Will Mark Sanchez become a factor this Sunday?

Know what the best thing about the Jets is? No, it’s not the fact that they’ve taken on the role of Cinderella (a brash, cocky Cinderella for that matter) for this year’s playoffs, although that has certainly made them fun to watch. It’s always easy to root for an underdog, especially when that underdog is led by a walking sound bite in Rex Ryan.

Actually, the best thing about the Jets is that they know exactly who they are and they don’t hide from it. They’re a team that relies on running the ball and playing good defense, much like the Ravens did in 2000, the Buccaneers did in 2002, the Steelers did in 2005, the Bears did in 2006 and the Giants did in 2007. The formula works.

That said, is this the weekend that rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez will have to take on more responsibility in order to take the Jets to the Super Bowl? Because at some point, an opponent will be able to take away New York’s running game and force Sanchez to beat them through the air. And that opponent may be the Colts, who happen to be the Jets’ counterpart in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

Peyton Manning has had a fair amount of success against Rex Ryan-led defenses over the past couple years and if the Colts can build a lead, they may force the Jets to abandon the run in order to win. Granted, this might not happen until the second half or even in the fourth quarter, but the key is that it may happen.

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Does Peyton Manning own Rex Ryan?

If previous history has anything to say, it’s Rex Ryan that should have a sleepless Saturday night leading up the AFC Championship Game, not Peyton Manning. Because for all intents and purposes, Manning has owned Ryan over the past five years.

2005 was the first year Manning faced a Ryan-led defense, which he promptly shredded for 254 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-7 Colts’ victory. He completed 21-of-36 pass attempts against the Ravens that day, and didn’t throw a single interception.

In the 2006 playoffs, Manning struggled while completing 15-of-30 pass attempts for 170 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. But his Colts still prevailed, beating the Ravens 15-6 to eventually advance to the Super Bowl.

Manning would beat Ryan’s Ravens two more times in 2007 and 2008, combining to throw for 520 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Indy beat Baltimore 44-20 in 2007 and 31-3 in 2008 to give Manning a 4-0 record against Ryan-led defenses.

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Let’s call it for what it was: The Chargers choked.

No matter how much more talent, coaching or overall advantages one squad has over another, teams still have to show up ready to play for 60 minutes on game day.

There’s no way to describe what the Jets did to the Chargers today than to stating the obvious: They just flat out outplayed them in the second half. The Jets were better today and that’s why they’re heading to Indianapolis to take on the Colts in the AFC Championship Game next weekend.

But let’s not overlook the fact that the Chargers were the hottest team coming into the playoffs and they couldn’t even make it out of the Divisional Round. They hadn’t lost since a mid-October Monday night game against the Broncos and many people considered them the team to beat in the postseason.

So excuse me for not shrugging my shoulders and saying, “Ah well, the better team won in San Diego today.” It’s not that simple to just write off the Chargers’ loss as another game when everything was set up for them to make a deep postseason run.

The Bolts had home field advantage, were facing a rookie quarterback playing in only his second postseason game of his career and they had momentum after winning 11 straight games. They weren’t supposed to lose today – no matter how good Rex Ryan’s defense played – and the defeat was eerily similar to their 2007 Divisional Round loss to the Patriots after they finished 14-2 in the regular season.

The blame cannot fall on just one man’s shoulders; it took a complete team effort for the Chargers to lose today. Norv Turner’s game plan failed, the defense had trouble coming up with a big stop in the second half (especially on Shonn Greene’s 53-yard touchdown run), Philip Rivers turned the ball over twice (although one was a fluke) and the usually automatic Nate Kaeding missed three field goals, including two within 40 yards.

San Diego just didn’t execute today, which is why they’ll be at home come February when the Super Bowl is being played – the Super Bowl that many people figured they’d be playing in.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

How did Rex Ryan not get a head-coaching job sooner?

The only thing shocking about the Jets’ 17-14 upset over the Chargers on Sunday is how it took Rex Ryan this long to land a head coaching job.

All right, so maybe there were more shocking things that occurred than that. For example, how a San Diego team that averaged over 30 points a game this season was held to only 14 today, or how that same Charger team went an entire quarter without recording a first down.

But see, that all plays into the perplexing question I raise about Ryan. How could this guy have not landed a head-coaching job sooner than January 21, 2009 (the day the Jets hired him)? He interviewed for multiple jobs before then, but kept getting passed over. How does Jim Mora get two head coaching opportunities before Ryan gets his first? That’s mind-boggling.

Ryan continues to prove that he’s the best defensive game-planner and schemer in the league. But he’s more than that to the Jets, because he’s also a master motivator that rubs off on his players in a positive way. He’s brash, cocky and confident – and I mean for none of those three things to be perceived as a negative.

What Ryan has done this year in transforming the Jets’ defense into the best in the league has been impressive. But for New York to reach the AFC Championship Game with a rookie quarterback that can’t be counted on for more than 100 yards of passing per week has been remarkable. I know the Jets win in spite of Sanchez, but give credit where credit is due: Ryan has been an excellent head coach this season.

Some are no doubt disappointed that the AFC Championship Game won’t feature the Colts and Chargers, but keep in mind that Ryan has already studied Peyton Manning and Indy’s potent offense once this season. If there’s anyone that can figure out a way to contain what the Colts do offensively, it’s Ryan. Granted, the Colts’ offense shredded the Jets in the first half of that Week 16 matchup, but I for one am still excited about the prospect of watching Manning vs. the No. 1 defense in the league.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

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