Surprising Jets are flying high
The brash, confident coach has pumped up his team all season, and after receiving some lucky breaks to simply get into the playoffs, the soaring Jets (11-7) are a win away from the Super Bowl.
“The fact of the matter is we’re here,” defensive end Shaun Ellis said Monday. “We’re doing good things while we’re in the tournament and we feel like this has been our destiny.”
They’ll first need to get past Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts (15-2) in the AFC championship, a rematch from a highly debated Week 16 meeting. That’s when coach Jim Caldwell pulled Manning and several other starters in the second half, and the Jets rallied to hand the Colts their first loss of the season.
Despite trailing only 15-10 when Manning & Co. took a seat, the Jets kept hearing about how the Colts handed them that victory—and subsequently helped them get into the playoffs. Now, New York has a chance to silence those critics.
“This is the perfect script for us, man,” right tackle Damien Woody said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better script right now, getting a chance to play the Colts again ... This could be a redemption for us.”
But Ryan said the Jets don’t need any of that to get them fired up for what’s at stake.
“This is the AFC championship,” he said. “The motivation is going to come from the fact that the winner of this game advances to the Super Bowl. That’s probably motivation enough.”
The fact the Jets are even in this position can make one shake their head in disbelief, especially when Ryan mistakenly thought the playoffs were no longer an option after a 10-7 loss to Atlanta almost a month ago.
The win over the Colts was further magnified when several teams ahead of the Jets in the playoff race lost, putting New York suddenly in control of its postseason destiny.
“To get to the Super Bowl, no team really has an easy ride,” linebacker Bart Scott said. “If you want to earn the right to go to the Super Bowl, you have to go through teams you’re not supposed to beat.”
The Jets took care of that, starting with a 37-0 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, who appeared listless in the regular-season finale. But New York was gaining confidence and again beat Cincinnati in the first round of the playoffs.
Facing a Chargers team that had won 11 in a row, the Jets went out to San Diego and shocked them in a 17-14 victory that sent them to an improbable AFC championship game appearance with a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez.
“We feel good about our chances,” Woody said. “We feel good about going to Indianapolis and we believe that we’re going to go all the way and bring this thing back to New York.”
That’s the type of culture Ryan has harvested for a franchise that has had little to crow about. After all, this is just the Jets’ third AFC championship game appearance, and first since the 1998 season. They’ve since had four coaching changes—not counting Bill Belichick’s 24-hour tenure in 2000—and a few hundred players come and go.
So, when Ryan came in and replaced the stoic Eric Mangini, and talked about titles and meetings at the White House as soon as he was hired a year ago, people laughed.
Now look at him.
“I was just honest,” Ryan said. “I’m not a told-you-so guy—until after we win the Super Bowl. Then, I’ll make that comment.”
Fact is, Ryan wasn’t afraid to talk about the ultimate goal for this team, which has starved for a title since Broadway Joe delivered on his guarantee in 1969 against, of all teams, the Colts.
“With Coach Mangini, it was a different type of approach,” Woody said. “He was all about kind of having tunnel vision, looking at one game at a time. Rex really laid it out in front of us: It’s all about the Super Bowl.”
When the Jets were 4-6, Ryan gathered the players together and asked those who had won a Super Bowl ring to stand up. Everyone looked at each other while only Woody, Alan Faneca and Larry Izzo stood. Not a lot of championship jewelry in that room.
“You play this game for two reasons, and a lot of people may not agree with it, but you play to win a ring and you play for money,” Ellis said. “Once you get the money, it’s like, ’OK, get the ring.’ A lot of people get money, but only a certain amount of people get a ring. ... This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, man.”