ball deep for Vincent Jackson that was broken up by Darrelle Revis, and appeared to fall incomplete. Except that the ball never hit the ground, instead bouncing off of Revis' body, before the star cornerback grabbed it and returned it to the Jets 23-yard line. Though Mark Sanchez and company did not turn the INT into any immediate points, they flipped the field position, with Steve Weatherford's subsequent punt coming to rest at the Chargers 4-yard-line.

Two plays later, on a 2nd-and-5 play from the San Diego 9-yard line, Rivers attempted to throw a seam route to an unaware Antonio Gates, with the ball alertly plucked out of the air by Jets safety Jim Leonhard and returned to the Chargers 16-yard line.

Sanchez would make Rivers pay for that error, moments later hitting Dustin Keller in the end zone on a 3rd-and-2 scramble play, and giving the Jets a lead (10-7) they would never relinquish as a stunned Qualcomm Stadium crowd looked on in horror.

The offense would add to the total when Shonn Greene blasted through for a 53- yard touchdown run later in the frame, but the main damage was done by that playmaking defense.

"We made a bunch of adjustments at halftime," said Revis, noting that the team attacked more over the second 30 minutes. "We got a little more aggressive by playing a little more man coverage. First half we had a game plan on them to play a little zone and they tore us apart a little bit. Second half I said, 'We need to play some man. We need to play some man coverage.' We told coach, and we started playing some cover one and cover zero."

"You just have to fight adversity. We have a lot of doubters and a lot of people say 'the same old Jets'. And I think we are getting out of that hole right now by just being in the playoffs this year. And we want to build off this."

With their notoriously beleaguered fan base now in a state of frenzy, the Jets are one more similar performance from leading the franchise to the Super Bowl for the first time in 41 seasons. A victory over the heavily-favored Colts in Indianapolis this week would mark the longest gap between Super Bowl appearances in NFL history.

There should be little question that the Jets are aware of what they are in line to accomplish as they head to the Midwest.

"We are just going in there with a sense and understanding of what type of moment we're in," said linebacker Bart Scott on Monday. "Four quarters and we're going to the Super Bowl. The opponent really doesn't matter. To get to the Super Bowl, no team has an easy ride. Everybody has to go through something. If you want to earn the right to go to the Super Bowl you have to go through teams that you are not supposed to beat. Look at the Pittsburgh Steelers. When they made their run the first time, they had to go through the Colts, they had to go through the tough teams. It's never going to be easy. Anybody has the chance against anybody. We don't have to be the better team, we just have to be the better team that day."

BY THE NUMBERS

-With Sunday's win, Sanchez is now tied for the franchise lead for playoff wins by a starter (2), knotted with Joe Namath, Richard Todd, and Chad Pennington. Sanchez also tied Joe Flacco's record for playoff wins by a rookie quarterback, and can this week become the first rookie QB in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl and win his first three postseason starts.

-After rushing for 128 yards against the Chargers, Greene now has 263 rushing yards in his first two postseason games, the second-most by a rookie in NFL history. Dallas back Duane Thomas rushed for 278 yards in his first two postseason games as a rookie in the 1970 season, when the Cowboys reached the Super Bowl for the first time but lost to the Colts. Greene's 53-yard dash was both the longest run and longest TD run in Jets franchise history, eclipsing his own 39-yard run against the Bengals last week.

-The Jets are 0-2 in AFC Championships (1998, 1982) since their 1968 win, and have been outscored by a composite of 37-10 in those defeats, to the Broncos (23-10 in '98) and Dolphins (14-0 in '82).

-Sanchez will this week attempt to become the first Jets quarterback to throw a touchdown pass in the AFC Championship since Dec. 29, 1968, when Joe Namath hit Don Maynard from six yards away in the fourth quarter of the team's 27-23 win over the Raiders. The Jets' lone AFC Championship TD since the Namath-to- Maynard hook-up was a 1-yard touchdown run by Curtis Martin against the Broncos in the '98 game.

-The Jets are trying to become the third NFL team in the past five seasons (2005 Steelers, 2007 Giants), to win three consecutive road games to reach the Super Bowl.

-Either the Colts' Jim Caldwell or the Jets' Rex Ryan will become the first rookie coach to reach a Super Bowl since current Jets assistant Bill Callahan with the Raiders in 2002. George Seifert of the 49ers (1989) is the most recent rookie coach to win a Super Bowl.

NEXT UP: ON TO INDIANA

Much of what occurred in Week 16 between the Colts and Jets figures to be dredged up this week, with the inference made that Indianapolis was well on its way to winning the football game before Caldwell pulled his starters. Most members of both teams would undoubtedly tell you, however, that version of the tale represents a revisionist history.

Yes, the Colts had just gone ahead, 15-10, when Manning led a nine-play, 81- yard drive capped off with a Donald Brown touchdown run on Indy's first march of the third quarter, just after the Jets had taken a 10-9 lead on Brad Smith's 106-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

As the narrow margin would indicate, the result was well in doubt even before Manning and company were pulled. The Colts owned just a 9-3 lead at halftime, with less-than-dominant edges in total yards (173-115) and first-downs (12-7), and Indianapolis had followed up a first-quarter touchdown drive by amassing only three points on its next three marches combined.

That history suggests that, despite their heavy underdog status, the Jets will be a more-than-worthy adversary in the AFC Championship. The longer history of the series would suggest the same.

The Colts and Jets have met on two prior occasions in the postseason, both of them memorable. The first-ever meeting between the franchises resulted in a landmark 16-7 win for the Jets over the then-Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Also, in a 2002 AFC First-Round Playoff, the Jets scored a 41-0 home victory.

Indianapolis holds a 40-26 edge in its all-time regular season series with the Jets, including New York's aforementioned 29-15 win in Week 16. That result snapped a two-game winning streak for the Colts in the series, which included a 31-28 road win in 2006 and a 38-31 decision at the RCA Dome in 2003.

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