You gotta believe it to see it

Posted Jan. 13, 2010 @ 5:46 p.m.
Posted By Tom Danyluk

Typically this was the time of year we'd be hearing from Chiefs' ex-GM Carl Peterson. Carl would be in a bad mood. His clubs would wrap up their typical 8-8 or 9-7 season — sometimes better — but they'd miss the playoffs because there were luckier teams ahead of them. So he'd slap his deskpad and gripe and moan about how the league needed to crank up its number of postseason invitations. A self-preservation rant. Too many of them, I guess; Carl's been out of a job over a year now.

I think the current number of playoff spots is just fine. The net is big enough. Sometimes good fish are left out and sometimes a carp can find its way in. Them's the breaks, boys. That's what keeps it all interesting.

Last season New England went 11-5 and got turned away. A fine outfit, one that could've levied some real January damage. Oh well. You didn't hear Bill Belichick bitching about it.

This year, in mid-December, the Jets were at .500 and drawing up their 2010 draft plans. Suddenly the schedule broke in their favor. Their final two opponents didn't want to play, and so a 7-7 carp became a 9-7 gift. The Carl Peterson lottery.

So far the Jets have taken advantage. They got on a plane and ground out a road win with a handful of long plays and a rookie quarterback who refused to screw things up. This was against a Cincinnati club that pretty much saw the world the same way as New York — heavy running, occasional throwing and cellblock-type defense. A mirror game.

The difference there was in how shabbily Carson Palmer delivered the ball for the Bengals. He wasn't the same guy who cut up the Chargers back in Week 15 for 314 passing yards. He'd lost his delivery. Parts were freezing up on him. Pipes were bursting. His throws danced and floated and his receivers couldn't come up with them. The stat book read 146 yards and three sacks.

That won't be the case this weekend in San Diego, where Norv Turner's pass-catch game has been finely perfected. The Chargers' 11-game win streak hasn't made serious headlines this year because the Colts' and Saints' were longer, and partly because the football public has now tired of that sort of thing after lustfully tracking New England's 18-0 march two season back.

I'm surprised the betting line came out where it did — Jets plus 7½. Strange. They were getting 2½ in Cincy, and yet the long cross-country flight and the threat of all that Charger firepower gets them only five more. It should've been higher, which leads us to believe it'll still be a game in the fourth quarter, i.e., no San Diego blowout. Or maybe even a New York win. Let's examine how that could happen.

Momentum. San Diego has it. The Jets have it too. Belief in the Rex Ryan message: no last step without the first. Motivational posters. They've won six of seven, and Ryan hands his team a schedule that concludes at the Super Bowl. Next up: Anthony Robbins, the Personal Power guy, flying into a team meeting on cables, like some kind of jacked-up Tinker Bell.

Mark Sanchez: Can he put together another surprise 12-15-182-1-0 postseason day? Those were his numbers at Cincy — in frozen air. He'll need something close to pull the upset. The SoCal sunshine conditions should further the rookie's cause, even if it's a mental thing. The biggie will be interceptions, as always. Sanchez had 20 this year … and 10 fumbled balls.

But don't expect Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera to get too hog-wild with the pressure, at least early on, when the scoreboard says it's close. He has that monster offense on his side — a 28.4-points per game gorilla — so Rivera will be thinking contain, seeing what kind of lead he can build up behind him. No reason to get too risky. If Sanchez is forced to play catch-up for too long, there's a good chance he'll crack and start forcing things, and the Jets' magic could unravel from there.

Charger Tradition: The long history of going playoff schizo. The Chargers rarely do what they're supposed to do, even dating back to the Dan Fouts-Kellen Winslow-Don Coryell empire. One year they were obese favorites against a Houston team with half its starters in Red Cross tents, but Fouts' arm went clucky as he handed over five INTs and the Chargers tanked.

And in 1980 the world loved 'em over Oakland in the conference title game, until the Raiders snagged a nice lead then held the ball for the final 11 minutes, plunging the Chargers' offense on ice, next to the Moet.

Then there's the '94 AFC championship. Bobby Ross leads a group into angry Pittsburgh as double-figure underdogs, where they decked one of Bill Cowher's top-grade Steelers teams and reached the Super Bowl.

And in recent years Marty Schottenheimer had New England by the throat in the divisional round and let go. But then they've also broken the Colts back to back — in '07 and '08 — and dealt Peyton Manning more of his playoff misery.

This weekend they're again a strong choice in their own building. Which means, according to Charger past lives, the Jets own a slugger's chance. Their coach-turned-travel agent thinks so, too.

Why not? They can move the ball on the ground and the Chargers can't (3.3 yards per attempt). Philip Rivers and his redwood receivers can wing it, but New York's defense has made passing schemes miserable all season, allowing the fewest yards, fewest TDs, etc … which makes all this a very shaky game for the picker.

Common sense says San Diego drills 'em and ends all this backdoor claptrap. But the Jets aren't a common-sense team. They work off the belief formula. They're bunched behind their 23-year-old quarterback. Rex Ryan is flying around on wires. Santa Claus and Dr. Seuss and Carl Peterson are all on their side. Jets 23, Chargers 21.

Also …
Saints 38, Cardinals 26 — New Orleans kills losing streak in Kurt Warner finale.
Ravens 20, Colts 17 — Indy thumbs nose at unbeaten destiny; destiny fires back.
Cowboys 31, Vikings 13 — Pass rush hits Brett Favre early and Dallas storms on.