Out of the ashes came a plan.
After watching their league-leading pass defense get chopped up by Peyton Manning last January in the AFC Championship Game, Rex Ryan and GM Mike Tannenbaum decided that good wasn't good enough. As they boarded a flight the next day to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., the two men formulated the New York Jets' offseason strategy.
Let's call it the Peyton Plan, with the subtitle: Get cornerbacks.
They did, and here they are, opening the playoffs against Manning. How fitting is that? It's also appropriate that Saturday night's AFC wild-card game is in Indianapolis, because that's where Tannenbaum set the groundwork for the first big move -- the Antonio Cromartie trade.
He heard the San Diego Chargers were shopping the former Pro Bowl cornerback, and he met with Chargers GM A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner at their work box in Lucas Oil Stadium -- scene of the NFL scouting combine in late February.
As draft-eligible players worked out for scouts on the field, Tannenbaum talked business with the Chargers. A few days later, after returning home from the combine, he finalized the trade for a conditional third-round pick in 2011. Just like that, the Jets had a legitimate bookend corner to pair with Darrelle Revis.
Ironically, the draft-pick compensation will escalate to a second-round pick if the Jets advance to the divisional round, a league source told ESPNNewYork.com. That's a significant price for a cornerback in the final year of his contract, but the Jets like Cromartie and they're all in -- Super Bowl or bust.
"You're right, Mike Tannenbaum and everybody, we want to win the Super Bowl," Ryan said after Sunday's rout of the Buffalo Bills. "We're not happy just getting to the playoffs, even though it's a heck of an accomplishment to get here. That's not what we signed up for. I said the day I took this job that I came here to win Super Bowls."
After dumping the disappointing Lito Sheppard and trading for Cromartie, the Jets continued to tinker with the secondary, trading safety Kerry Rhodes and replacing him with Brodney Pool. They added another cornerback, drafting Kyle Wilson in the first round. Explaining why he wanted another corner, Ryan mentioned the AFC title game and how he felt undermanned against Manning.
Ryan could've thrown Tom Brady into the conversation as well, because the New England Patriots exert the same kind of stress on a defense, spreading the field and then throwing it all over the place. That's how it goes in the NFL: You identify the top dog and figure out a way to beat him.
It brings to mind a Bill Parcells anecdote from the 1985 season. Flying home from Chicago, where the Giants were crushed by the Bears in a divisional playoff game, 21-0, Parcells was disconsolate. Seated beside him was his mentor, a former New Jersey high school coach named Mickey Corcoran, who broke the funeral-like silence.
Basically, Corcoran told Parcells that he'd never win a Super Bowl unless he figured out a way to beat the Bears. That piece of plain advice, Parcells would say later, jarred him out of his woe-is-me funk and crystallized the task at hand. The Giants won the Super Bowl the next year.
For the Jets, Manning is the Bears. The confrontation comes a couple of weeks earlier than maybe they would've liked, but it's here and they're better prepared than a year ago.
Their top two corners are Revis and Cromartie. In the championship game, they were Revis and Dwight Lowery, a surprise starter for the banished Sheppard. Manning picked on Lowery mercilessly, completing nine passes on him for 124 yards and a touchdown.
If Manning wants to pick on somebody this time, it might have to be nickel back Drew Coleman or one of the safeties, but the matchups won't be as favorable because Manning is down two targets. Tight end Dallas Clark and receiver Austin Collie, both huge factors in the AFC title game, are out for the season.
Manning lost guys. The Jets added guys, including pass rusher Jason Taylor. Just for this moment.
"We know they're a great football team," Ryan said. "We'll see if they're good enough to handle us."