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NFL Playoff Preview - N.Y. Jets (10-7) at San Diego (13-3)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Something will have to give when two red-hot teams, the San Diego Chargers and New York Jets, face off in an AFC Divisional Playoff from Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
The Chargers, champions of the AFC West and winners of 11 straight since a 2-3 start, forged their 13-3 mark largely on the back of one of the league's most explosive offenses. Norv Turner's club finished the regular campaign ranking first in the AFC in scoring offense (28.4 points per game), fourth in passing offense (271.1 yards per game), and fifth in total offense (360.1 yards per game), with Pro Bowl-bound quarterback Philip Rivers (4254 passing yards, 28 TD, 9 INT) and his top targets Antonio Gates (79 receptions, 1157 yards, 8 TD) and Vincent Jackson (68 receptions, 1167 yards, 9 TD) leading the way.
The Chargers were never held under 20 points during the regular season, and scored 30 or more six times during their 11-game winning streak.
Meanwhile, the Jets have gone 6-1 over their last seven contests - including last week's 24-14 AFC Wild Card win at the Cincinnati Bengals - based mainly on their defensive abilities.
The Jets lowered the curtain on the 2009 regular season ranking atop the league in a number of defensive statistical categories, including NFL total defense (252.3 yards per game), scoring defense (14.8 points per game), passing defense (153.7 yards per game), touchdowns allowed (26), touchdown passes allowed (8), opponents' third-down percentage (31.5), and opponents' completion percentage (51.7).
Last Saturday, a unit that has now allowed just 61 points in its last seven games was able to sack Carson Palmer (18-of-36, 146 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) three times and render wideout Chad Ochocinco (2 receptions, 28 yards) a non-factor for a second straight week, while forcing a pair of turnovers.
In addition to the unstoppable force vs. immovable object portion of the discussion, something will also have to give in regard to the dubious playoff history of both the Chargers and Jets.
Though San Diego has won a total of three postseason contests over the past two seasons, the Chargers have found a way to the AFC Championship just four times during the Super Bowl era (1980, 1981, 1994, 2007), and are 2-4 in their last six divisional round contests. What's more, the Chargers were one-and- done the last time they came off a first-round bye, following up a 14-2 regular season by falling to the Patriots (24-21) in heartbreaking fashion in 2006 at Qualcomm Stadium.
Meanwhile, the Jets have won multiple postseason games only twice since their inception. The first was 1968, when Joe Namath and company got by the Raiders (27-23) and Colts (16-7) to win the only Super Bowl in their history. The second-best showing came in 1982, when the team went on the road to beat the Bengals (44-17) and Raiders (17-14) before being blanked at the Dolphins (14-0) in the AFC Championship.
The Jets are 0-4 in their last four opportunities to notch a second postseason victory, with losses to the Browns (1986), Broncos (1998), Raiders (2002), and Steelers (2004).
The Chargers and Jets have met once in the postseason, with the Jets scoring a 20-17 overtime victory at Qualcomm Stadium in a 2004 AFC First-Round Playoff. A 28-yard field goal by Doug Brien late in the extra session won the game for New York, after San Diego's Nate Kaeding had missed what would have been a 40- yard game-winner.
San Diego holds a 19-11-1 lead in the all-time regular season series with the Jets, including a 48-29 home victory when the teams last met, in Week 3 of last season. The Jets have lost two in a row to the Chargers since last defeating San Diego, in 2004 on the road.
Turner is 3-1 in his career against the Jets, including 2-0 while with the Redskins (1994-2000) and 0-1 while at the helm of the Raiders (2004-05). The Jets' Rex Ryan will be meeting both Turner and the Chargers for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
Much as the Jets did during a regular season in which they led the NFL in rushing offense (172.2 yards per game), Brian Schottenheimer's unit took to the ground in an attempt to wear down the Bengals last week. To that end, the running game generated 171 yards behind the work of Shonn Greene (21 carries, 135 yards, 1 TD) and Thomas Jones (15 carries, 34 yards, 1 TD). Greene's 135 yards were his most since going for 144 against the Raiders in Week 7, and his 39-yard game-tying touchdown run in the second quarter was the longest in Jets postseason history. That said, the work of rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez and the passing attack was not to be overlooked. The southern California native Sanchez had one of the finest games of his rookie season, completing 12-of-15 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown without a turnover in the triumph, with his passer rating (139.4) and completion percentage (80.0) both ranking as season-highs. Tight end Dustin Keller had a big day with three catches for 99 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown pass, while Jerricho Cotchery posted a team-best six grabs for 67 yards. Braylon Edwards was relatively quiet, catching only two balls for 15 yards. A strong Jets offensive line did not allow a sack in the contest.
The San Diego defense has been good but not great this season, ranking 16th in total defense (327 yards per game), including 11th against the pass (209.2 yards per game) and 20th versus the run (117.8 yards per game), while showing only flashes of the takeaway and pass-rushing ability that had once been the unit's calling card. A diminished pass rush, led by outside linebackers Shawne Merriman (36 tackles, 4 sacks) and Shaun Phillips (59 tackles, 7 sacks), has made life more difficult on the secondary, though safeties Eric Weddle (82 tackles, 2 INT, 1.5 sacks) and Steve Gregory (71 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) have had their moments, as have corners Antonio Cromartie (33 tackles, 3 INT), Antoine Cason (41 tackles, 2 INT), and Quentin Jammer (58 tackles, 3 INT). The secondary group will be looking for splash plays against the turnover-prone Sanchez on Sunday. Meanwhile, a run-stuffing group led by ends Luis Castillo (25 tackles, 2 sacks) and Jacques Cesaire (26 tackles, 1 sack), along with inside linebackers Stephen Cooper (102 tackles) and Brandon Siler (67 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), will have to control the New York running game. San Diego has surrendered 100-plus ground yards in six of its last seven outings.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Rivers has put the Chargers on his back for most of this season, posting a passer rating of 100.0 or better seven times during the team's 11-game winning streak, surpassing a 60.0 or better completion percentage in all 11 games, and throwing 21 touchdown passes to only six interceptions over that span. Jackson and Gates have been the team's most threatening targets. Gates comes into Sunday's contest having caught a touchdown pass in four consecutive games, but having also gone six straight playoff outings without a TD, since scoring in San Diego's loss to the Jets in the 2004 postseason. No. 2 wideout Malcom Floyd (45 receptions, 1 TD) also must be accounted for. The San Diego running game has largely been disappointing this season, with LaDainian Tomlinson (730 rushing yards, 12 TD, 30 receptions) and Darren Sproles (343 rushing yards, 45 receptions, 8 TD) heading up a unit that has averaged an NFL-worst 3.3 yards per rush, though the recent return from injury of center Nick Hardwick to the lineup is expected to have a positive effect on the club's rushing exploits. Tomlinson has totaled just 100 rushing yards on 35 carries in his last four postseason games combined. The San Diego o-line allowed a modest 26 sacks during the regular season.
Though the Jets played generally strong defense in their wild card round contest against the Bengals, Ryan's team did have some trouble in surrendering 169 ground yards on just 21 carries for Cincinnati running back Cedric Benson. The 171 rushing yards the team allowed were their most surrendered in 2009, surpassing the 153 given up against the Saints in Week 4. Nose tackle Sione Pouha (1 tackle) and end Marques Douglas (2 tackles) need to make more of an impact at the point of attack, and linebackers David Harris (4 tackles) and Bart Scott (5 tackles) must be more active behind them. Meanwhile, the Jets will undoubtedly have their hands full with Rivers and the San Diego passing game. Cornerback Darrelle Revis (3 tackles, 1 INT), who earlier this week finished runner-up to Green Bay's Charles Woodson for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors, figures to draw Jackson as his primary assignment, with Lito Sheppard (6 tackles) matched up against Floyd and safeties Kerry Rhodes (2 tackles) and Jim Leonhard (4 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FF) helping to handle Gates. The team's ability to get to Rivers will be paramount, meaning outside linebackers Calvin Pace (4 tackles) and Bryan Thomas (6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FR), along with end Shaun Ellis, must be disruptive. Ellis had a team-high seven tackles, a forced fumble, and a sack against the Bengals last week.
The Jets' Jay Feely was an unsung hero of the team's wild card win, with his 20-yard field goal pushing the advantage to 10 points in the fourth quarter last week, on a day in which Feely was also forced to handle seven punts in the unexpected absence of Steve Weatherford (42.0 avg.). Weatherford, who was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat prior to game time, is expected to play this week. Jerricho Cotchery (13.0 avg.) handled punt returns for the Jets last week, while Brad Smith (27.0 avg.) was the man on kickoffs, though neither player had an especially memorable return. The coverage units, which surrendered a 56-yard kickoff return to Bernard Scott and a 23-yard punt return for the unknown Rico Murray, must be sharper this week.
Though he led the NFL in scoring with 146 points during the regular season, the focus in regard to San Diego kicker Nate Kaeding (32-35 FG) on Sunday will have more to do with a somewhat checkered postseason history. Kaeding was just 2-of-6 on field goals in his first four playoff games, including big misses against the Jets in '04 and Patriots in '06, but is 6-of-6 in three contests since. Punter Mike Scifres (45.0 avg.) remains one of the best in the business. Sproles handles both punt returns (7.0) and kickoff returns (24.1 avg.), but has not been particularly explosive in that regard this season. Apart from a 77-yard touchdown return against the Broncos in Week 5, Sproles has averaged just 4.2 yards per punt return. The San Diego coverage units allowed both a punt return and kickoff return for TDs this season, both going to the same player (Eddie Royal) in a Week 5 loss to Denver.
The Jets have been great defensively over the past couple of months, but the notion that they can be the first team to hold the Chargers under 20 points is a little far-fetched. During their 6-1 run, the Jets have faced only one elite-level offense, Indianapolis, and the Colts removed their key offensive starters in the third quarter of that game. That's not to say Gang Green will get gutted here, just that San Diego should be able to move the ball with relative frequency. In that regard, it's up to the Jets attack to keep things interesting by scoring some points of its own, and while the New York running game should have some positive moments against an average Chargers defense, we're willing to bet that Sanchez and company will make one too many mistakes to land the Jets in the AFC Championship.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 24, Jets 17
01/17 11:53:25 ET