Stakes Raised: Colts, Jets Play for AFC Crown

One month after they ended the Indianapolis Colts' NFL-record winning streak and kept their own slim playoff hopes alive, the New York Jets are returning to Indianapolis for a rematch of one of the year's most talked-about games.

This time around, there won't be any talk of rest — unless it's of the offseason variety. The loser of this game goes home for the winter, and the winner, to the Super Bowl.

By now, everyone knows the story. Just two days after Christmas, the Colts pulled most of their starters in the third quarter during a Week 16 game against the Jets. Indianapolis had nothing to play for — other than a shot at an unbeaten season, of course — having already wrapped up the AFC's top seed.

The Jets had a little more on the line, needing wins in their final two games, both against playoff teams, to even qualify for the postsason. New York rallied to beat Indianapolis, then won the next week against a Cincinnati team that was also resting its starters, to qualify for the playoffs as a wild card.

The Jets were matched up with the Bengals on Wild Card Weekend and won again, 24-14. Sunday, they punched their ticket to the AFC Championship game with a 17-14 upset of the San Diego Chargers. The Colts earned their berth in the game — and, by virtue of their No. 1 seed, the right to host it — with a 20-3 domination of the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night.

So here we are, with the Colts on the doorstep of the Super Bowl, and in many ways, it's unfinished business. We'll be covering the matchups and storylines of this big game all week at ColtPower.com, but here are some early storylines to keep an eye on:

The Jets' running game vs. the Colts' run defense: New York averaged a whopping 172 yards per game in the regular season to lead the league by a wide margin. The Colts finished 24th against the run, so this is strength against weakness.

Of course, that's a tired storyline when discussing the Colts. Their run defense, and defense in general, isn't as bad as advertised: they gave up over 200 yards in each of their final two games, with many starters on the sidelines, which tends to skew their stats. They also held a hard-running Baltimore team to just 87 yards on Saturday.

The Jets run game is fearsome, however. The Jets boast a pair of strong backs in Thomas Jones — who last faced the Colts in the postseason as a member of the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI — and rookie Shonn Greene running behind an excellent offensive line. The two combined for 168 yards in the win over the Chargers, with Greene making perhaps the play of the game with his 53-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

The rookies: For a game of this magnitude, there are a lot of rookies that could play a role in the outcome. It starts with the head coaches, who are about as opposite in personalities as any matchup possible.

Jim Caldwell took over for the retired Tony Dungy at this time last year and the Colts didn't miss a beat. Caldwell is seen as a Dungy clone, but he may be even more expressionless on the sidelines than his mentor — no small feat.

The Jets' Rex Ryan joined the team after a successful stint as the Raven's defensive coordinator, replacing the fired Eric Mangini. Ryan is big, brash, and bold, and his Jets have taken on his confident personality in the playoffs.

Inside the lines, the Jets start a rookie quarterback, first-round draft choice Mark Sanchez. Sanchez impressed me and many of our Scout.com contingent at last year's NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium, and he's started every game for the Jets this year. He's made his share of rookie mistakes, but the ability to lean on the strong running game and have Sanchez do the rest has proved a winning formula for the Jets.

The Colts placed three players — WR Austin Collie, P Pat McAfee and CB Jacob Lacey — on the NFL's All-Rookie team, and another rookie, Jerraud Powers, starts in the secondary for Indianapolis. Collie caught 60 passes and seven touchdowns during the regular season, and also found the endzone in the Colts win over the Ravens.

Jets' CB Darrelle Revis against Colts' WR Reggie Wayne: This will be one of the top matchups on the field this postseason, pitting two of the NFL's best at their position against each other. Revis is regarded as perhaps the best cover corner in the league, while Wayne is a perennial Pro Bowler.

During their Week 16 matchup, Wayne caught just three balls for 33 yards in just over two quarters of action, but also was able to get open in the end zone against Revis in the second quarter, dropping what appeared to be a catchable pass from Peyton Manning.

Wayne caught a touchdown against the Ravens, part of an eight-catch, 63-yard showing. Revis, meanwhile, has intercepted a pass in each of the Jets' playoff wins. Keep an eye on these two masters at work on Sunday.

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Of course, these are just a few of the many storylines, which we'll study and discuss from every angle this week at ColtPower. Be sure to stop by during the week to read up on all our analysis, get the latest injury news and coach and player interviews, and discuss the game in our forums.


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