Cromartie is a hero ... on special teams

INDIANAPOLIS -- Antonio Cromartie's biggest contribution in the Jets' wild-card victory over the Colts didn't even come on defense.

In fact, the cornerback was actually burned on a few passes thrown by Peyton Manning, including a 57-yard touchdown strike to Pierre Garcon in the second quarter.

But Cromartie made up for those lapses in the fourth quarter, when he volunteered to return a kickoff in place of Brad Smith, who was hampered by a quad injury suffered early in the game.

"Take it to the house," Smith told Cromartie on the sideline.

"I just asked the coach to put me back there," Cromartie said. "I practiced it, and it was something I was willing to do to try and help out as much as possible. It helped with the victory. It's just a great feeling."

With the Jets trailing the Colts 16-14 and less than a minute to play, Cromartie's 47-yard return brought Mark Sanchez and the Jets' offense all the way out to their own 46. Soon after, a 32-yard field goal by Nick Folk gave the Jets a 17-16 win.

"I wanted to run the ball right down the hash," Cromartie said. "It didn't happen, so guys closed in, [and] I just tried to bounce inside guys."

Cromartie's teammates said it was hard to downplay the return's impact. Sanchez called it a huge boost because it ate up so much of the field. Center Nick Mangold said the return was the start of a surge in momentum, and he knew at that moment that they would win the game.

"We still had two timeouts," Mangold said. "Special teams did an awesome job, got us in a good position -- and Mark and the receivers did the rest."

Inside the Jets' locker room, one of the many to congratulate Cromartie was his former coach Marty Schottenheimer, the father of Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. The former Chargers coach greeted him warmly and said, "It's great to see you returning kickoffs."

Thanks to this win, the Jets actually owe the Chargers a higher pick in the 2011 NFL draft to complete the trade for Cromartie. Originally, Cromartie cost a third-rounder, but now it will be a second-rounder. It's a price the team will gladly pay for remaining alive in the postseason.

"We're right where we want to be; we're in the playoffs," Cromartie said. "We're moving to the divisional round, and that's all you can ask for."

Cromartie was perhaps the weakest link in a closely scrutinized secondary in the wake of safety Jim Leonhard's season-ending injury on Dec. 3. Cromartie gave up five completions for 112 yards on Saturday, but Darrelle Revis kept Reggie Wayne contained -- Wayne had just one catch for 1 yard on Revis Island.

"It was a tremendous win for us. Revis did an excellent job as usual, and the safeties did a tremendous job," cornerback Drew Coleman said. "We played a pretty good game, but next week we'll have to play a better game."

Safeties Eric Smith and Brodney Pool played well against the high-octane Colts offense. Smith had 10 tackles in his first game back after recovering from a concussion, and Pool added seven.

"Brodney made some big tackles, and Eric Smith played well," linebacker Calvin Pace said. "Everybody who suited up today and was able to get out there and get some reps did a phenomenal job."

Now the team has to head back to New England next Sunday night, the site of the Jets' worst loss of the season, 45-3, in Week 13.

"We got embarrassed the second game when we went up there, that's something you look at, you definitely want to win that game," Cromartie said. "You still have that feeling, and we just want to go out there and do the things that we didn't do during the week so we can apply it on Sunday."

Jane McManus is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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