Jets recapture last year's playoff magic, thanks to grind-it-out rally
Rex Ryan had never beaten Peyton Manning in the playoffs at any coaching stop
The Jets' fortunes improved once they committed to running the ball against Indy
The sixth-seeded Jets have already earned a date with the No. 1 Pats next Sunday
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Dispatches from the Jets' 17-16 last-second conquest of the Colts in an AFC first-round playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium, a game that started ever so slowly but reached thriller status by night's end ...
It was as if the New York Jets woke up at halftime and remembered who they are, what they do, and how it all worked so well during last January's playoff run. If they were going to see their season end in Indianapolis for a second straight year -- and they trailed 7-0 at the break -- they were going to go down doing things their way, and being true to their identity as a football team.
And thus, the return of their "Ground and Pound'' running game, and just in the Nick of time. New York had plenty of heroes on this night, but the Jets' path to victory began appearing with their first drive of the third quarter, when they took the game out of quarterback Mark Sanchez's hands and started putting the ball into the arms of running backs LaDanian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene.
"Really, it was more the mentality our backs took,'' Jets head coach Rex Ryan said. "They were going to run through that door, whether it had a lock on it or not. Our guys were going to pound it in there. We've got two great backs, and we do a great job of running the football. We challenged them at halftime, and our offense went down there and controlled the football and controlled the clock.''
Boy, did they. The Jets opened the third quarter with a 10-play, 63-yard drive that consumed 5:12 off the clock and tied the game 7-7 on Tomlinson's 1-yard touchdown plunge. Eight of the 10 plays were runs, with Sanchez going just 1 of 2 for 20 yards on the possession.
Then, after the Colts had regained the lead 10-7 on a 47-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal, the Jets answered with a monster of a touchdown drive, methodically covering 87 yards on 17 plays, chewing up 9:54 of clock. Tomlinson's second 1-yard scoring run of the half put New York up 14-10, and served to start breaking the spirit of a Colts defense that's built more for speed than stamina.
"Our offense did a tremendous job staying the course the entire game,'' Jets linebacker Bart Scott said. "That's a small defense [the Colts have]. Sometimes you've got to just keep plugging away, and I think in the second half we kept leaning on them, and they were sucking wind a little bit in the second half.''
New York's defense and its running game was largely responsible for the success of its three-game playoff run last January, and the Jets would be wise to follow that blueprint again. In the first half Saturday night, they ran well against the Colts, but not often enough. New York had 13 carries for 74 yards (a 5.7 average), but was held scoreless due to Sanchez's accuracy problems (9 of 19 passing for just 74 yards), and one huge interception he threw at the Indy goal line on New York's final possession of the half.
But you could tell the tone had changed in the third quarter, when New York called Greene's number on four of its first five plays, and then gave the ball to a determined Tomlinson on three of the drive's final four snaps. New York wound up rushing 38 times for 169 yards in the game, with 95 of those yards and 25 of those carries coming in the second half. Tomlinson's 82 yards and two touchdowns on 16 attempts (5.1) led New York, but Greene was right there with 70 tough yards on 19 carries.
The approach worked wonders. It limited the damage Sanchez could do after his shaky first half, kept Colts quarterback Peyton Manning off the field for long stretches of the second half (Indy had just one third-quarter possession and three in the entire second half) and helped wear down the Indianapolis defense. New York had ridden a running game comprised of Greene and the departed Thomas Jones in last year's playoffs, but Tomlinson was more than ready to fill the bill.
"The second half was a gut check for us,'' Jets right guard Brandon Moore said. "We knew our defense was playing well and we had to capitalize. As soon as we started driving the ball on them, you could tell they were wearing down a little bit. That's when we had to really turn it up, and that's what we did. It was the same story last year in the playoffs. To drive the ball and keep it out of their hands, and for our defense to hold them to just one touchdown, if we get into that groove again in the playoffs, we're going to be tough.''
Nobody made bigger, bolder moves last offseason than the Jets, all in an effort to unseat the Colts, who beat New York 30-17 in last year's AFC Championship Game. You'd have to say the gambles paid off pretty handsomely Saturday night.
Tomlinson, the free-agent running back future Hall of Famer, rushed for a team-high 82 yards and scored both of New York's touchdowns. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie didn't play his best game in terms of pass defense, but he filled in for injured kick returner Brad Smith (quadriceps) and delivered returns of 41 and 47 yards -- the latter being hugely pivotal in setting up New York's game-winning, five-play, 40-yard field-goal drive. Cromartie's return put the Jets in business at the New York 46, with 45 seconds remaining. Nick Folk -- another Jets newcomer -- capped the dramatic comeback with a 32-yard field goal at the gun.
And lastly, receiver Santonio Holmes contributed a significant play on that same game-winning drive. He caught an 11-yard pass from the Colts' 45, putting the Jets into Folk's field-goal range. Holmes finished the game with four catches for 46 yards, tied for the team in receptions.
Sanchez had a rough first half, but once New York's running game and defense steadied things and took some of the pressure off his shoulders, the second-year quarterback stepped up with some clutch throws in the game's deciding moments. No pass was bigger, of course, than the 18-yard completion down the right sideline to Braylon Edwards on the play before Folk's game-winner.
Seeing Edwards matched up in man-on-man coverage against Colts cornerback Jacob Lacey, Sanchez lobbied offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer for permission to make such an aggressive call. It was a 2nd-and-8 situation at the Colts' 32, so Folk was already on the edge of his field-goal range with 29 seconds remaining and New York owning just one final timeout.
It's early in this playoff season, but the play might just wind up being a defining moment of sorts for Sanchez, whose uneven performances this season have perplexed Jets fans and tested the faith of New York's coaching staff.
"As the game got on, he got sharper and sharper, and the last pass to Braylon Edwards, the kid called that play on his own,'' Ryan said. "He could have gone with a run, he could have gone with a pass. He said I just want to move the football, and Braylon's like, 'They're playing me man, and I know I can go over the top of this guy.' And Schotty just said, 'OK, kid, you throw the ball you want,' and he made that huge throw right there. So that's how much he grew up. The best throw he made was that last one, to Braylon.''
Sanchez completed 9 of 12 passes for 115 yards in the second half, after his 9-of-19, 74-yard, one-interception showing in the first two quarters. He helped put the Jets into an early hole, then helped dig himself and his teammates out of it.
"It's a 'got-to-have-it' situation,'' Sanchez said of his final pass of the game. "We practice them all the time. For me, there's a select few plays that I really feel good about. You kind of have those in your tool box. You go to it in a time of need. We needed it. I knew I could have made the throw last year. I don't know if could have made that call last year.''
The Jets' last-second victory cost Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri the postgame spotlight. Vinatieri's clutch 50-yard field goal with 53 seconds remaining gave Indy a short-lived 16-14 lead, and only added to his legacy of remarkable playoff kicks. But Indy couldn't hold the lead, so Vinatieri's boot -- which would have been good from at least 55 yards -- wasn't the story of the night.
"I was just sitting back going, 'You've got to be kidding me,''' Ryan said. "This kid never misses. He hit five field goals against me [in Baltimore] in '06 [in the playoffs].''
Vinatieri said the Colts left too much time on the clock for the Jets at the end of the game, especially given Cromartie's 47-yard kick return.
"It was one of those things where you go from super high to super, super low,'' he said. "Now you have to sit there and swallow that pill for a long time.''
And now the Jets head back to New England for next Sunday's AFC Divisional playoff game and a chance to avenge the 45-3 humiliation they suffered at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 6.
Ryan didn't want to talk Patriots after the big win over the Colts. But his players weren't afraid to. Offensive guard Damien Woody, the former Patriot, said New York's 42-point loss would have no bearing on what happens next weekend.
"It'll be different, because what happens in the postseason is a whole new season, a whole new opportunity,'' he said. "That's what Seattle proved. Whoever thought they were going to beat New Orleans? It doesn't matter what happened in the regular season. You've just got to be better than that team on that day. This was a huge boost for us, coming in here and winning. It's not easy to beat the Indianapolis Colts here.''