Five to Watch: AFC Championship

The NFL media is frenzied over the compelling storylines which accompany the meeting of the New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game. Football purists are proclaiming that the Colts will reap what they have sewn by allowing the Jets into the playoffs when they pulled starters early in Week 16.

Some are suggesting that the Rex Ryan led defense will stifle the Colts offense, that the Colts will not be able to stop gang green's formidable rushing attack, and that Indianapolis will be left regretting the way it flippantly handled its opportunity for perfection.

Funny enough, this is the same tired storyline that much of the media played a week ago, concerning a team with a stifling, opportunistic defense, and strong run game. Even more curious, the obvious counter-story that is not being told; the side of the story which will more likely impact the outcome of Sunday's game.

Payback Time

How no major media source would cover this game from the angle that the Colts players were obviously disappointed and frustrated with the decision Colts management made at the end of the season is astonishing. The team they were playing when they had to watch their chance at a perfect season slip away?

The New York Jets.

If anyone covering the NFL, any fan of football who cares to tune in on Sunday, is unaware that Indy's players are anxious to finally release their frustrations on the team they think should have been win 15 in the regular season, they are completely missing the story.

Early in the third quarter the Colts pulled their starters, while five other starters watched from the sideline for the duration of the game, and left those players powerless to decide the outcome of that game, and ultimately their perfect season.

Those players will now see the team that was given playoff life by that decision, the only team to beat the Colts at home all year, back in their home stadium in front of their fans. For them, it's clear, redemption can only be had by sending that same team packing.

Strategic Advantage

Another important part of the matchup between the Jets and Colts is that the Colts have the benefit of a strategic advantage. Any time one team in a matchup has an opportunity to see the other teams hand prior to the game, like the Colts did against New York in Week 16, it can affect the outcome of the game.

The Jets had to play for their playoff lives when they visited Indianapolis, did not have the luxury of holding anything back, and played that game as hard as they could for four quarters to ensure that Manning and the starting offense did not return to record another come-from-behind victory. The Colts, on the other hand, did not tip their hand at all during the game.

The Jets only caught a glimpse of what the Colts offense is capable of, an offense which was moving the ball effectively on their vaunted defense and seemed poised to extend its lead before the reserves took over. The Jets did not have the opportunity to face the likes of Pierre Garçon or starting left tackle Charlie Johnson.

Defensively, New York did not play against Clint Session, Robert Mathis, Jerraud Powers (who may not play Sunday), and saw only a glimpse of a hobbled Dwight Freeney. Even without some of their defensive starters the Colts managed to do a respectable job of limiting New York's running game in the first three quarters and severely limited its scoring opportunities.

Now, healthier, fresher, and without any chance of reins being pulled in, the Jets will have to play a Colts team intent on actually winning the game. It should be rather clear, the Colts have seen the Jets hand, the Jets have not seen Indy's.

Advantage: Colts.

Déjà vu

On top of all of this, it should be clear to anyone watching the game, any media expert, that the Jets and the Ravens are strikingly similar football teams. Just one week ago, Indianapolis hosted a hot Ravens team that was playing its best football of the year (by all accounts).

The Ravens' identity? Baltimore is a hard-nosed, smash mouth, opportunistic defense which can stifle the best offenses in the league. An offense with two formidable running backs with both power and speed, a brawling offensive line that wins fights in the trenches, and a quarterback with the arm to make any team who chooses to sell out to stop that rushing attack pay with passes anywhere on the field.

Sound oddly familiar?

The Jets are eerily similar to the Ravens in the way they play the game on both sides of the football. The Ravens have Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, the Jets have Darrelle Revis and Bart Scott. The Ravens have Ray Rice and Willis McGahee, the Jets have Shonn Greene and Thomas Jones.

The point is, if anything, the Colts are preparing for a team that mirrors the last team they put out of the playoffs. Their practices leading up to the game will essentially be preparing for the same team only for a second time in a row and after functionally playing that team twice in the regular season and once in the playoffs.

How anyone, given these circumstances, could proudly stand before the rest of the world and proclaim that the Jets have the advantage and will likely come out on top is beyond belief. Of course, that is not to say that the Jets are incapable of winning; of course they are capable of winning. Any team that has made it this far is a formidable opponent.

But the favorite? The NFL media must be in some kind of twilight zone.

Revis Island

There is absolutely no doubt that Darrelle Revis is a tough matchup for perennial Pro Bowler, Reggie Wayne. Revis has made a name for himself this season, shutting down nearly every wide receiver he has been assigned to, limiting his opponent's best weapon through the air.

That said, Wayne may be the game's best overall wide receiver right now, running crisp routes for the duration of the game, working with its best quarterback with the kind of synergy that would be difficult for any defense to counter. Add to this a budding group of weapons around him, including Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark, and one can imagine that the job would become more difficult.

What New York will have to decide is how much help they give Revis on Wayne. If they choose to leave Revis alone on him, he will have to decide whether he is willing to give Reggie short routes or risk getting beat long. Manning showed against Baltimore that even when teams are willing to double-cover Wayne, he can find ways to get him the ball in small windows.

Should the Jets choose to focus two defenders primarily on Clark and Wayne, they will have to contend with both Austin Collie and Pierre Garçon, who will spread the field vertically and laterally. As both players have emerged as significant weapons for Manning throughout the season, it would be a drastic mistake to show Peyton you are willing to cheat to one side of the field or another.

The key to the Jets ability to find the same success against the Colts passing attack as it has against its other opponents this year is Revis handling Wayne one-on-one throughout the entire game. If he can do this, Manning and the Colts may be forced to play on a shorter field and put up points at a slower pace. If he requires help or fails to handle Reggie one-on-one effectively, look for the Colts to punish New York for chunks of yards, or multiple scores through the air.

Show Greene No Green

For years the Colts primary defensive weakness has been against the run. What most experts do not realize, however, is that only certain kinds of runners really hurt the Colts. Of course the really short, shifty, and speedy backs have found some success (think Darren Sproles and Maurice Jones Drew) but the ones that tend to hurt even more are big backs with quickness to the hole and blazing second-level speed.

The running back most notorious for hurting the Colts, particularly in the playoffs, has been Michael Turner while he was with the Chargers (he also had a long touchdown while with Atlanta in a preseason game vs. the Colts in 2008). Guess what? Shonn Greene is awfully similar to Turner in both his size, power, and blazing second-level speed.

This means the Colts defense must show the same effort it did a week ago when it effectively shut down Ray Rice, a different kind of runner. If the defense can keep Greene from busting long runs, limit big rushing plays, and keep Thomas Jones in check as it has in seasons past, there is a good chance they'll be playing for the Lombardi Trophy in Miami once again.

If not, it will be a very close, hard-fought game throughout and will likely be decided by which team gets the bounces or which team wins the turnover battle. A repeat performance from the Baltimore game a week ago, effectively limiting the Jets rushing attack, all but assures victory and puts more weight on Mark Sanchez's shoulders than he is ready to handle.

So, while either team is capable of winning this game, and no opponent should ever be counted out in the playoffs, the real story seems to have gotten lost. The Colts players, fans, and management all have an axe to grind with the Jets, and they will all make that very clear on Sunday.

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