EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey (Ticker)—Peyton Manning will have all the pressure to win his first career playoff game.
While the matchup between the former AFC East rivals is sure to focus on the quarterbacks, coaches Tony Dungy and Herman Edwards also will be in the spotlight.
Dungy is in his first year with the Colts after spending his first six seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccanneers, where playoff disappointment led to his departure. Tampa Bay went 2-4 under Dungy in the playoffs, reaching the NFC championship game in the 1999 season. All four of the losses were on the road and both wins came at home.
Edwards, who has led the Jets to the playoffs for a second straight season, is familiar with Dungy’s playoff shortcomings. Edwards served as the Bucs’ defensive backs coach in Tampa Bay from 1996-2000 before taking the Jets job.
“We talk a lot during the course of the year,” Dungy said. “I talked to them when they were headed to San Diego. I think they might have been 2-5 at the time. We just talked about what we did in Tampa when things weren’t going well, which is cut back, do a little less and just focus on what you believe in. I knew he was going to do that anyway.”
Even with the Dungy-Edwards story line, Manning is under the most heat to produce a playoff win for the Colts.
The first overall pick in 1998, Manning always has been criticized for his shortcomings in big games as a collegian. That label has followed Manning to the pros, where he has lost his only two playoff games.
In playoff losses to Tennessee in 1999 and Miami the following season, Manning completed just 36-of-75 passes for 421 yards and one touchdown.
Manning knows that beating the Jets, who won seven of their last nine games, is going to be a major challenge.
“You’re talking about a team playing with a lot of confidence and momentum,” Manning said. “I have a lot of respect for their players, guys I’ve played against the last four years. I have a lot of respect for Herman Edwards and I’m really proud of the year Chad Pennington has had.”
Manning may have the star power, but Pennington is trying to become the fourth backup quarterback in as many seasons to lead his team to a Super Bowl title.
A first-round pick in 2000, Pennington was the backup to veteran Vinny Testaverde at the start of the season. But after the Jets lost three of their first four games, Edwards made a move that wound up saving the season when he switched to Pennington.
Kurt Warner started the backup quarterback script when he led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title in 1999 and Trent Dilfer of the Baltimore Ravens (2000) and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots (2001) followed. Pennington hopes to be next in line for a Super Bowl triumph.
All Pennington has done since replacing Testaverde is post an 8-4 record and complete an astounding 68.9 percent (275-of-399) of his passes for 3,120 yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Once Pennington took over as the starter, the Jets averaged 25.7 points over their final 12 games. They scored at least 30 points three times and reached 40 twice under Pennington.
Pennington’s main targets are wide receivers Laveranues Coles and Wayne Chrebet. Coles had 89 catches for 1,264 yards and five touchdowns while Chrebet caught 51 passes for 691 yards and nine scores. That duo will be matched against cornerbacks David Macklin and Walt Harris.
The offensive charge by the Jets allowed them to become the first team since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978 to win a division title after a 2-5 start.
“We’ve had a lot on the line because we just wanted to have a winning season,” Jets cornerback Aaron Beasley said. “We dug ourselves a hole so deep nobody thought we could get out. We just wanted to prove we were a team that had character.”
Manning’s primary option is Marvin Harrison, who obliterated Herman Moore’s single-season reception record. Harrison finished with 143 catches for 1,722 yards and 11 touchdowns. He matches up against corners Donnie Abraham and Aaron Beasley.
Both teams also feature viable ground games. The Jets have Curtis Martin, who has rushed for 1,094 yards and seven touchdowns. Indianapolis features two-time rushing champion Edgerrin James, who gained 989 yards and just two TDs in 14 games.
The teams split two games last season. Indianapolis posted a 45-24 victory here and the Jets captured the later meeting, 29-28.
“We’ve got history with them,” Colts linebacker Mike Peterson said. “I knew when I first got here it was the Colts-Jets and Colts-Dolphins. I’m ready for it, man. I wish we could play it right now. I’m ready for the playoffs.”