Somehow the New York Jets have turned their unpredictable, comedic mess of a season into a winning one, but you never know what might happen next with them. What you do know is that Peyton Manning will be the same serious-minded player game in and game out, and year in and year out. Whether the garrulous Gang Green can beat Mister Reliable will be one of the more interesting duels on this NFL wild-card playoff weekend, and a study in contrasts.
Jets Coach Rex Ryan’s bombast reached a new pitch this week when he declared that beating Manning and the Indianapolis Colts is “personal.” Manning’s response was buttoned up and correct, as usual. “I really don’t have any reaction to it,” he said, tonelessly. They are the two dominant personalities of their teams: One guy is a loudmouth braggart, the other is tight-lipped. So far close-mouthed has beaten big-mouthed almost every time. Manning’s record against Ryan is 5-1, including last year’s AFC championship game.
“Indy is always true to who they are and we’re going to be true to who we are,” Ryan says. “We’ll see if it’s a different outcome.”
Ryan’s double-chinned personality has given the once-derelict Jets all kinds of confidence and Super Bowl ambitions, but at a certain point he needs to back up his bluster with a victory over a disciplined outfit like Indy, at peril of being judged a bit of a blowhard. Ryan and the Jets are charmingly unreserved and expansive, but they’re also turbulent. There was that obnoxious appearance on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” their whistling at Ines Sainz, Braylon Edwards’s DUI, Ryan’s embarrassment over his wife’s apparent foot-fetish videos, and strength coach Sal Alosi’s spiteful tripping incident against Miami. Some players have said they are sick of the constant distractions.
For two seasons Ryan has brayed that he has the best team in football, but there’s been something a little huckstering about him. Listen closely and there’s a contrived tone. Even he concedes he’s “selling.”
“I think we have the best team,” Ryan says, “People may argue that, but that’s fine. I like the old Ray Robinson quote: ‘To be a champion, you have to think you can win when no one else thinks you can.’ That’s what I believe in. That’s something that has stuck with me my whole life.”
It’s money-where-your-mouth-is time. If the Jets are really going to reach a Super Bowl, they’ll have to show serious substance: They face three playoff games on the road, starting with Indy and Manning, followed by potential meetings with New England’s Tom Brady and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, players with a combined five Super Bowl wins.
No one exposed the Jets’ lack of Super Bowl substance last season more than Manning in the AFC championship game, when he destroyed them in the second half for a 30-17 victory, with 377 yards and three touchdowns. When Ryan viewed the tape, he got “kind of sick.” He felt so overwhelmed by Manning that in the offseason he shored up his secondary with three new players in Antonio Cromartie, Brodney Pool and Kyle Wilson, and added more pass rush by signing Jason Taylor.
But Manning’s record over Ryan isn’t just about personnel issues. Manning has consistently laid Ryan bare by preying on his bluster, punishing him for his habit of trying to buffalo quarterbacks with blitzes. As NBC analyst Rodney Harrison pointed out, “It took Peyton probably right around a quarter to really figure out exactly how they were trying to attack him and what defenses they were in.” In six games against Ryan’s schemes Manning has thrown for 1,513 yards, and 12 touchdowns to just two interceptions. He’s simply not fooled by Ryan. There’s no tricking Manning, no faking him out, no stampeding him. “It’s probably impossible to do with this guy,” Ryan admits.
Manning studies too exhaustively; he crosses every T and aces every test. He’s so thorough that he even went back and studied tape of the defenses Ryan’s father Buddy ran with the Chicago Bears. He identifies every tic and tendency, and when the blitz comes, he finds the single coverage and preys on it.
“He looks at everything and that’s the one thing about Peyton you have to respect,” Harrison says. “He looks at your feet. He can tell if you’re a young defensive back, if you’re playing man-to-man, if you’re playing zone, if you’re standing high, if your hips are high, he can look at those different types of things and know if you’re playing man or zone and he will exploit you.”
Manning brought the same sharp perception to handling Ryan’s attempt to bait him with this week the “personal” remark. Obviously, Ryan hoped for some sort of response from Manning that might excite his defenders. But Manning was too disciplined, too focused. “They’re as good as advertised,” Manning said. He went on to praise Ryan’s schemes for their complexity.
In fact, when the Jets aren’t dealing with tangential commotions, they just might be as good as advertised — they might even be almost as good as Ryan says. They’ve averaged 31.3 points in the last three games as 24-year-old quarterback Mark Sanchez has made the leap to brilliance despite a sore shoulder, and their 304 points allowed is sixth lowest in the league. And for once, they may catch Manning vulnerable, given how injury-depleted the Colts are, with 17 players out, including his biggest middle-of-the-field targets, Dallas Clark and Austin Collie.
But as even Ryan concedes, “It’s a lot easier to dream about it, talk about it and think about it.” Now, he says, “We have to just go out and do it.”