Entertaining as it's been, the New York Jets story has run its course.
And not just because Peyton Manning and the rest of the Indianapolis Colts' front-liners figure to play the entire game when New York visits next weekend with the AFC championship on the line.
The last time the teams met, in Week 15 of the regular season, Indianapolis had a perfect record and home-field advantage throughout the postseason already locked up. Leading 15-10 in the third quarter, Colts coach Jim Caldwell made a controversial decision to rest his starters and wound up getting beat 29-15.
"I don't know if Santa Claus will be that good to me again," Jets coach Rex Ryan joked Sunday after his team upset San Diego 17-14 and trained its sights on the Colts.
"A matchup that probably nobody wanted," Ryan added, "but too bad. Here we come!"
But by the time next Sunday night rolls around, there they go.
While the New York defense is the equal of any of the three other units still playing, their run-heavy offense, once a requirement for postseason success, makes going any further a dicey proposition. Baltimore has employed the same formula ever since winning a Super Bowl in 2001 with then-quarterback Trent Dilfer doing little besides handing the ball off, and as the Colts demonstrated in Saturday night's 20-3 win over the Ravens, it's increasingly hard to beat the top teams when throwing the ball is an afterthought.
More than ever, the NFL is becoming a passer's league. In the last five years, rules have been tightened up to protect quarterbacks from injuries and keep defenders from pounding receivers a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That explains why four of the six regular seasons with the highest number of passing attempts have occurred since 2002, and also why the five best regular-season completion percentages of all time have been recorded in the last six years.
The short passing game is the new ground game, and nobody is better at it than Manning, whose fourth regular-season MVP trophy was hardly a coincidence. His 68.8 completion percentage placed him second, behind New Orleans' Drew Brees (70.6) and just ahead of Minnesota's Brett Favre (68.4). He also finished tied with Favre for second in touchdown passes (33 each, to Brees' league-best 34).
For purposes of comparison, Jets rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez attempted about 200 fewer passes in the regular season (571 to 364), completed barely half as many (393 to 196) and only 12 of those went for touchdowns (and 20 were intercepted).
Because they usually face better defenses in the postseason, most offenses tend to strike a more conservative balance between the run and the pass. The Jets, the league's No. 1 rushing team in the regular season, continued to run nearly twice as often as they passed, but both the Saints and Vikings -- with potent rushing attacks -- reversed their tendencies for the playoffs and ran more than they threw. Not the Colts.
Manning attempted 44 passes against the Ravens. completing 29 of the 37 passes he threw less than 15 yards, but just one of seven beyond that distance. Because he adjusts each play depending on what he sees at the line of scrimmage, Manning is masterful at taking what the defense will give him.
If the Jets defense can't disrupt Manning's plans by pressuring him consistently, he'll carve them up the way he has everybody else the last few years. The Colts can strike quickly, but when the short-passing game is in synch, as it was against Baltimore, they can also dominate time of possession the way a rushing offense does. Like the Ravens, the Jets like to batter opposing defenses until the cracks get big enough to run through. But they need the ball first.
Caldwell's decision to rest his starters the final two games of the regular season drew a lot of heat. But it looks like a smart decision in hindsight; not just because the Colts' offense returned to form fairly quickly, but because their defense flew to the ball all night against the Ravens.
"There's no question how the guys used the off week," Manning said. "We kind of called it preparation week. I thought we had good preparation coming into this game, thought we came out sharp and kind of set the tempo from the get-go."
Caldwell refused to crow about being right.
"It doesn't give you any guarantees," he said about giving his starters some extra rest. "It's what you believe in and your convictions and playing well when it comes time."