Commentary

Jets' Gang of Six must rise to occasion

If they're legit, Woody Johnson's stars must align in MetLife showdown with Giants

Updated: December 23, 2011, 12:01 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Before every game, Santonio Holmes receives the same text message from his mother: "Big-time players step up in big-time games." Call it a cellular pep talk. On Saturday morning, he should forward that text to some of his teammates as a friendly reminder.

Guys such as Plaxico Burress. D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Antonio Cromartie. Darrelle Revis. Yes, even Mark Sanchez.

This is a big-time moment for the New York Jets. It's not because there's pressure to back up Rex Ryan's trash talk or take the town from the New York Giants (a ridiculous notion that, by the way, isn't going to happen with one game). It's big because the Jets are built around their so-called stars, and, in a game of this magnitude, the stars should align -- if they're legit, that is.

Owner Woody Johnson is paying $50 million a year for his big six, and he'll have the right to feel cheated if he doesn't get Pro Bowl-caliber performances from them in the "Fight Before Christmas" at MetLife Stadium. Forget about the ups and downs of the disappointing (so far) season; this is a chance to erase that and take a giant step toward their third straight playoff berth.

"[A win] would be big," Johnson told ESPNNewYork.com. "The Cowboys game was big because that was an emotional game for all of us here in New York on [9/11]. But this ... this would be huge for us."

The Jets, with a league-high six postseason games over the past two years, are big-game tested. They have two players who made "the biggest plays on the biggest stage," Ryan said, referring to Burress and Holmes, both of whom caught game-winning passes in Super Bowls. "You feel great about that."

Recognizable names and big paychecks aside, Holmes, Burress & Co. will play critical roles Saturday. Here's why:

• Holmes and Burress: Holmes gagged last week against the Philadelphia Eagles, and Burress, the forgotten man in the offense, has only one catch in the past two games. None of that matters now; they're facing a porous secondary known for yielding big plays and suffering coverage breakdowns.

The Giants are 29th in pass defense. This is a must-win matchup for the Jets.

Holmes has spent extra time with Burress, on the field and in the film room, receiving intel on the Giants' cornerbacks, Corey Webster and Aaron Ross. Burress, a former Giant, has become a valuable resource. He and Holmes expect to have big days, and they haven't been shy about saying so.

They should be able to find favorable matchups throughout the game, especially when struggling rookie Prince Amukamara is on the field, but the Jets' passing attack is hit or miss.

There was so much buzz in the preseason about how Burress and Holmes were going to create nightmares for opposing defenses, but they've rarely been "on" at the same time -- only five games in which they've combined for at least 100 yards. In fact, Holmes has gone 20 straight games without cracking 100.

But they know how to score. Burress and Holmes have eight touchdown catches apiece, with a chance to become the first receiving tandem in team history to hit double digits in the same season. Ryan feels it coming together.

"As the year was going on, even at the beginning, we were thinking, 'Just think about these guys at the end of the season, how good they're going to be together,'" he said.

Now is that time.

• Sanchez: He's 1-1 against the Manning family, having faced Peyton twice in the playoffs. Now he gets the little brother, Eli, who's having arguably the best season of his career. There's no doubt which quarterback is better, but Sanchez has a wonderful opportunity to silence many of his critics.

It's probably going to take a clutch performance, because you just know this is going to be a four-quarter game. (Does anybody believe either of these teams is good enough to blow out the other?) Sanchez and Manning are two of the best fourth-quarter quarterbacks in the league, and it would be a perfect ending if it comes down to that.

"Both guys, I'm sure, would like to have the ball with a chance to win," Ryan said.

Most people figure it'll be another conservative, ground-and-pound game plan by the Jets, but the word close to the team is that Sanchez will get a chance to test the Giants' vulnerable secondary. Makes sense; it would be borderline criminal if the Jets don't try to attack their opponents' weakness.

That would be a departure for Sanchez, who has been the proverbial game manager. He's gone four straight games with less than 200 yards and 20 completions, the league's longest active streak, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Jets are going to need him to complete more passes, make some plays downfield (an issue this season) and not do anything careless. Unlike Manning, Sanchez doesn't have to win the game for his team. But he can't be the guy who loses it.

• Ferguson: The quiet man will be in the center of the storm, protecting Sanchez's blind side from Jason Pierre-Paul (13.5 sacks). This is best on best.

This is one of those rare cases in which you can't overstate the importance of a left tackle-defensive end matchup. If Ferguson can't keep JPP out of the backfield, it will have a domino effect on the entire offense, wrecking the Jets' game plan. Conversely, the Giants need Pierre-Paul to pressure Sanchez, or their cornerbacks will have a hard time covering.

Ferguson isn't having his best season (five sacks allowed, unofficially), but he's still considered an upper-echelon pass-protector. He's meticulous in his preparation, one of the most studious players on the team, and teammates say they've noticed a sharpened edge this week.

The Jets have tremendous respect for JPP, who Ryan believes should be starting in the Pro Bowl. Guard Brandon Moore said, "On film, he jumps out at you. A great talent. Third down is his money down."

But it hasn't been the Giants' money down. Since Week 11, their defense has the worst third-down percentage (54) in the league.

Hope for the Jets.

• Cromartie and Revis: The Giants have a wide receiver-driven offense, with Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, and that plays to the Jets' strength -- cornerback play. Cromartie and Revis are the reasons you give the Jets a good chance in this game.

Manning likes to throw deep. After watching film, the Jets' defensive backs were amazed by the Giants' vertical attack and Manning's ability to fit the ball into tight windows, 30 yards downfield. He can hit a "7" -- a vertical route -- wearing a blindfold. Unfortunately for the Giants, their receivers sometimes act like they're wearing blindfolds (six drops on long passes).

Manning has completed a league-high 36 passes on throws 21 yards or longer, according to ESPN Stats, but it won't be easy against the Jets' cornerback tandem. The defense has allowed the lowest completion percentage (23.4) on passes in that category, so we're talking strength versus strength.

"In the year of the quarterback," defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said, "he's very quietly had a career year."

The year is almost over, but this is when the big boys come to play. The Jets need theirs.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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