Less than four weeks ago, Indianapolis Colts’ president Bill Polian left the door open, and now, whether he wants to see them or not, the New York Jets have crashed the NFL’s postseason party.
Championship Sunday, on January 24th, was supposed to be a private affair, with only the top four playoff seeds invited.
Instead, three of those four seeds will be there, and then there are the misfits among the crowd — the only team in this year’s conference title round seeded lower than second, and the only squad left without one of the greatest quarterbacks in the league or an explosive passing game capable of lighting up a scoreboard at will.
Yes, the fifth-seeded New York Jets, the unwelcome visitor, the big pests who simply won’t go away, return to Indianapolis on Sunday, and although under far different circumstances than before, will try do what they did the last time they were there –- make themselves at home in Lucas Oil Stadium and leave with a victory that the Colts should have.
Although the stakes are much higher this time, don’t expect THIS lower seed to be intimidated at all.
No, these Jets are brash, brazen, unabashed, and supremely confident that they deserve to be where they are, and that they’re quite capable of defying the odds and going from the brink of playoff elimination, to a good postseason team, to super, despite doing things differently than the other three seeds competing for a Super Bowl berth this weekend.
And, the Jets owe it all to Polian for giving them the opportunity.
Rather than taking a shot at extending one kind of history and taking aim at another which has yet to be accomplished in the NFL, Polian wanted his team to rest up for the playoffs, even when his own players, and his own head coach (whether he admits it or not) sought perfection.
It’s the old debate each year in the final week or two of an NFL season for teams that clinch playoff berths early. Rest or rust?
While Polian had done the same before, the move was curious to most this year. Had a precedent been set of the Colts producing multiple Super Bowl titles coming off of late regular season rest, many would have been in Polian’s camp.
However, the Colts have usually come up short in the postseason after shutting down their starters at the end of a regular season.
This was also no ordinary year to choose rest over continued momentum.
To Polian, an NFL-record 23-game regular season winning streak and building on a 14-0 record in 2009 meant absolutely nothing, even if that view alienated most Colts fans and caused a backlash among the blue and white nation in Indianapolis which Polian never expected.
More importantly, with a 15-10 third-quarter lead, holding the Jets’ offense to a mere three points, the Colts -– the real Colts — had a chance to end the Jets season on December 27th, before the Colts’ bench allowed the Jets to win, 29-15.
Polian had his team shut it all down against its will, a decision which might come back to haunt him and his Colts on Sunday.
Football is often a game of momentum and week-to-week growth. The Jets return to Indianapolis possessing both of those things.
While they won’t see the watered-down Colts Lite version they saw when Polian handed Gang Green a Week 16 gift that jump-started the Jets’ improbable run to Sunday’s rematch with the Colts, the Jets are a lot different themselves, since then.
They arrive with key ingredients –- the NFL’s top ranked defense playing with the confidence that it can stop any offense (even one directed by Peyton Manning), and the league’s top rushing game, now bolstered by running back Shonn Greene -– which give any outmanned team a chance to pull a postseason upset against even the best.
The Jets may also have some karma and magic on their side:
– Though they certainly played well enough to earn their way to Sunday’s AFC title game, they might not have arrived at this point without a little luck.
– Two missed chip shot field goals by Bengals’ kicker Shayne Graham helped the Jets win 24-14, in Cincinnati, in the wild-card round. And, in stopping the Chargers’ 11-game win streak with a narrow 17-14 win in San Diego last week, the Jets, to keep San Diego from scoring 20 points for the first time all season, needed the help of three more missed field goals, including two from 40 yards and less, by All-Pro kicker Nate Kaeding, who had made his previous 69 kicks from that same distance.
– Chargers’ leading wide receiver, Vincent Jackson, dealt with the distraction of being briefly arrested and having his car impounded for driving with a suspended license and an expired registration after he was pulled over for loud music hours before kickoff last Sunday.
– The Jets got a key, fluke interception from shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis on a ball that bounced off of Jackson’s leg before literally falling out of the sky and into the Revis’ lap.
– The last time the Jets had the top-ranked defense and the top rushing game, they went to the Super Bowl, their only Super Bowl.
– For numerologists, fullback Matt Snell, born in ’41, who wore number 41 both at Ohio State and as a Jet, scored the only touchdown in Jets’ Super Bowl history to date, 41 years ago.
– In the Jets’ 50th anniversary season, New York has the ironic opportunity of going through the Colts, to return to Miami in two weeks, to the same city where the Jets beat the Colts in Super Bowl III.
Like that Jets team, it’s the Jets’ talented defense, powerful rushing game, a young quarterback who’s avoiding mistakes, and especially, the belief in themselves despite the doubters, which seem to have spawned their current run.
The only thing right now that’s soaring higher than the Jets’ quick ascent from late regular season mediocrity is their confidence, behind the bravado of inspirational head coach Rex Ryan, who has pushed all of the right buttons since the Jets’ Week 15 home loss to Atlanta which at the time, caused Ryan to say his team’s season was over.
And maybe, that was all part of the master plan of the Jets’ master motivator.
Some thought Ryan might be crazy when he broke down and cried in front of Jets’ players in their locker room earlier this season, only to go back to maintaining how great his team was during a poor 4-7 mid-season stretch following a 3-0 start, before making the comment after the Atlanta loss.
Crazy like a fox.
All of that the “season was over” talk might very well have been carefully calculated by Ryan.
For one, that move has allowed Ryan’s team to play loose ever since.
Additionally, Ryan might have deliberately planted a seed in Polian’s head at the time that the Jets were done and were no longer a threat.
It was a message as if to say, “Sure, Bill, go ahead and rest everyone. Our season is over, you won’t have to worry about seeing us in January.”
In fact, once other AFC contenders started to lose their own grips on the AFC wild-card race, Ryan publicly advocated for the Colts resting their starters leading up to the Jets’ Week 16 visit to Indianapolis –- the game which thrust New York right back into the playoff picture.
Fast forward a few weeks, and the savvy, shrewd, and manipulating Ryan now says he’d “be shocked” if the Jets don’t win on Sunday, and prior to the playoffs, he called the Jets “Super Bowl favorites.”
That’s a far cry from “our season is over” less than five weeks ago.
This week, Ryan also said that we “won’t ever see a looser team for an AFC championship game.”
And, he’s probably right.
After all, the Jets weren’t supposed to be here. They’re simply shocking the world week by week, much like Giants’ Stadium’s other former tenant, also a five seed, two years ago. And, we all remember how the magical run ended for the New York Giants that year. So, why not the Jets, this year?
All of the pressure is squarely on the Colts, who are not only favored, but who thanks to Polian, now have the added weight of having to prove something in a “real” game after losing with their backups to a Jets team which has since grown leaps and bounds ever since that Week 16 win over the Colts.
It’s true that the Colts might have had even more pressure on them had they been trying for an undefeated season right now. And, maybe that figured into Polian’s thinking. Perhaps Polian figured that the pressure they’re facing now would be nothing compared to that of having to navigate through a postseason while remaining undefeated. It could also easily be argued that the rest was more beneficial to the Colts, whose well-rested defense was flying around the field in stopping the Baltimore Ravens, 20-3, in last week’s divisional round playoff game.
But, because Polian didn’t allow the Colts to knock the Jets out when they had the chance, they now have to play a very dangerous and confident team that no one wants to play.
Thanks to Polian, the Colts are not only playing for a Super Bowl trip, but they have the added pressure of proving that Week 16 was indeed a fluke, while the Jets get to play for the same high stakes with house money.
Still, by Sunday evening, Polian may very well be vindicated, especially by Colts’ future Hall of Fame quarterback, Peyton Manning.
Manning certainly has the receiving weapons needed to do what the fourth-seeded Cincinnati Bengals and the second-seeded San Diego Chargers couldn’t do against the NFL’s best defense. And, he’s had a lot of past success (including regular and post seasons) against Ryan-led defenses when Ryan was with the Ravens.
But, the Jets definitely have their own weapons to counter.
It’s been joked that water covers 75 percent of the earth, and Revis covers the other 25 percent.
The Jets will have to start there and run the ball well enough to control the clock, shorten the game, and keep Manning off the field.
Even that, and more, could likely not be enough against a Colts team that will be favored by over a touchdown on Sunday, and which has yet to lose this season while playing its starters for a full game.
Yet, sometimes in football, an edge in talent doesn’t beat an edge in momentum, or a date with destiny.
It’s a date — and a risk — that Polian could have avoided had he done the right thing nearly a month ago.
Polian gave the Jets a gift in Week 16, and now, it might be time for him to pay the bill on that charitable donation.
The Colts’ president may be banking on the fact that things will be different with the Jets now trying to beat Manning and company instead of players like Colts’ backup quarterback Curtis Painter.
However, by not seizing the chance to make history before, the Colts’ season could quickly become history, while the Jets could go from beating Painter to painting Polian’s town Gang Green.