Originally Published: January 17, 2010

Key AFC Championship questions

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

AP Photo/Jeff ChiuThe Jets -- yes, the Jets -- are headed to the AFC title game. Mark Sanchez and Co. scored their second straight road playoff victory, upsetting the Chargers 17-14. Divisional-round leaders

Did the Indianapolis Colts create a monster when they pulled their starters in Week 16, thus paving the way for the Jets' playoff run?

We'll find out in the AFC Championship Game next Sunday, when the surprising New York Jets face the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Jets earned a spot in the title game by beating the Chargers 17-14 on Sunday.

1. What's the biggest surprise of the AFC Championship Game?

That a running team like the Jets advanced this far. In a 2009 season that featured 10 4,000-yard passers and 12 quarterbacks who threw for at least 25 touchdowns, teams that relied on running the ball and playing defense lost some luster.

Not the Jets. Rex Ryan has brought an attitude to this team. The Jets' defense blitzes more than any other team in the NFL. Ryan attacked Philip Rivers with blitzes from every possible angle. He loves have two defenders rush the gaps between the center and guards. He'll then come back and overload sides of the blocking scheme to try get a defender to rush free at the quarterback. To complicate things further, he'll have a third blitzing defender coming in on a delay. The scheme works. The Jets had 32 sacks, but quarterbacks had a rating of only 58.8 against New York. The Jets' mission next week is to make life miserable for Manning.

2. How did the strategy work in the first game?

Peyton Manning didn't put up great numbers in the Dec. 27 game in Lucas Oil Stadium. He was 14-for-21 for 192 yards and no touchdowns, But he wasn't intercepted and he wasn't sacked. After Brad Smith had a 106-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at the beginning of the third quarter that gave the Jets a 10-9 lead, Manning started to figure things out. He executed a nine-play, 81-yard drive that culminated with a 1-yard touchdown run by rookie halfback Donald Brown.

The Jets followed the same plan in that victory that they did against the Chargers. Mark Sanchez was 8-for-10 in the first half for a modest 69 yards, but he didn't commit a turnover. Halfbacks Thomas Jones and rookie Shonn Greene combined for 68 yards on 15 carries in the first half.

The great part about this rematch is the possibility of Ryan providing some bulletin-board material for the Colts' locker room. Ryan speaks his mind. He believes in his players. He'll call them favorites even though they will be heavy underdogs against Manning.

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Key NFC Championship questions

By Jeffri Chadiha
ESPN.com

We should've seen this coming from the start. The New Orleans Saints were the hottest team in the NFC for 13 weeks. The Minnesota Vikings were the second-best squad for 11 weeks. They seemed to be steamrolling toward a meeting in the NFC title game and now here they are, the last two left in the race to decide conference supremacy.

One thing we already know is that this should be a heck of game. But here are 10 other questions that deserve to be answered before kickoff next Sunday:

1. Which Pro Bowl quarterback has the edge in the NFC Championship Game?

Though Drew Brees is pursuing his first Super Bowl appearance inside the cozy confines of the Superdome, you have to go with Brett Favre in this contest. Favre couldn't stay away from the NFL because he wanted another shot at a Super Bowl. (Granted, having a couple of shots at his former team, the Green Bay Packers, also motivated him.) Now he gets to pursue that opportunity in a stadium that is (1) the site of his only Super Bowl victory and (2) about an hour from his hometown of Kiln, Miss. On top of all that, Favre's last trip to the NFC Championship Game -- a loss with Green Bay against the New York Giants two years ago -- has to be etched in his memory because his overtime interception led to that defeat. You think he'll be jacked? No question.

2. Which head coach has the edge in this game?

Give the nod to the Saints' Sean Payton because he was pulling out all the stops in his team's 45-14 divisional playoff win over the Arizona Cardinals. Payton was handing out bats to sell his players on the message of "bringing the wood." He put beloved Saints running back Deuce McAllister back in uniform and let him lead the other players onto the field as a team captain. Heck, Payton even had Saints running back Reggie Bush running with more ferocity than anybody has ever seen from him. Sure, some of those moves sound hokey. But they made a strong psychological impact on this team and you can bet Payton has a few more motivational tactics left in his bag.

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Short Takes

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

You have to feel bad for Cowboys kicker Shaun Suisham. Key misses in close games cost him a job with the Washington Redskins and sealed the fate of coach Jim Zorn. His two missed field goals on Sunday epitomized the Cowboys' futility in a 34-3 loss to Minnesota. The weird part is you'd think he'd be better in domes. Suisham is a 73.7 percent kicker in domes and 79.2 in outdoor stadiums. His misses put the Cowboys in the market for a new kicker. … Despite the bad loss to the Vikings, Wade Phillips is expected to stay on as the Cowboys' head coach. That was pretty much assured when Phillips asked owner Jerry Jones to sign Paul Pasqualoni to replace defensive line coach Todd Grantham, who is leaving for the University of Georgia. … With Derrick Mason unsigned and not sure if he's going to retire or continue to play, expect the Ravens to consider a trade for Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall if there is no salary cap and he's a restricted free agent. … Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon had one of the best plays of the playoffs when he chased down Ravens safety Ed Reed after Reed intercepted a Peyton Manning pass. Garcon caught up to Reed and punched out the ball, which was recovered by the Colts. Great play. … The Saints' offense works so much better when tight end Jeremy Shockey works the middle of the field. He draws coverage away from other receivers. Even though he seems to be fighting leg injuries, Shockey finds ways to get open and be a target for Drew Brees. … The Ravens have to figure out a way to cut down on their defensive penalties. They had a league-high 16 interference calls during the regular season and two more Saturday night that were costly in the loss to the Colts. Plus, middle linebacker Ray Lewis has to stop making those downfield helmet-to-helmet hits on defenseless receivers like he did on Colts receiver Austin Collie. He did the same thing to Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco in Week 8 that ended up helping the Bengals put together a game-winning touchdown drive in the final two minutes. … Even though the Cowboys had won four straight before Sunday, their offensive line collapsed. They allowed 14 sacks in the past five games. … The Bills head-coaching search took another setback with the Vikings' victory. Now, the Bills will have to wait until after the NFC Championship Game to talk to Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. They were turned down by Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. Cardinals assistant head coach Russ Grimm hasn't decided whether he's interested in interviewing for the job. He can speak with them, now that the Cardinals have been eliminated from the playoffs.

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