Did the Indianapolis Colts create a monster when they pulled their starters in Week 16, thus paving the way for the Jets' playoff run?
We'll find out in the AFC Championship Game next Sunday, when the surprising New York Jets face the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell benched his starters with 5:36 left in the third quarter of that Week 16 matchup, which the Jets won 29-15. The Colts led 15-10 and seemingly had the game under control.
Out went Peyton Manning. In came rookie Curtis Painter, who couldn't generate anything on offense. The Jets, who were 7-7 and on the verge of elimination from the playoff race, were further aided by a lethargic performance in Week 17 by a Bengals team that had clinched the AFC North and had no motivation to win.
Now the Jets are flying high after pulling off the biggest upset of the playoffs: a 17-14 victory over the San Diego Chargers. It was a strange game, in which Philip Rivers threw two interceptions and Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding missed three field goals. Kaeding had missed only three of 35 attempts during the regular season.
For the second consecutive year a rookie quarterback -- this time Mark Sanchez -- advanced to the AFC Championship Game. Joe Flacco of the Ravens won two playoff games as a rookie last season but lost to the Steelers in the title game in Pittsburgh.
Give credit to Jets coach Rex Ryan. A year ago, he was the defensive coordinator of that Ravens team. He brought the same formula that worked in Baltimore to New York. To protect his rookie quarterback, Ryan ran the ball 38 times a game in the regular season, allowing Sanchez to run the offense with minimal pressure. Last season, Flacco guided a Ravens offense that ran the ball 37 times a game.
What makes this such an amazing story is that the Jets wouldn't have been in the playoffs were it not for the Colts. Now the Jets stand in the way of the Colts going to Miami for the Super Bowl.
1. What's the biggest surprise of the AFC Championship Game?
That a running team like the Jets advanced this far. In a 2009 season that featured 10 4,000-yard passers and 12 quarterbacks who threw for at least 25 touchdowns, teams that relied on running the ball and playing defense lost some luster.
Not the Jets. Ryan has brought an attitude to this team. The Jets' defense blitzes more than any other team in the NFL. Ryan attacked Rivers with blitzes from every possible angle. He loves have two defenders rush the gaps between the center and guards. He'll then come back and overload sides of the blocking scheme to try get a defender to rush free at the quarterback. To complicate things further, he'll have a third blitzing defender coming in on a delay. The scheme works. The Jets had 32 sacks, but quarterbacks had a rating of only 58.8 against New York. The Jets' mission next week is to make life miserable for Manning.
2. How did the strategy work in the first game?
Manning didn't put up great numbers in the Dec. 27 game in Lucas Oil Stadium. He was 14-for-21 for 192 yards and no touchdowns, But he wasn't intercepted and he wasn't sacked. After Brad Smith had a 106-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at the beginning of the third quarter that gave the Jets a 10-9 lead, Manning started to figure things out. He executed a nine-play, 81-yard drive that culminated with a 1-yard touchdown run by rookie halfback Donald Brown.
The Jets followed the same plan in that victory that they did against the Chargers. Sanchez was 8-for-10 in the first half for a modest 69 yards, but he didn't commit a turnover. Halfbacks Thomas Jones and rookie Shonn Greene combined for 68 yards on 15 carries in the first half.
The great part about this rematch is the possibility of Ryan providing some bulletin-board material for the Colts' locker room. Ryan speaks his mind. He believes in his players. He'll call them favorites even though they will be heavy underdogs against Manning.
3. What's the recent history of home-field advantage in the AFC title game?
Although the lower seed has played higher seeds tough in recent years, the home team has prevailed in the past three AFC title games. From 1997 to 2005, though, the road team had a 5-3 record in the AFC Championship Game. In the past 25 AFC title games, the home team has a 16-9 record.
4. What's the injury situation for both teams?
Both teams are in good shape. The Colts had a 22-name injury report before Saturday's game against the Ravens, but the only scratch was kicker Adam Vinatieri, whose tender knee has given Matt Stover the place-kicking duties. Stover is expected to be the kicker next Sunday. The 22 players, including Vinatieri, were all listed as probable. Colts halfback Joseph Addai injured a shoulder against the Ravens, but he was able to return in the second half after going to the locker room for treatment. Safety Antoine Bethea landed hard on his back during a fourth-quarter interception, but he only had the wind knocked out of him.
The Jets are only slightly more banged up, but not to the point that anyone might miss the game. Defensive end Shaun Ellis was limited Sunday by a hand injury suffered in the first quarter. He played on passing downs. Entering the game, he had a sore knee that has been bothering him for weeks. Linebacker Bart Scott showed no ill effects from an ankle injury suffered in the first week of the playoffs. Jones wasn't slowed by a sore knee. Punter Steve Weatherford was cleared to play despite an irregular heartbeat. His first punt Sunday was terrible, but the rest were solid.
5. How much will running backs be a factor in this game?
For the Jets, the running game is everything. For the Colts, it's only a minor option. The Jets depend on the running game to make it easier for Sanchez. The Jets is that they are the only running team left in the playoffs. Passing teams ruled in 2009. Fifteen running backs rushed for at least 1,000 yards. Adrian Peterson of the Vikings and Jones of the Jets are the only 1,000-yard runners left.
Running isn't something the Colts do well. The Colts have two first-round talents -- Addai and Brown -- but neither had a great year. Addai rushed for 828 yards and only 3.8 yards per carry. Brown had 78 carries and a 3.6-yard average.
This game will be decided by the quarterbacks and by who plays better on defense. The Colts' offensive line might be the least-talented blocking unit of the 12 teams to make the playoffs. Manning's ability to get rid of the ball quickly keeps the line's pass blocking functional. The weaknesses of the Colts' line are exposed on running plays.
6. Is there an interesting stat/trend that could favor Manning in this game?
Yes, red zone efficiency. Brett Favre was the best red zone quarterback in the NFL this season with 27 touchdown passes, but Manning is exceptional in the red zone. He had a 100.8 quarterback rating inside opponents' 20-yard line. He completed 47 of 78 red zone passes for 267 yards and 20 touchdowns. Think about that for a second. Approximately one of every four passes he threw in the red zone went for a touchdown. He threw only one red zone interception and completed 60.3 percent of those passes.
Sanchez is like most rookie quarterbacks: He struggles in the red zone. He was 17-for-39 for 142 yards and threw eight touchdown passes in the red zone during the regular season. He was sacked four times and intercepted once in the red zone. His quarterback rating there was 82.5.
7. At which stage of the game should the Jets be overcautious?
Manning is extremely dangerous in the final two minutes of the first half. The Colts scored 58 points in the final two minutes of first halves in the regular season, trailing only the Saints (72) and Eagles (61). The Colts took control of their 20-3 victory over the Ravens on Saturday with an impressive 64-yard drive in the final two minutes of the first half. Manning is a master of the two-minute offense, but he steals a lot of wins by getting a touchdown or a field goal drive right before the half. Saturday's 64-yard drive took only 83 seconds and gave the Colts a 17-3 lead at intermission.
8. If there is one key matchup to watch, what is it?
Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney against Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Although Ferguson is considered one of the top left tackles in the AFC and is going to the Pro Bowl, he is at a slight disadvantage going against the shorter Freeney. Eight of Freeney's 13.5 regular-season sacks came against left tackles who were 6-foot-6 or taller. Ferguson is 6-6. Freeney created havoc for Ravens left tackle Jared Gaither (6-8) on Saturday night even though he didn't get a sack.
The 6-1 Freeney has the ability to rush low and get under the pads of a tall tackle. Freeney got two hits on Baltimore QB Joe Flacco and drew a holding penalty on Saturday night. Freeney had two sacks in the first Jets game despite playing only part time. Even though Freeney rested on run downs in the final couple of games, he was third in the NFL behind DeMarcus Ware of the Cowboys and Trent Cole of the Eagles with 40½ quarterback hurries.
9. Explain the Darrelle Revis factor in this game.
Revis, the Jets' Pro Bowl cornerback, has shut down top wide receivers all season, and he will match up against Reggie Wayne. Don't expect Wayne to do much. In the first game against the Jets, Wayne caught only three passes for 33 yards. Manning only threw to him seven times. Revis has held most top receivers under 40 yards. For Manning, the job will be to distribute the ball to other pass-catchers.
Ryan's biggest challenge will be to find the safety help to stop tight end Dallas Clark. The Jets' safeties have been vulnerable to top tight ends, and Clark, who had 100 catches, is at the top of his game. One of the other keys will be rookie wide receiver Austin Collie, who will clearly draw single coverage in the slot. Collie led the Colts with 94 yards on six catches in the first Jets game.
10. Who's going to win?
This one is pretty easy, although I thought the Chargers would beat the Jets. The Colts, after letting Sanchez and the Jets get into the playoffs, will go to the Super Bowl. The week after that loss to the Jets was ugly in Indianapolis. Fans were upset because they wanted the Colts to go for the 16-0 season. Caldwell and general manager Bill Polian were more concerned about injuries. They had about a dozen players who were banged up. Owner Jim Irsay had to come to the defense of his coach and general manager by saying that the only goal for this team was the Super Bowl.
The main reason I'm picking the Colts is Manning. The Colts proved that running and defense can only get you so far in games against them. The Dolphins had the ball for about 45 minutes in a Monday night game in Week 2. Manning came back and won the game 27-23 with a touchdown drive in the final minutes.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.