Jets' fate depends on four new veterans

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets already have produced one upset this week, as Rex Ryan was knocked off the back pages by Antonio Cromartie. It's not often that Ryan is upstaged by another man's mouth, but maybe it's a harbinger.

Is another upset in the offing? If the Jets shock the New England Patriots on Sunday in the AFC divisional playoffs, it'll be the franchise's biggest win since Super Bowl III, so long ago that Ryan was only a trash-talking tyke when Joe Namath & Co. did the improbable.

These Jets are confident, so confident that mild-mannered guard Matt Slauson told ESPNNewYork.com, "We'll have redemption on our mind before the game, and we'll be feeling it after the game." It's possible, but to end Tom Brady's season and free up his next few weekends to attend Broadway shows, the Jets will need big performances from their offseason Class of '10:

Cromartie. LaDainian Tomlinson. Santonio Holmes. Jason Taylor.

"This is why we're here -- for moments like this," Cromartie said.

He's right.

Instead of standing pat after losing the AFC Championship Game this past January, which is what a lot of teams would have done, GM Mike Tannenbaum staged a headline-making shopping spree. He grabbed Tomlinson and Taylor off the antique shelf to fill specific roles, he picked up Holmes in the discount bin, and he found Cromartie in Babies R Us.

They all helped the Jets to an 11-5 regular season and their second consecutive playoff berth, but this is the moment of truth. The Fab Four was brought here to beat Peyton Manning (check) and to beat Brady, the Lords of the AFC.

"We're all here for a reason," Cromartie said, "and that reason is to get us to a Super Bowl."

Tomlinson came agonizingly close to a Super Bowl three years ago, watching his dream get crushed in Foxborough, of all places. He limped into the AFC title game on a bum knee, lasted only one carry and watched his San Diego Chargers get Belichick-ed. The only void on his Hall-of-Fame résumé is a Super Bowl ring.

He said he told Ryan last week, "This is why I'm here, this time of year." Tomlinson said Holmes shared the same sentiment in a recent conversation. Cromartie, too.

"We know what's at stake," Tomlinson said.

Let's see if they're up to it. Let's see if Tomlinson, coming off his best game in two months, can bring his rediscovered giddyap to New England.

Let's see if Holmes can avoid brain locks (see last week's almost-muffed punt) and be the playmaker he was at midseason.

Let's see if Taylor, relatively quiet throughout the season, can find that old burst and rush the edge like he did so routinely as a younger man.

Let's see if Cromartie, who saved the Jets last week with his clutch kickoff return, can withstand the onslaught from his least-favorite quarterback.

Make no mistake, Cromartie will be tested -- and not because he called Brady a bleepin' ass----. Although he graded out as the fifth-most-efficient cornerback in the league based on completions and times targeted, according to Stats LLC, he surrendered a team-high seven touchdowns in the regular season. He was victimized last week on a 57-yard scoring play.

"He's a guy who can absolutely be torched on certain route concepts, and that's what the Patriots do," ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said.

Dilfer, who has studied the Jets extensively on tape, said Cromartie is vulnerable to in-breaking routes such as the slant. For all his wondrous athleticism, Cromartie doesn't use his hands consistently to jam receivers, allowing them inside releases from the line. If he's covering Deion Branch in man-to-man situations, as he did in the 45-3 debacle in Week 13, Cromartie could struggle over the middle.

"That's a go-to spot for them," Dilfer said of the Patriots, who are too smart to avoid Cromartie with Darrelle Revis on the other side.

Cromartie & Co. will struggle if the Jets can't get pressure on Brady -- or at least force him to his second or third reads. This is where Taylor comes in. In the teams' Week 2 meeting, he put a nice spin move on left tackle Matt Light and sealed a victory with a late strip-sack of Brady. It was vintage Taylor, the kind of play that made him a pass-rushing scourge for so many seasons in Miami.

The Jets need that guy -- not the guy who disappeared for long stretches, looking like he was more suited for "Dancing With the Stars" than chasing quarterbacks.

They also need the Tomlinson from last week. Showing his September/October burst, he rushed for 82 yards and two touchdowns, demonstrating an ability to turn the corner against a defense known for its lateral pursuit.

The challenge is different against the Patriots, known as a downhill defense, but Tomlinson's role is no less important. If the Jets can't control the ball for at least 30 minutes, there will be too much Brady on the field -- and that's never a good thing for an opponent.

Maybe it will come down to "Tone Time," as Ryan likes to call it. Holmes did it in the Super Bowl for the Pittsburgh Steelers, making a catch for the ages. He has experienced a moment the rest of his teammates can only dream about.

Holmes has been trying to impart a championship mentality from Day 1, saying he has told his teammates "This is what it takes to play on this stage."

Well, gentlemen, the stage is yours. It's time to duplicate your memorable yesterdays from other places and raise up your today team.