Peyton Manning(notes) stood on the sideline with his helmet still on and arms folded, helpless as the Indianapolis Colts’ undefeated run ended in Week 16. The New York Jets won’t get any such breaks this time.
At stake now is a Super Bowl appearance, with Manning and the Colts getting another shot at the confident Jets and their powerful defense in the AFC championship Sunday afternoon.
With home-field advantage already secured, Indianapolis (15-2) pulled Manning and other starters early in the second half against New York (11-7) on Dec. 27. The Jets took advantage, ending the Colts’ league-record 23-game regular-season winning streak while grabbing control of their playoff destiny with a 29-15 victory.
Though he never questioned rookie coach Jim Caldwell’s decision, Manning didn’t appear happy about it on the sideline at Lucas Oil Stadium as the Colts gave the Jets a window of opportunity that they have taken full advantage of.
Hosting its first conference title game since its Super Bowl title run four years ago, Indianapolis is hoping the extra rest will pay off against a New York team that had to scrap its way through the end of the regular season and two hard-fought playoff victories.
“I told them we wanted to end the regular season fresh, ready and well prepared,” Caldwell said. “I believe we did. It doesn’t give you any guarantees. It’s what you believe in and your convictions and playing well when it comes time.”
Despite trailing by five when the Colts decided to rest some of their regulars, the Jets kept hearing how Indianapolis handed them the victory. They used that as motivation to become the only road team to win in the divisional round, but coach Rex Ryan insists his team doesn’t need any extra incentive for this contest.
“This is the AFC championship,” said Ryan, whose team ranked first in total defense and scoring defense this season. “The motivation is going to come from the fact that the winner of this game advances to the Super Bowl. That’s probably motivation enough.”
This is the first time a conference championship game will have two first-year coaches, and the first time it will feature a Super Bowl rematch. The Jets’ only trip to the Super Bowl came before the AFL-NFL merger, when Joe Namath and New York stunned the heavily favored Baltimore Colts 16-7 in 1969.
Manning is certain to eventually join Johnny Unitas, his predecessor from that Super Bowl, in the Hall of Fame, and he appeared sharp coming off the bye in helping Indianapolis beat Baltimore 20-3 on Saturday.
Manning threw two touchdowns and went 30 of 44 for 246 yards while directing a patient offense. The running game again seemed to be an afterthought for the Colts, gaining 25 yards on 16 carries, while Manning completed 12 passes for 73 yards to his top targets, wide receiver Reggie Wayne(notes) and tight end Dallas Clark(notes).
Those numbers were subpar for the Pro Bowlers as Indianapolis prevailed against an aggressive Ravens defense. The Colts now have to contend with a relentless Jets team that shut down high-powered San Diego in a 17-14 win Sunday to advance to its first conference title game in 11 years.
New York, the AFC’s fifth seed, has won seven of eight after losing six of seven.
“We believed the whole time, the whole year, when it probably wasn’t the popular choice,” Ryan said. “We don’t have to apologize to anyone.”
Over the Jets’ last eight games, only the Colts have scored more than 14 points against them. Manning has had success against Rex Ryan’s defenses, going head-to-head with Ryan five times since 2005.
Manning went 82 of 132 for 1,136 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions in going 4-1 in those games. The only loss came in December.
“Against these guys, the more familiar you are with them, the better chance it gives you,” Manning said. “It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it does give you a better chance. That’s the focus right now: trying to get prepared mentally and physically to play a good game.”
Greene rushed for 420 yards and two TDs in his last four games for the Jets, who were the top-ranked rushing team during the regular season, taking pressure off Sanchez.
Indianapolis ranked 24th against the run but held the Ravens’ potent rushing attack to 87 yards in a dominant defensive effort. The Colts’ defense relies on speed, and Caldwell wanted the unit playing faster at the end of the season even if it meant resting starters.
“That was one of our goals,” Caldwell said. “I really believe in speed, particularly at a time of the year when maybe you can gain a step or two.”
The Colts will likely stack the line of scrimmage in an attempt to stop the run, forcing Sanchez to beat them. Sanchez, though, has played mostly mistake-free over his past four games, and has made big throws when the Jets have needed them.
The Jets are trying to become the first team to win a Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback.
“To get to the Super Bowl, no team really has an easy ride,” New York linebacker Bart Scott(notes) said. “If you want to earn the right to go to the Super Bowl, you have to go through teams you’re not supposed to beat.”
The Colts lost their only playoff matchup with the Jets 41-0 in a wild-card contest Jan. 4, 2003. Manning was intercepted twice and limited to 137 yards for a 31.3 passer rating, his lowest in 16 playoff appearances.