SAN DIEGO – Rex Ryan's team had been held without a point. It hadn't picked up a first down until eight minutes remained in the second quarter. At halftime of Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game at Qualcomm Stadium, Ryan's New York Jets had been outgained by the San Diego Chargers, 212-99, and looked as gassed and outclassed as the rest of the weekend's lower-seeded roadkill.
As the rookie coach convened with his players in Qualcomm's cramped visitors' locker room, it seemed inevitable to the outside world that the favored Chargers would eventually build on their seven-point lead and bust open the game, the way the favored Saints, Colts and Vikings had in securing the first three spots in next weekend's conference championship clashes.
To Ryan, the scoreboard was a thing of beauty.
"We just played the worst football we can possibly play, and we're still in it," Ryan told his players. "Now let's go out there and play our game. Just be true to us. If we go out there and play Jets football, we'll win the game."
What, you expected Ryan to be meek and understated? Yeah, and Al Pacino will be restrained and subtle in his next cinematic role, and the reunited Soundgarden will play acoustic folk tunes on tour.
Spurred on by their brash, unabashed leader, the Jets stayed true to themselves – running the ball with relentless persistence, subduing the Chargers' potent offense with brute force – and remained in the hunt for what would be one of the least likely Super Bowl appearances in history.
In slugging their way to a 17-14 victory over a San Diego team that hadn't lost in three months, the Jets reached their first AFC championship game since the 1998 season, setting up a rematch next Sunday with the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Late last month, the Jets kept their playoff hopes alive by coming from behind to beat then-undefeated Indy – after Colts coach Jim Caldwell abruptly pulled Peyton Manning(notes) and other starters in the third quarter. After watching Manning and company roll over the Baltimore Ravens, 20-3, on Saturday, most of America is convinced that the Jets (who opened as 7½-point underdogs) will once again be overmatched. In a potential Super Bowl XLIV matchup, either New Orleans or Minnesota would likely be favored to beat New York, too.
Ryan, naturally, is about as intimidated as a New York cabbie in downtown San Diego traffic.
"We've got a bunch of tough-asses," Ryan said Sunday as he walked through a tunnel leading out of Qualcomm toward the Jets' team buses. "This is the team I thought it was."
It's a team that the 47-year-old Ryan, hired exactly one year ago Tuesday, molded in his image from the start. His bravado and penchant for saucy personal expression was greeted warmly in a locker room reeling from the repressive regime of Eric Mangini. This was the NFL's equivalent of glasnost, and the Jets greeted it like disembarking airline passengers tasting their first breath of non-stale air.
The transition, says veteran fullback Tony Richardson(notes), was "unbelievable. Having a coach like Rex is cool. He was talking junk from day one. He said, 'You take one of ours, we'll take two of yours.' He said he wasn't here to kiss [Patriots coach Bill] Belichick's rings. A lot of coaches will say, 'Be careful what you say …' Rex has never once told us how to handle the media. He just lets us be."
Just as his father, Buddy, did as a renowned defensive coordinator – and later as the Eagles' and Cardinals' outspoken head coach – Rex cultivated a swagger that shows up on the playing field.
"It's good," safety Kerry Rhodes(notes) says of Ryan's approach. "It's not just the talking-smack part. He's not just saying it to say it. He's saying it cause he believes in us, and it carries over. That's a good thing."
Of all the semi-controversial statements Ryan has made since taking the Jets' job, perhaps the strangest was his postgame announcement after a disappointing 10-7 defeat to the Atlanta Falcons on Dec. 20 that "we're obviously out of the playoffs, and that's unfortunate."
Fortunately for the Jets, Ryan's understanding of math doesn't come close to matching his brilliant grasp of blitz packages and other creative defensive schemes. Ryan's report of his team's demise, it turned out, was greatly exaggerated. The Jets, 7-7 at the time, earned one of the AFC's wild-card berths by beating the Colts and Bengals, earning a first-round rematch with Cincinnati.
At that point Ryan swung back to unbridled optimism, handing out a detailed itinerary to his players that extended two days past the Super Bowl and included a victory parade through Manhattan. At 50-1, New York was the longest shot in the 12-team playoff field to win it all; naturally, Ryan told reporters, "To me, we should be favorites."
The Jets, owners of the league's top-ranked defense and No. 1 rushing attack during the regular season, beat up the Bengals, 24-14, in a first-round playoff victory, then met up with the Chargers, who during their season-ending, 11-game winning streak had averaged 30 points per game.
Ryan relied on some unremarkable methods to get his team motivated, showing his players film of Mike Tyson in his prime during their Saturday night meeting at the team hotel and harping on the widespread perception that the Chargers would roll to victory. "Let's shock the world," he told his players, who charged out of the tunnel to the jeers of 69,498 fans acting as if Qualcomm were their home field.
More significant was Ryan's strategic vision and adaptability. Rather than doing the expected – taking his best defensive weapon, unparalleled shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes), and matching him on San Diego's top receiver, Vincent Jackson(notes) – Ryan relied mostly on zone-based schemes early on, with Revis switching liberally between Jackson and fellow wideout Malcom Floyd(notes).
The Chargers and Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) seemed confused by the Jets' defensive wrinkles, wasting two timeouts in the first quarter and incurring several pre-snap penalties. Still, Rivers managed to move the ball and found third-string tight end Kris Wilson(notes) in the back of the end zone on a 13-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter.
"It threw them off," Rhodes said, "but I think it messed us up. We tried to play zone and trick them early, but it kind of backfired. When we went back to man-to-man and matched up our better players – [Revis] took Vincent Jackson, I took [tight end Antonio] Gates – it got better. We couldn't keep letting Gates run around in that zone. We had to match up."
Said Revis: "At halftime I told [defensive backs coach Dennis Thurman], 'We need to play some man. We need to match up with these guys and get physical.' Personally, I think the San Diego Chargers are a finesse offense. I think [Rivers] has a problem with that a little bit, when people get physical with his receivers, 'cause it throws off his timing."
To his credit, Ryan listened to his players' input at halftime and responded.
"Oh, always," he said as he left the stadium. "We just wanted to make a couple of adjustments … with personnel grouping. But it's something we do all the time. Our guys are a smart group. We had to be able to do that on the fly."
Rivers attributed the Chargers' second-half struggles mostly to his team's lack of precision, rather than to the Jets' strategic changes. But the quarterback expressed an appreciation for the effectiveness of Ryan's in-your-face coaching style. After all, they're brothers from a different mother: Rivers is the NFL's most vocal quarterback, one known for engaging (and often annoying) opponents on a consistent basis.
"I think one thing I've learned," Rivers said as he left the stadium, "whatever being yourself is, you know, it gets scrutinized … but you've got to do what's best for your team as a coach and a player."
Ryan and Sanchez celebrate in the fourth quarter.
(Jeff Chiu/AP Photo)
As the Jets took over the game in the second half, Ryan was like an old Who album on the sidelines: Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy. He had a lot to celebrate. After intercepting consecutive Rivers passes late in the third quarter – the first a spectacular grab by Revis off of the prone Jackson's body, the second an underthrown ball that safety Jim Leonhard(notes) caught in stride – New York went ahead on rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez's(notes) scrambling, two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dustin Keller(notes).
On the Jets' next drive, the team's unbending commitment to the run finally paid off, with rookie Shonn Greene(notes) (23 carries, 128 yards) bursting up the middle, blasting through safety Eric Weddle's(notes) attempted tackle and racing 53 yards for a touchdown with 7:17 remaining.
"We come at you from the start with the run, and at the beginning, it's like running into a brick wall," Woody said. "The thing about our team is, we'll keep pounding, pounding, pounding, and eventually we'll break through."
After surviving Rivers' one-yard touchdown run with 2:14 remaining and a scary onside kick that Rhodes expertly gathered in traffic, Ryan faced one more big decision: On fourth-and-1 from the San Diego 29 with 1:09 remaining, he could summon kicker Jay Feely(notes) to try to extend the Jets' lead to six, or he could hand the ball to one of his backs and try to ice the game.
His attitude, as he explained afterward: "Hey, let's be true to ourselves."
That meant the Jets would go for it and run the play everyone in the stadium expected them to run. Veteran halfback Thomas Jones(notes) took a handoff from Sanchez and rumbled up the middle for a two-yard gain, clinching the biggest upset of the 2009 playoffs and setting off a giddy celebration on the visitors' sidelines.
A few minutes later a Jets official led the rotund Ryan into a packed interview room and asked reporters to clear a path to the podium.
"Make a hole for coach," the official said, and the crowd began to part.
Still feeling the squeeze, Ryan cracked, "Make it a big hole."
Everyone laughed. Without a doubt, the rookie coach owned the room.
One more stunning victory, and the rest of the football world will be his for the taking.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• When I first met Brett Favre(notes) back in the early '90s, he was the Packers' merry prankster, a constant threat to douse a teammate in a toilet stall with a bucket of ice water or to pull off an intricate practical joke. Even at 40, Favre still has plenty of schoolboy humor in him; last week he busted up Minnesota Vikings teammates with numerous impressions of the "Pants On The Ground" song and dance featured on "American Idol." After throwing four touchdown passes in a 34-3 divisional-round playoff victory that, in a figurative sense, left the Dallas Cowboys with their pants on the ground, Favre reprised the routine while leading the team cheer in the locker room. The future Hall of Famer's ebulliance was not unjustified: Favre, who drew out the decision to end his retirement for the second consecutive summer before signing with one of the Pack's NFC North rivals, resoundingly validated the move. Even if the Vikes flame out in next Sunday's NFC championship clash with the Saints in New Orleans – in the stadium where Favre won his only Super Bowl 13 years ago – Minnesota has surpassed last season's one-and-done playoff performance. So yeah, it was worth it, case closed. One huge reason the Vikes rolled on Sunday was defensive end Ray Edwards(notes), the Ringo Starr of the team's vaunted defensive line. Against the Cowboys, it was drum-solo time: Edwards had five tackles – all for losses – including three sacks of Tony Romo(notes), forcing a fumble in the process. Even Simon Cowell would’ve had a tough time finding fault in his (or the Vikings') performance.
• A lot of otherwise impartial people are rooting for the Saints to reach their first Super Bowl, and one reason is an acknowledgment of what the franchise means to a region still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The organization provided more cause for devotion last week with a classy gesture: re-signing 31-year-old halfback Deuce McAllister(notes) to fill a roster spot, even though New Orleans coach Sean Payton had no intention of activating the team’s all-time leader rusher. With McAllister leading the team out of the tunnel and serving as honorary captain, the Saints rolled to a 45-14 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday. Fittingly, Reggie Bush(notes), the man drafted to supplant McAllister (just as McAllister was drafted to supplant Ricky Williams(notes)), had his most significant game as a pro, scoring on an electrifying 46-yard run and an 83-yard punt return and gaining 217 all-purpose yards. I remember calling McAllister to get his reaction after the Saints took Bush with the second overall pick of the 2006 draft and marveling at his reaction: He offered no bitterness or false bravado. He simply said that the Saints had to pick Bush in that spot, because the kid is that good, and he trusted that Payton would figure out a way to utilize each back’s talents. Payton’s still doing that three years later with Bush and the other backs on his roster; give him and the team’s front office credit for allowing McAllister – who has found no suitors since the Saints released him after the ’08 campaign –to be part of this magical season.
• If Colts receiver Pierre Garcon(notes) had trouble focusing before his first career playoff game, he had a good excuse: He has numerous relatives in Haiti and was struggling to acquire information about their well-being in the wake of last Tuesday’s catastrophic earthquake. To Garcon’s credit, he showed up in a big way in Indy’s 20-3 victory over the Ravens Saturday night, displaying incredible persistence and athletic ability in making the game’s pivotal play. With the Colts up 17-3 midway through the third quarter, Manning threw a pass toward Garcon down the right sideline, but Ravens safety Ed Reed(notes) stepped in front, intercepted the pass and took off toward the opposite end zone. Garcon gave chase and, surprisingly, caught up with the unsuspecting Reed at the Indy 27, dislodging the ball with a right-handed punch. Dallas Clark(notes) recovered; the Ravens never did.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• When Jen Rojas, the Chargers’ cheery corporate communications coordinator, told me after Sunday’s game that I’d jinxed the team, I thought she was just messing with me. But then she reminded me of a line from a "12 Questions" column earlier this month in which I foreshadowed a "heartbreaking miss" from red-hot kicker Nate Kaeding(notes), and I actually started to feel guilty. I made the comment based on past experience with kickers coming off too-good-to-be-true campaigns: the Redskins' Mark Mosley, after an MVP season (yes, a kicker won MVP) in 1983, missing three field goals against the 49ers in the NFC championship game before hitting a game-winner; the Vikings’ Gary Anderson, after going 35-for-35 on field goals in the team’s 15-1 regular season, shanking a 38-yarder late in the ’98 NFC title game (Minnesota lost the Falcons in overtime). Kaeding took the sudden postseason crash to a new level of horror on Sunday, missing unconscionably from 36 yards (wide left) and 40 yards (wide right); he also was short on a 57-yarder on the final play of the first half, though there’s no shame in that. Given Kaeding’s All-Pro season (32 field goals in 35 attempts) – and the fact that he had made 69 consecutive kicks from 40 yards or shorter – his meltdown was stunning. Given his dubious postseason history (an overtime miss from 40 yards as a rookie in an ’04 home playoff defeat to the Jets and an unsuccessful 54-yard attempt at Qualcomm that would have forced an ’06 playoff game against the Patriots into overtime), I can see why Chargers fans are very, very frustrated right now. To be fair, Sunday’s defeat wasn’t all on the kicker: The Chargers committed 10 penalties for 87 yards, several of them painfully careless and/or stupid, and there were some blatant dropped passes that derailed drives. Norv Turner’s offensive game plans have been spicy and imaginative throughout the season, but Sunday’s seemed strangely conservative and lifeless. And if this was, in fact, LaDainian Tomlinson’s(notes) final game with the Chargers, it was perhaps his least memorable effort ever at Qualcomm: 12 carries for 24 yards, three receptions for zero yards. All in all, a horrific day for the Bolts.
• When Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner(notes), after throwing a second-quarter interception, slumped to the Superdome turf after taking that massive blindside hit from Saints defensive end Bobby McCray(notes), I flashed back to the 1986 NFC divisional round, when Giants nose tackle Jim Burt delivered a kill shot that sent Joe Montana down to the frozen Giants stadium AstroTurf with a vengeance. In that instance, Montana suffered a concussion and ended up heading to a New Jersey hospital while his 49ers teammates finished out a 49-3 defeat to the eventual Super Bowl champs. Warner, who suffered a chest injury, was able to return to play the second half of Arizona's 45-14 thrashing by the Saints. Now, of course, the question is whether the 38-year-old quarterback will return for another season, something we'll likely learn in the next week or so. In the meantime, brace yourself for premature reports of which way he's supposedly leaning. And no, backup Matt Leinart(notes) – still, presumably, the franchise's quarterback of the future – doesn't know whether Warner's coming back or calling it quits.
• It was a rough few days for last year's Super Bowl participants. While the Cardinals' quest to defend their NFC championship ended emphatically, at least Arizona made the playoffs. The Steelers not only missed the postseason, but they also provoked a quote from team president Art Rooney II that seemed to suggest third-year coach Mike Tomlin might not enjoy the job security we otherwise assumed he did. After enduring a five-game losing streak that all but killed its playoff hopes, Pittsburgh rallied to win its final three games, missing the postseason on a tiebreaker. After calling the losing streak "very disappointing," Rooney told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the season-closing string of victories was "important for the organization and it was important for Mike to show everybody that he's the kind of coach who is not going to lose his team and [who will] keep them in the right direction all the way down to the end. I think we learned something about Mike, and what we learned I think is positive for the future." As far as I can tell, this is what Rooney seemed to be saying: After having one coach (Chuck Noll) for 23 seasons and another (Bill Cowher) for 15, we hired Tomlin, then 34, and watched him guide an aging team that had gone 8-8 in '06 to consecutive AFC North titles (and a Super Bowl victory) in his first two seasons. But, hey, if he hadn't found a way to rally this year's team to a winning record after that losing streak, we might not have felt secure that he was the right guy for the job. Um, really? Because I can think of about three other current NFL coaches I'd rather have running my team than Tomlin, and I know there are a lot of franchises that would love to have him if he were ever available. To be fair, Rooney later told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "I think [Tomlin] is going to be our coach for a long period of time." That's good to hear – but if I were Tomlin, I'd still file away my boss's earlier comments for future reference, and I'd watch my back the next time I went through a rough patch.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That my 10-year-old son, at his basketball team's "Free-Throw-A-Thon," sank 83 of 100 shots from the charity stripe, proving that the apple falls very far from the tree – and through the rim, over and over again.
2. How thousands of so-called Chargers fans could stream out of the Qualcomm exits after Kaeding's missed 40-yard field goal with 4:38 remaining. Sure, the Jets had the ball and a 10-point lead at the time, and the home team's chances were looking rather bleak, but come on. San Diego's season was on the line, and any real fan would risk greater exposure to postgame traffic to stick around and yell his/her lungs out for the cause. Seriously, where were those people hurrying off to – the comforts of their own homes, at which point they could sit around the dinner table and get psyched up for Padres season? It's not like a comeback was that far-fetched, and when Rivers scored to cut the lead to three with 2:14 remaining, I hope everyone who fled experienced a sick feeling of repentance while listening on the car radio. Think about it: If the Chargers had pulled off a miracle comeback, it would have been one of the greatest moments in franchise history. And everyone who missed out because he/she left Qualcomm early would have deserved it.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
For the past two years, ever since the Giants parlayed an impressive defeat to the Patriots in the final game of the '07 regular season into a stirring Super Bowl run, there's been a voluble, group-think push to convince us all that momentum is the key to a team's postseason preparation. It's the justification given for pursuing perfection and for coaches continuing to play their starters after their teams are locked into a playoff spot. Well, after this weekend, I'm happy to report that Big Mo has finally been exposed as a complete and total crock. The teams who had the most momentum going into the divisional round? The Chargers (11-game winning streak) and Cowboys (hottest team in the NFC, coming off an emphatic first-round playoff thrashing of the Eagles). How'd that work out for them on Sunday? Uh, right. Meanwhile, the Colts and Saints – the two teams who fizzled after flirting with undefeated regular seasons – were sharp and focused in resounding home victories Saturday. And the Vikings, another team that cooled off considerably down the stretch, didn't look too rusty on Sunday. I'm not saying things will always go down this way, but I don't want to hear any more propaganda about how momentum is absolutely essential to avoid a playoff letdown. It isn't. If you tell me it is, I will put my fingers in my ears and start singing "San Diego Super Chargers" at the top of my lungs.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Vancouver here I come!!!!!"
– Email Saturday evening from Emily Azevedo, my kids' awesome ex-babysitter, who was named to the women's bobsled team for the upcoming Winter Olympics.
"He is mine. He is fine."
– Text Saturday evening from Brenda Warner after leaving the Superdome, perhaps foreshadowing her husband's next move.
"Man that's all we can do u let her know it's never the Outcome it's ur approach to the game if u gave it ur all that's enough to keep ur head high"
– Text Saturday night from Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis(notes), giving inspirational words for me to pass on to my 13-year-old daughter, whose team suffered a season-ending defeat about seven hours before his did.