AFC title game: Can Jets get to Manning?

More: NFC title game preview

It’s been 41 years since a dashing young quarterback took a New York Jets team featuring a strong running game and a stout defense to the Super Bowl. Rookie Mark Sanchez(notes) still has a long way to go to catch Joe Namath, but he’s doing the one thing that made Namath famous: leaning on some other parts of the team.

The question now is whether the Jets have enough to overcome the Indianapolis Colts, which have only themselves to blame for allowing New York to get this far. If the Colts had played to win in the 15th game of the season, the Jets would have been eliminated from the playoffs.

Oh, the irony.

With that in mind, consider the following four issues as critical to the Jets-Colts matchup on Sunday in the AFC championship game.

Peyton Manning(notes) and the Colts lost to the Jets in Week 16, 29-15. (Getty Images)

1. Jets pass rush vs. Colts pass protection
The Jets don’t care who the opposing quarterback is, they’re blitzing. Whether it’s Tom Brady(notes) or Philip Rivers(notes), the Jets are coming. The intriguing part is that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was sacked a career-low 10 times this season, although he was sacked twice in the second half by Baltimore on Saturday. Manning is one of the greatest passers in the league against the blitz. This matchup will be fascinating.

2. Reggie Wayne vs. Darrelle Revis
The Jets’ Pro Bowl cornerback has shut down all comers this season. From Andre Johnson(notes) to Randy Moss(notes) to Chad Ochocinco(notes) to Vincent Jackson(notes), Revis has contained one great receiver after another with his incredible coverage skills and strength. The Colts can live with that for awhile, but eventually they have to get Wayne involved in the offense to make it work effectively. Keep an eye on this matchup, particularly if Wayne goes the first quarter or so without a catch.

Shonn Greene(notes) (right) (Getty Images)

3. Colts’ defensive speed vs. Jets’ power running game
Statistics show that the Colts are vulnerable against strong running teams. However, that’s not exactly the reality because the Colts do a great job of running down plays with an aggressive pursuit. “If you aren’t running on this defense, it ain’t pretty for you in the [film] meetings,” Colts linebacker Clint Session(notes) said. As the Colts showed against Baltimore, they can keep a good running team from getting into a groove (the Ravens had 87 yards on 19 carries). They now face the No. 1 running team in the league, featuring the powerful Shonn Greene. The Colts aren’t overpowering, but they are perhaps the best pursuit team in the league.

Mark Sanchez (Getty Images)

4. Mark Sanchez vs. himself
Give the rookie from USC a lot of credit: He didn’t produce much in the way of stats against San Diego (12 of 23 for 100 yards, one interception and one touchdown pass), but he avoided critical mistakes and came up with three or four nice throws. That included a sweet touchdown pass to Dustin Keller(notes) to give the Jets the lead early in the fourth quarter. The most important thing Sanchez did was not screw up. He has joined Matt Ryan(notes), Joe Flacco(notes) and Ben Roethlisberger(notes) as rookie quarterbacks to get to the playoffs. The question is whether the glare of the playoffs will finally overwhelm him.

Prediction: Colts 24, Jets 16
Give the Jets a lot of credit for what they have done in peaking at the right time. They will give the Colts all they can handle. However, it’s simply hard to believe that Manning and the Colts will let this game slip away. The Colts have played with supreme-yet-quiet confidence all season. That won’t change now.