A lot of you don’t have time to obsess over every aspect of the Jets’ AFC Championship Game against the Colts on Sunday, though we can’t imagine what you’re doing that could possibly be more important. (Come on, now, the Jets are a game away from the Super Bowl? Why are you even here?) But maybe you’ll be at some sort of social occasion, required to talk about it anyway. Worry not! Here’s your quick and easy guide to the five major story lines in the game. Memorize this, and you’ll no longer fear looking like a fool when talking to three men who have painted their faces and are wearing firemens’ hats and carrying axes.
You’re going to be seeing more Curtis Painter than you will at any other time in your life. No, no, silly, he’s not going to play: It is the unique curse of Colts backup quarterback Curtis Painter that the only time he’ll ever get any national television exposure will be repeated replays of him costing his team an undefeated season. Painter’s misfortune is that the Colts are playing that very Jets team in the AFC Championship Game, so they’ll be showing that play — the one Colts fans are still mad at coach Jim Caldwell about — over and over and over. As we’ve said before, you have to wonder if the Colts wish they could have stomped on the Jets’ throats while they had the chance.
The Jets are trying to clone last week’s game. The plan was simple against the Chargers last week: Withstand the early charge from an offensively superior team, keep the game close, and wait for the other team to screw up. Voilà! (Thank you, Nate Kaeding.) The Colts and the Chargers are remarkably similar, so the Jets will plan accordingly. If the Jets are down 7–0 at halftime, like they were last week, they will be ecstatic.
The massive men in green need to push around the slightly less massive (but still quite massive) men in blue. The Colts have what NFL people like to call a “finesse” defense, which is strange when you consider their four-man defensive line averages 283 pounds. In the NFL, that’s lithe for your d-line, thus making you “finesse.” The Jets’ offensive line is considerably larger than that, which the Jets will try to use to their advantage, pounding Shonn Greene and Thomas Jones through presumably large holes. The Jets will try to do this the whole game. If it works, they’ve got a legitimate chance.
Peyton Manning is indestructible. For several years now, even when the Colts have not had their most talented of teams (like the one that won the Super Bowl, for example), Manning has found ways to keep his teams competitive. Even if the Colts are down late, Manning has proven time and again that the Colts are never too far behind. He is the nerdy book-learnin’ quarterback who has taken the science of the position to an extreme: You sometimes wonder if he just sees cornerbacks as succession of binary codes. He’s the MVP, he’s a champion, and he’s unstoppable: Manning will never, ever die. The Jets should be nervous every time he takes a snap that he will stare at Darrelle Revis until the All-Pro corner explodes into dust.
Sanchez. Again. The reason the Jets have to keep it close is because they are specifically unequipped to come from behind, particularly late in the game. That is to say: If the Jets are down by more than ten in the fourth quarter, they’re going to have to ask Mark Sanchez to do things he isn’t ready to do yet. They haven’t taken the water wings off him all season, and the end of the AFC Championship Game, during a time of maximum desperation, is a horrible time to have to do it. Sanchez can be a hero, but only by not being a hero, if that makes sense. How confident are you in Sanchez driving down the field with a minute left, needing a touchdown? Not much more than the Jets are, we suspect. If the Colts strike early and take a big lead … this could be over fast. Sanchez might think he can bring his team all the way back, but the Jets know better. So do the Colts.