New York was strikingly quiet at about 6 PM yesterday when the final seconds ticked off the game clock. Mark Sanchez was still slinging passes down the field in a blatant attempt to pad stats and please the fans who thought the Jets were a sure bet to cover as 8.5 point underdogs, but it was clear – this game was over. The clock reading 00:00 was merely a formality.
In retrospect, that the J-E-T-S would go on to lose this game was obvious at about with two minutes and eleven seconds left in the first half. That’s when, after the Jets forced a turnover and took a totally improbable 17-6 lead, the real Peyton Manning took the field.
Peyton Manning has engineered drives in the last two minutes of the half this year and come away with 77 points. For some perspective, writes Paul Kuharsky for ESPN.com, that’s as many points as the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, and St. Louis Rams have scored in a half this season. That statistic isn’t just a league leader – it’s flat out exceptional. When the pressure’s on, Peyton Manning delivers. So color me as less than surprised when he picks apart the best defense in the league on a drive that took less than a full minute. 58 seconds after getting the ball, Austin Collie was in the end zone, the dome was shaking, and a Jets fan sitting on the couch could only sigh as they ran a few meaningless plays to get them into the half. Deflated barely does justice to the feeling of watching Peyton Manning have his way with your team.
Still, even coming out of the half, you had to feel relatively good as a Jets fan. Up by 4 on the road in the AFC Championship game with the best defense in football and a running game that exhausted opposing defenses. A few long drives, playing field position and another score could’ve locked this game up. That good feeling was put to rest when Shonn Greene, one of three breakout stars this post-season for the Jets and the team’s most dominant rusher, went out with a rib injury. Thomas Jones is a solid runner who had an excellent year (1402 yards, 14 TD), but he’s been shy of contact during the playoffs and has a tendency to dance instead of just hitting the hole. Greene gets yards after contact and is a pure North-South runner, which is exactly what was needed in the second half in order to keep drives alive. With only a semi-healthy Jones, the Jets rushed for a paltry 86 yards (averaging only 3.0 yards per carry) and couldn’t sustain drives against a team that suddenly developed a killer instinct with the last drive in first half.
But there are no excuses, really. The Colts were the better team in the regular season and the better team now because they have the best player in football lining up under center. There’s a reason why QB17 is terrific – when the chips are in and everything is on the line, Peyton Manning drops the hammer. It wasn’t a skill that he was born with, but one he developed over time. If Mark Sanchez can be 50% of the QB that Manning is right now, he’ll have had a heck of a career.
Jets fans have a lot to look forward to now. They have a rookie running back who has looked like the league’s next breakout rusher, a rookie head coach who instills confidence in his team with every word and enjoys the spotlight afforded to him by New York, and a rookie QB who is so excited to play the game that he looks like Shelley Duncan in the Yankee dugout. They have the league’s best defensive player and a defensive team that lacks a pass rushing star but plays well together. The Colts had too many weapons today, but the core of the Jets makes the future look bright. Congratulations to the Indianapolis Colts on a fine regular season and AFC Championship. The game against New Orleans in Miami in two weeks should be exceptional.