I'm a N.Y. Jets fan. I have been for as long as I can remember in my life. So, I've basically been watching the Jets for about 30 years. In some ways, this has been one of the most enjoyable years I've had as a Jets fan, because I wanted Rex Ryan as the Jets coach before he was hired (and I wanted to get rid of Eric Mangini almost from the day he was hired), but also because I like Mark Sanchez and think he will be an excellent QB eventually, and I love having a real defense. This has certainly been a year of extreme ups and downs (going from 3-0 to 4-6, in what seemed like a heartbeat), but it's been a great last 7 weeks. Which brings me to today's game in San Diego.
I have great respect for the Chargers. I picked them several weeks ago (before it looked like the Jets could still make it into the playoffs) to go to the Super Bowl from the AFC. They are, by no means, a perfect team. They don't run the ball effectively (31st in the NFL). They also don't really stop the run all that well (21st in the league). That's not a recipe for playoff success. At least, historically, it is not, on paper, a team that screams Super Bowl. But the NFL changes and we've seen the rise of the Super-QB, that leads his team, almost single handedly to wins and playoff dominance. Witness Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in recent years. I believe the Chargers have this type of player in Philip Rivers. Rivers, who has started every game for 4 straight years, threw for over 4,000 yards for the 2nd straight year, and in the past two years has thrown 62 touchdowns and only 20 interceptions, while posting passer ratings of over 100 both seasons. He's the real deal.
But I believe the Jets defense is the real deal too. By now, you've heard all the stats - 1st in overall defense yards allowed, 1st in points allowed, 1st in passing yards allowed, and a very respectable 8th in rushing yards allowed. All of this came against a tough schedule and playing in a tough division (albeit not the best division in football, but very balanced). I think the Jets actually match up well against the Chargers because of this defense. This, to me, is a classic offense vs. defense type of game, and I believe (well, I hope) that history holds and defense wins.
Actually, I think the path to victory, for either team, will be red-zone effectiveness. Whichever team is more effective at scoring TDs in the Red Zone, while limiting the opposition to field goals will win in my opinion. I know this sounds obvious, but actually it's the potential achilles heel for these teams. Take, for example, the Chargers win in week 15 against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team the Jets just beat two weeks in a row. The Bengals were, arguably, the better team overall that day (great game from Carson Palmer, effective running game) but they just settled too often for field goals (1-4 in red zone) and that was the difference in the 27-24 victory by the Chargers. I think the road map to victory today, can be found in that game. The Jets need to step up and get the ball in the end zone, while limiting the Chargers to no more than 2 TDs. Additionally, I think the Jets need to win the turnover battle. Mark Sanchez has effectively limited his turnovers in recent weeks, and that must continue, but the Jets defense also needs to step up and force turnovers, maybe 2 interceptions of Rivers, in order to keep the dangerous Charger passing game off the field.
In addition, the Jets need to play a better game on special teams than the Chargers. Lately the Jets have been allowing too much in the way of return yards, which sets up a short field for the opposition. That will be death against a potent Charger offense. The Jets need to make the Chargers have to drive a long field for scores. The Jets will absolutely need to run the ball as well as their #1 ranking suggests, to also keep the Chargers off the field. And that means not giving up on the run if it is not effective right out of the gate. I have seen this Jets ground game (both Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene) wear defenses down, and the Chargers run defense can definitely be worn down.
Added all together, I think if the Jets run the ball well, step up and play a great game against the passing attack of the Chargers, including forcing at least 2 turnovers, and are the more effective team in the red zone, and play a solid game on special teams, the Jets will win the game. Does that sound like they have to play a perfect game? Well, not exactly perfect, but against a very solid Charger team, the Jets might need their best game of the year. I think they can do it. They are peaking at the right time, and playing the way a team should play in the playoffs. My prediction, Jets 24 - Chargers 23.