MANHATTAN — Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is all that stands in the way of the New York Jets first Super Bowl appearance since 1969.
The Jets' stout defense will have to slow down Manning in order to turn Super Bowl dreams into reality and end 41 years of futility as they play the Colts in the AFC championship game on Sunday afternoon.
“We believed the whole time, the whole year, when it probably wasn’t the popular choice,” Jets coach Rex Ryan told the media after beating the Chargers. “We don’t have to apologize to anyone.”
Gang Green has become the darlings of the NFL world after beating the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card round and then stunning the football world by upsetting the heavily-favored San Diego Chargers last Sunday.
The Jets have been propelled by the league's best defense that's stepped up to the challenge down the stretch, leading them to seven wins over the last eight games.
“To get to the Super Bowl, no team really has an easy ride,” New York linebacker Bart Scott told the Associated Press. “If you want to earn the right to go to the Super Bowl, you have to go through teams you’re not supposed to beat.”
Not many people expect the Jets to beat the Colts, who are favored by more than a touchdown by most Las Vegas bookmakers.
Ironically, Indianapolis figured heavily in the Jets playoff run. New York needed to beat both the Colts and Bengals in the last two games of the regular season to sneak into the playoffs.
Indianapolis was 14-0 heading into the Jets game on Dec. 27, but it pulled Manning from the game in the third quarter to rest him for the playoffs. The Jets took full advantage, ending the Colts' league-record 23-game regular-season winning streak with a 29-15 victory.
Despite allowing only 15 points, the Jets were unable to put much heat on Manning before he took a seat. Manning was 14 for 21 for 192 yards and barely missed two wide open receivers on long pass plays in the Colts first loss of the season.
New York can count on a determined Manning playing every second of Sunday's rematch.
The Jets defense knows it'll have to play a perfect game against one of the games smartest quarterbacks.
“You don’t trick him very often,” safety Jim Leonhard. “You don’t confuse him very easily, not that you’re not going to try. You’ve got to throw a lot of different things at him and just get him to think that extra split-second.”
Manning threw for 4,500 yards and 33 touchdowns during the regular season to earn his fourth MVP award. He's a sure-fire Hall of Famer and is making a case for himself as one of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game.
“I compare him to a conductor in an orchestra,” Jets defensive tackle Sione Pouha told the AP. “He knows when to call for the trumpets, the violins and the cymbals and when to bring them all in one accord. With the offense, he’s just able to orchestrate the best way to get at a defense.”
The Jets hope to keep Manning and the Colts offense off the field as much as possible by employing their "ground-and-pound" running game. Rookie running back Shonn Greene has rushed for 420 yards and two touchdowns in his last four games for the Jets, who were the top-ranked rushing team during the regular season.
Historically, New York has been very successful against Indianapolis in the playoffs.
The Jets pounded Manning and the Colts 41-0 in a wild-card contest on Jan. 4, 2003. Manning was intercepted twice and limited to 137 yards for a 31.3 passer rating, his lowest in 16 career playoff appearances.
Sunday's game marks the first time a conference championship match up will feature a Super Bowl rematch. The Jets’ only trip to the Super Bowl came before the AFL-NFL merger, when quarter backe Joe Namath and New York stunned the heavily favored Baltimore Colts 16-7 in 1969.