FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- This isn't about Rex Ryan's mouth or his "personal" war against Peyton Manning or the Manning-driven moves made last offseason by the New York Jets. Those are the tabloid headlines. The real story Saturday night is this:
Which Jets offense will show up for the AFC wild-card game?
Read that again, carefully: They're not going to stop Manning, they have to outscore him.
As much as Ryan likes to think he Peyton-proofed his defense by acquiring Antonio Cromartie and Jason Taylor, the reality is the Jets haven't shut down a big-time quarterback since Aaron Rodgers on Halloween -- and they lost that game.
The Jets aren't going to win a 17-10 game. No way. This game will be played in the mid-20s, maybe higher, and it falls on Mark Sanchez & Co. to duplicate their recent performances in Pittsburgh and Chicago, avoiding a return of their previous stinkers.
We're not advocating a shootout -- that would be foolish against Manning -- but the Jets need to dictate the tempo with their offense. They're capable, more capable than a year ago, when they faced the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game -- assuming Sanchez's throwing shoulder is OK. The Jets are improved because they added Santonio Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson to their ammunition supply.
"Yeah, we have the bullets and we got an upgrade at the gun, too," guard Brandon Moore said. "Mark is playing a lot better."
Sanchez's development in Year 2 has allowed Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to use more of his playbook. At their best, the Jets operate a balanced offense, a 50-50 mix of run and pass. A year ago, they were so much easier to defend against because, as Ryan noted, his philosophy was "three yards and a cloud of dust, punt and play defense."
Now they can beat you in more ways than one, but they can't fall into the trap of becoming too pass-heavy against the Colts. The Jets have to shorten the game by playing ball control. Forget about all that shootout nonsense; Sanchez isn't ready for that. The formula should be this: Run to control the clock, pass to score.
Ryan said they will try to copy-cat the New Orleans Saints' approach in last season's Super Bowl in Miami, where they kept Manning on the sideline for long stretches.
"If we hold them to seven possessions like the Saints did [eight, actually], we'll win the game, I don't have any doubt," the ever-confident Ryan said.
This game is tailor made for Shonn Greene, a powerful, north-south runner who can wear down the Colts' undersized defense. This is a game in which the Jets must rediscover their smash-mouth mentality and pound it between the tackles.
"The Jets have to play downhill," said an opposing personnel executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "They need big bodies on small bodies. If you play laterally, you're playing to the Colts' strength. The Jets must accumulate first downs and rushing attempts."
Greene, who has split the workload with the fading Tomlinson over the second half of the season, is their freshest, most productive back. He should be the focal point of the running game, not Tomlinson, who's best suited to being the third-down back. The Colts' run defense is ranked 25th, but that's misleading because they've improved in recent weeks, stopping the likes of Chris Johnson and Darren McFadden.
No matter what, Schottenheimer can't stray from the running game. Even though Manning's numbers are down, the way to beat the Colts is to produce on the ground. In each of their six losses, they allowed at least 129 rushing yards. You need to pound them. That should be chin-music to the Jets' ears.
"This team was built to run the football and [use] play-action and play defense," ESPN analyst Herm Edwards said of his former team. "When they get out of that mindset, it really puts Sanchez in a position where he's not ready for it yet."
It would be different if the Jets were going to Indianapolis with last year's defense, but it's not good enough to win a 17-14 game. The addition of Cromartie has helped the perimeter pass defense, but they're vulnerable in the middle of the field. Safeties Eric Smith and Brodney Pool and nickel back Drew Coleman will be inviting targets for Manning.
"Everybody knows how you beat the Jets: Attack between the numbers," the personnel executive said. "If Eric Smith is in man coverage against a tight end, that's not a good thing."
Manning lost two of his best inside receivers, tight end Dallas Clark and slot receiver Austin Collie, to season-ending injuries. Their respective replacements, Jacob Tamme and Blair White, are decent, but decent can score plenty of points against the Jets with Manning at quarterback.
For all their big-name additions on defense, the Jets still can't stop three-receiver formations. They've allowed 16 touchdown passes in 340 attempts when the opponent employs at least three wideouts, according to ESPN Stats & Information. A year ago, it was just one touchdown in 263 attempts.
Oh, by the way: The Colts use the three-receiver set more than any team in the league.
That's why it comes down to Sanchez, who needs to duplicate last year's postseason performance -- and then some.
"I'm in a good place, and the offense is in a good place," Sanchez said.
It has to stay that way for them to get to a better place.