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When the red hot San Diego Chargers, whom many predict to be Super Bowl bound, take the field Sunday to face the surging NY Jets, the 13-3 AFC West champs will look to unleash a high octane air attack as good as any in the NFL. To earn a berth in the AFC Championship game, the Bolts will have to do it against the Jets, who own leagues top defense and running attack. A contrast in styles will be clear from the onset as Gang Green looks to create their own tempo by pounding the ball on the ground with the running back combo of Thomas Jones and star on the rise rookie Shonn Greene. The Chargers will air it out. Owners of the league’s 31st rushing attack, the Bolts are the league’s best screen pass team, using it instead of run plays which make their bottom feeder running ranking deceiving. Something has to give when these two clash
in the AFC Divisional playoffs this weekend. The one left standing will be just sixty minutes from the Super Bowl.
The Jets, winners of 6 of their last 7, bring a new found swagger on Defense that comes when you realize that you own the leagues’ top cover cornerback in Darrelle Revis. Forget the fact that voters chose Green Bay’s Charles Woodson as NFL defensive player of the year. Revis has shut down every top wideout the Jets have faced. He has single handedly helped to shut down one side of the field for a defense that leads the league in pass yards given up with a mere 153.0 yards per game. Now the Chargers, who are number one in receptions for 20 plus yards, love to throw it downfield. If WR Vincent Jackson, QB Phillip Rivers’ top deep threat, falls victim to Revis Island and a pass rush that is gaining steam with the help of coach Rex Ryan’s blitz schemes, the Chargers will be forced to matriculate the ball downfield with other quality big sized receivers such as Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee. This will give the Jets chance to settle into the game.
Besides Jackson , the Bolts other major weapon in the passing game is star TE Antonio Gates. Gates, the former 6′5 division one basketball standout poses a mismatch for every opponent because of his size, ability to get open, run after the catch, and hold onto the ball. He’s the best in the business at the position.. Gates will be guarded at times by FS Kerry Rhodes, who held Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez down in week 15 for much of a game that many mistakenly felt, after the 10-7 Jet loss, had ended the Jets season. Gates is not only a safety valve, he’s a tight end who can stretch the field. His eight TD’s were second among tight end’s only to the Colts Dallas Clark.
The Jet front four combined with Ryan’s blitz packages have to pressure Rivers into rushing those seven step drops that with the proper pass protection, turn into big gains more often than any other team has enjoyed in football. 67 completions have gone for twenty plus yards for the Chargers in 2009. The Chargers are fifth in the NFL in pass plays that have covered more than forty yards.
As for a running attack that averages under four yards a carry, the Bolts RB tandem of Ladanian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles still present unique threats to the Jets. “LT” was the NFL’s premier back before a series of turf toe injuries began to slow him down a few years back. That ability to get to the second level of a defense and break it for big yardage, ala the Titans Chris Johnson, is not there anymore. This season he’s rushed for just 730 yards at 3.3 yards per carry Not LT type numbers. However, he’s still a shifty red zone threat, having scored 12 TDs on the year. Darren Sproles is a Leon Washington type, who hides well behind his blockers before bursting for big gains. Sproles, like the injured WAshington, is a threat to score anytime he touches it.
If the Jets can prevent long plays on first and second down, and force Sproles and LT into modest gains, the Chargers will be left in third and long spots where some pressure combined with a press coverage that defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said that Jet cornerbacks were comfortable implementing (hint hint), could keep the Chargers from lighting up the scoreboard. The Jets have given up 20 plus points only four times in 2009 .The Chargers have scored 20 plus in EVERY game this year. Keeping the Chargers from running may be key in giving the Jets the ability to apply the heat on Rivers.
The Jets come into the contest now at 18-1 odds to win the Super Bowl. This down from the 50-1 odds they rolled into Cincinnati with. The spike in confidence coming out of Vegas is still light years away from coach Rex Ryan’s comment last week that the Jets ought to be favorites to win the whole thing. Whether Ryan’s boasts were to divert attention from his players, motivate them, or came out of a core belief that handing out an itinerary ending in a ticker tape parade could make it happen, one thing is for certain. These are not the “Same Old Jets”. Or the Jets many saw slump after starting out 3-0.
This Jets club NOW, is one where ball security , the primary reason for the club’s mid season struggles, is on the rise. QB Mark Sanchez who threw 20 picks in 2009, has 0 int’s in the past 3 games. RB Shonne Greene has as of late, eliminated fumbling issues that plagued him just as he was set to really take off weeks after Washington’s season ending injury out in Oakland.
Sanchez was flawless in Cincy throwing for a TD and coming up big on some key third down throws. More importantly, the rookie provided much needed leadership in orchestrating the offense by maximizing it’s efficiency with a 12-15 day throwing. Greene rushed for 135 yards, fifteen yards short of Ryan’s predicition for him. This week Ryan has set his crystal ball sights on struggling WR Braylon Edwards. Edwards dropped his third long touchdown in the past five games last week. If the former Cleveland wideout can get back on track however, and turns into the big play killer that the Jets brought him here to be in October, the Jets may have an X factor who could change the story of Sunday’s battle.
The last time these two old AFL rivals met in the postseason back in 2005, Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s dad Marty, was head coach of the Bolts. Rookie K Nate Kaeding’s last second 40 yard FG went wide right. This gave Jets K Doug Brien the chance to hit the 28 yard game winner with 5 seconds left in the first OT and allow the Jets a 20-17 win. For the Chargers, the gut wrenching first round loss after their 9-7 2005 campaign was followed by a 14-2 2006 season, earning them home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Then Bill Belichick and Tom Brady came to town, as the Pats upset the Bolts 24-21.
This quick playoff exit for the elder Schottenheimer, the ninth of the snake bitten coach’s career, the second on three years in San Diego, paved the way for current coach Norv Turner. Turner seeks to do what Schottenheimer couldn’t do, and that’s return the Chargers to a second Super Bowl appearance. The first one coming in 1994, which resulted in a 49-26 loss to the 49ers.
Rex Ryan became the Jets head coach off the heels of a 2008 collapse that saw Gang Green fall from 8-3 to 9-7. QB Brett Favre ended up in Minnesota, a place he wanted to land in from the start, after the Packers decided that Aaron Rodgers was their signal caller for the future and the present. Coach Eric Mangini was canned as well, not just because of the club’s December slide but as a result of a secretive, uncharasmatic demeanor that owner Woody Johnson felt did not represent the personnel. Ryan certainly has been the polar opposite. Quotable, bombastic, even bordering at times on ridiculous, the son of former Super Bowl III Jets assistant and creator of Chicago’s 46 Defense in the mid 80’s Buddy Ryan, Rex has made the Jets believers in themselves. Trying to rid a franchise of it’s habits of self wallowing, and a penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is a big job. One man can’t do it alone. Ryan has had help. However the rookie head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator has created a culture of confidence and resiliency.
The Jets have had their share of struggles in 2009. Sanchez lost his way during the October swoon. The Atlanta loss that prevented the Jets from being in the Wildcard drivers seat in week 15, was the third in which the number one defense in football couldn’t stop the opponent’s final drive. Nonetheless, the Jets perseverance coupled with a few late season breaks, have allowed the Jets to be where they are today. Headed to San Diego with a chance to get to the AFC championship for only the third time since the AFL NFL merger in 1970. For the first time since the Jets held a 10-0 lead in Denver back in 1999 before John Elway completed his own career ending quest for Super Bowl glory.
The Jets head into Sunday as eight point underdogs. Yet somehow you gotta know that Ryan is thriving in the role of motivator with a team that is listening to his “us against the world” locker room rants. The Jets themselves appear to be
relishing the role of proving the doubters wrong. Sunday in San Diego the J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS get that chance once again. The stakes around here haven’t been higher in over a decade.
THREE KEYS TO THE CHARGERS:
Make SD’s offense one dimensional: We’ll steal a page out of Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s press conference on Thursday. To make the Chargers one dimensional would do wonders for a defense that is already locked in on the Air attack.
The Chargers CAN run despite what the stats will tell you. Yet if the Jets can keep LT and Sproles pinned down, the front seven can pin their ears back on third and long situations and look to create some plays of their own.
Braylon, Come on!! This week Rex Ryan predicted or was wishfully thinking out loud for a breakout day from the big play guy who can’t seem to catch the deep ball. He said sooner or later Edwards would put up three TD’s in a game. He then added “let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.” There’s no time for feeling sorry for yourself if you’re Edwards right now. Sanchez’s confidence is growing. Schotty is calling deep shots that have had potential to work. It’s up to Edwards to get over his slump and get going. How about a few early short throws to him for some confidence? If Edwards can relax like his rookie QB has learned to do this month, we may have the X factor of the game right here in #17.
Withstand the early onslaught. What the Jets cant afford is a few big plays and mistakes hitting them hard early. They came back from a 7-0 deficit last week vs the Bengals and certainly could do the same out West. A 21-0 deficit caused by quick Rivers strikes and a special teams gaffe, well that would create a hole to big to crawl out of. The ground and pound has room for growth from Sanchez and Edwards should he get going. A big early Chargers lead HAS to be avoided at all costs. Stay in the game. Let it develop. With each passing moment, a close game will become a winnable one for the Jets.