Jets 41, Colts 0
-- After spending weeks gingerly crawling out of one of the worst starts in franchise history, the New York Jets broke into an all-out sprint at Giants Stadium this afternoon, plowing through the Indianapolis Colts in a stunning 41-0 first-round playoff victory.
The team that once held a 2-5 record is fragile no more. For 60 minutes, the Jets dominated the Colts in every aspect, from their defense to their running game to their very psyches, and when it was over, New York's players stood tall on the field for a few moments, basking in the sound of 78,524 believers who were cheering a team that wasn't even supposed to be here.
"If you can imagine the Titanic sinking and then somehow coming back afloat and making it to its destination, that's what we are," running back Curtis Martin said, although even in tales of make-believe it would be hard to conjure up a day like this: the shutout was the first in Jets playoff history; quarterback Chad Pennington's three touchdown passes tied a franchise playoff record; and Richie Anderson's 56-yard touchdown set another franchise playoff record.
The game was historic in the grand sense, with Jets Coach Herman Edwards and Colts Coach Tony Dungy becoming the first African American head coaches to meet in a playoff game, and it was overwhelming in the minute sense, as the Jets blew Indianapolis away, inch by inch, scoring on five of their first six possessions.
They finished with a 394-174 advantage in total yardage and forced three turnovers. Next weekend, they will play either the Raiders or the Titans on the road.
"Obviously, it was a performance," Edwards said, trying to match this up with the swatches of misery his team produced in the first half of the season. In the end, all he could find that was similar was "sheer will. This team has a lot of will, a lot of determination, and we demonstrated that. We demonstrated that when we were 2-5, and we demonstrated that today."
They demonstrated that with the same brute force that marked their 7-2 march through the end of the regular season, holding the Colts to four downs on Indianapolis's opening drive and then barreling down the field on their first possession, taking a 7-0 lead so quickly even Pennington seemed surprised.
He had started the touchdown-scoring play with a two-yard screen pass to Anderson. But Anderson, New York's fourth receiver on the play, wriggled through an awkward net of Colts defensive linemen to start a flat-out sprint toward the end zone, and after a nice cut inside the 5-yard line, he was there.
"You can't ask for anything better than that, to get in the middle of a big open field and see linemen in front of you -- that's a beautiful thing," Anderson said.
The Colts answered with a meandering drive that needed to be saved twice by long Marvin Harrison catches on third down. Yet when it came time to convert the most important third down of the drive, Manning stood stranded on the 23-yard line, overthrowing Edgerrin James. The Colts fared no better on an ensuing field goal attempt that left Mike Vanderjagt staring at the muddy field for seconds after his 41-yard kick sailed left, although the problem might have had more to do with the Indianapolis players' lack of experience on grass than with the grass itself. The Colts are used to playing in a dome; the Jets, used to playing in weather that made tonight's misty, 35-degree game time conditions seem balmy, had no such problems.
Just 47 seconds into the second quarter, New York place kicker John Hall made a field goal from the exact same spot where Vanderjagt failed, and by the end of the half, the Jets had two more touchdowns as well, the last on a convincing play-action fake by Pennington. The Colts had bit so hard on the play, in fact, that Pennington was able to score with an easy lob into the end zone, where Santana Moss couldn't have been surrounded by more empty space if he had been projecting his own force field.
"There was some great room to catch out there," said Wayne Chrebet, who had two sharp catches. "Of course, when you have a running game like we do, it opens up everything else."
The running game was such a factor in the first half, in fact, that even though Martin wasn't officially responsible for any of the touchdowns that built the 24-0 lead, he had his fingerprints on every single one of them. He racked up 63 yards on 11 first-half carries, including several key conversions on late downs, despite playing with a knee injury.
By halftime, the Jets were so far ahead that Edwards opted to rest Martin for former Maryland star LaMont Jordan, who racked up 102 yards and two touchdowns in relief, keeping the Jets thundering up the scoreboard and keeping Pennington's options open. Yet as much as the running game kept the Colts' defense honest, it was Pennington who manipulated that advantage. The first-year starter was impressive enough during the regular season, taking over in the fifth week and then passing for more than 3,000 yards. He led the league with a passer rating of 104.2, the 15th-best mark in NFL history.
Today, in an environment that many would have found overwhelming, he completed 19 of 25 passes for 222 yards. And as the game wore on, he only got better, mixing his receivers -- a dash of Moss here, a bit of Laveranues Coles there. On the other side, the Colts looked helpless, from a defense that left hole after hole open to an offense that couldn't seem to rev up, even on a set of strong drives late in the game.
Quarterback Peyton Manning, who has never won a playoff game, threw deep interceptions late, and James managed 14 yards on nine attempts.
"No one could get a yard anywhere, there was just nowhere to go," James said. "It was tough out there. They were tough."