TIME: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. EST.
Herman Edwards got some encouragement from mentor and friend Tony Dungy when the New York Jets opened the season 2-5.
Apparently, Dungy’s words had an effect.
Edwards and his Jets hope to carry the momentum of their late-season surge into a first-round AFC playoff game against Dungy and the Indianapolis Colts at Giants Stadium.
New York shook off its slow start and rallied to capture the AFC East title with a stirring 42-17 victory over Green Bay in last Sunday’s regular season finale.
“We just talked about what we did in Tampa when things weren’t going well,” Dungy said of his conversation with Edwards, who served as his assistant head coach for five years at Tampa Bay.
Edwards went on a tirade at a press conference that week, seemingly sparking the rejuvenated Jets. But Edwards’ smartest move this season probably came following a 28-3 loss to Jacksonville, when he benched Vinny Testaverde in favor of third-year quarterback Chad Pennington.
Pennington, who waited behind Testaverde after the Jets selected him in the first round of the 2000 draft, went on to lead the league in passer rating at 104.2 and completion percentage (68.9).
The Jets went 8-4 under his leadership, capturing their first East title since 1998.
“We’ve definitely opened some eyes and people realize we are not a fluke,” Pennington said after throwing four touchdown passes against Green Bay. “You always wonder if you will be able to stay focused and answer every challenge. We have a lot of character on this team. It’s about coming together as a team when no one thinks you can.”
New York defeated the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots the previous week, but still needed help Sunday to capture the division crown. The Jets got it when the Patriots rallied to beat Miami.
“This is the best moment of my career,” said Jets running back Curtis Martin, who has come on of late after battling through injuries earlier in the season.
“We’ve been through so much, we were at the bottom of not only the division but this league.”
Indianapolis’ finale wasn’t nearly as dramatic as New York’s.
The Colts knew they would be in the playoffs prior to rallying for a 20-13 triumph over Jacksonville, completing Dungy’s first season with Indianapolis at 10-6.
Quarterback Peyton Manning, who is bidding for his first playoff win in three tries, had another strong campaign for the Colts. He passed for 4,200 yards and 27 touchdowns even though running back Edgerrin James labored through most of the season.
James, however, had a solid game against the Jaguars on Sunday, gaining 86 yards on 15 carries.
Since returning to the field less than a year after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, James has struggled to find his previous form.
“It’s not normal for me to not be able to practice, not be able to do the things I normally do,” said James, who rushed for better than 1,500 yards in his first two seasons before managing just 1,551 combined the last two years.
“When I get in a game, any little nick and I’m in so much pain. It’s frustrating and everything, but you’ve just got to keep pushing.”
There has certainly been no dropoff in production from wide receiver Marvin Harrison, who caught an NFL-record 143 passes this season.
While Manning, James and Harrison have been mainstays of a strong Colts offense the past few seasons, the defensive-minded Dungy had some work ahead of him when he was brought in during the offseason.
Last year, Indianapolis’ defense ranked 29th in the league. Dungy, who helped build one of the league’s strongest defenses in Tampa Bay, helped the Colts finish ninth in defense this season.
Much of the Colts’ improvement was due to the strong play of rookie defensive end Dwight Freeney, who finished the season with 13 sacks—a team record and the second-most in league history by a rookie.
Only Tennessee’s Jevon Kearse, with 14 1/2 in 1999, had more sacks in his first NFL season.
“I am getting noticed,” Freeney said. “I’ve had to deal with a lot more double-teams as the year has gone along, and maybe for the rest of my career.”
Freeney’s 36 quarterback pressures and nine forced fumbles also led the Colts this year.
This is the first meeting between the teams this season. The Jets and Colts were AFC East rivals before this season’s realignment.
This is the first playoff encounter between the franchises since Joe Namath led the Jets to a 16-7 Super Bowl victory over the then-Baltimore Colts in January 1969.
The reunion of Dungy and Edwards will also mark the first time two African-American coaches square off in a postseason game.
FINAL STANDINGS: Colts - 2nd place, AFC South. Jets - 1st place, AFC East.
COLTS LEADERS: Offense - Manning, 4,200 passing yards and 27 passing TDs; James, 989 rushing yards; James Mungro, 8 rushing TDs; Harrison, 143 receptions, 1,722 receiving yards and 11 receiving TDs. Defense - Mike Peterson, 136 tackles and 3 INTs; Freeney, 13 sacks.
JETS LEADERS: Offense - Pennington, 3,120 passing yards and 22 passing TDs; Martin, 1,094 rushing yards and 7 rushing TDs; Laveranues Coles, 89 receptions, 1,264 receiving yards; Wayne Chrebet, 9 receiving TDs. Defense - Sam Cowart, 127 tackles; John Abraham, 10 sacks; Donnie Abraham, 4 INTs.
COLTS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 97.6 yards per game (26th in NFL); Passing Offense - 253.4 ypg (4th); Total Offense - 351 ypg (10th). Rushing Defense - 124.5 ypg (20th); Passing Defense - 182.3 ypg (2nd); Total Defense - 306.8 ypg (8th).
JETS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 101.1 ypg (22nd); Passing Offense - 213.6 ypg (17th); Total Offense - 314.8 ypg (22nd). Rushing Defense - 123.3 ypg (18th); Passing Defense - 218.1 ypg (5th); Total Defense - 341.4 ypg (24th).
LAST MEETING: Dec. 23, 2001; Jets, 29-28. At Indianapolis, Testaverde threw the game-winning six-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Becht with 1:58 remaining.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Colts - QB Manning is the first player in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards four straight seasons. … RB James has run for 500 yards in five career games against the Jets. … WR Reggie Wayne finished fifth in the AFC with 14.6 yards per reception. Jets - WR Chrebet had a career-high nine TDs this season. … RB Martin has moved up to 14th in career rushing with 10,361 yards. He finished with 83 yards Sunday and 1,094 for the year, his eighth straight over 1,000. Barry Sanders is the only other back to begin his career with eight consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns. … QB Pennington has thrown 18 touchdowns without an interception in the red zone.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Colts - 5-3 on the road; Jets - 5-3 at home.
INJURIES: Colts: QUESTIONABLE: DE Chad Bratzke (leg); RB Jim Finn (ankle); CB Brian Leigeb (hip); DE Brad Scioli (shoulder); LB Sam Sword (ankle); DT Larry Tripplett (back); LB Marcus Washington (knee); RB Ricky Williams (ankle). PROBABLE: CB Jason Doering (neck); CB Nicholas Harper (back); CB Walt Harris (knee); CB Joseph Jefferson (hand); LB Peterson (hand); RB Detron Smith (hamstring); LB Donnel Thompson (wrist); DT Josh Williams (knee). Jets - PROBABLE: P Matt Turk (stomach).
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