Jets stun Chargers to reach AFC title game
Maybe Rex Ryan already knows the score of the AFC championship game, too.
The rookie coach who, at one point, didn't know his Jets were still in playoff contention, then declared them Super Bowl favorites, will need some more bold predictions.
His Jets are still playing.
Rookies Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene led New York to a stunning 17-14 upset of San Diego in the divisional playoffs Sunday, each providing a touchdown in the fourth quarter that marked another Chargers postseason pratfall.
"It's a big win for our franchise,'' Sanchez said, "and we're not done.''
Sanchez threw a go-ahead, 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dustin Keller three plays into the fourth quarter, then Greene gave the Jets some breathing room with a 53-yard scoring run on their next possession.
The upstart Jets (11-7), who have won seven of their last eight, advanced to the AFC championship game for the first time since 1999. They'll play at top-seeded Indianapolis next Sunday.
"A matchup that probably nobody wanted, but too bad,'' Ryan said. "Here we come!''
Of course, it was the Colts who pulled Peyton Manning and other starters in the second half of their Week 16 game against the Jets, who rallied for a victory that put them in control of their playoff destiny.
Before that game, Ryan said his holiday wish was for the Colts to rest Manning & Co.
"I don't know if Santa Claus will be that good to me again,'' Ryan said. "But I will say that I'd like to see Peyton Manning not play this week.''
After the Jets finally did clinch a playoff spot by routing Cincinnati the following week, Ryan, their rookie head coach, created a postseason itinerary for his players that included the Super Bowl in Miami followed by a parade two days later.
He might be onto something.
Maybe this week he'll predict the Jets' opponent in the Super Bowl.
"We believed the whole time, the whole year, when it probably wasn't the popular choice,'' Ryan said. "We don't have to apologize to anyone.''
The Chargers let New York hang around long enough, and the Jets finally got out of their own way, becoming the only road team to win in the divisional round.
After Philip Rivers scored on a 1-yard sneak with 2:14 left to pull the Chargers within three, the Jets recovered the onside kick.
Facing a fourth-and-1 from the 29 with 1:09 left, the Jets called timeout. Ryan decided to go for it and Thomas Jones bulled through the Chargers' line for 2 yards.
Sanchez pumped his fist and pointed his hand forward in the first-down signal.
On the sideline, Ryan lifted much smaller offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer off the ground in a bear hug.
The Chargers (13-4) not only saw their 11-game winning streak end, but suffered yet another playoff meltdown after earning the AFC's No. 2 seed.
"You'd like to play your best games in January in games like this, and certainly, for whatever reason, we did not do that today,'' Chargers coach Norv Turner said.
Sanchez, playing in his native Southern California, went from looking like the rookie that he is to a guy who has now has two straight playoff wins on the road. He was intercepted by Quentin Jammer midway through the third quarter, but the Jets got the ball back on an interception when the ball ricocheted off Vincent Jackson and into the hands of cornerback Darrelle Revis as both were sprawled on the ground.
The Jets weren't able to capitalize on that pickoff, but Rivers' second interception was costly. On second-and-9 from his 5, Rivers underthrew Antonio Gates, who hadn't even turned around, with safety Jim Leonhard intercepting and returning it to the 16.
On third down, Sanchez rolled right and threw to Keller, who shed linebacker Tim Dobbins in the back corner of the end zone and made a sprawling 2-yard catch that put the Jets ahead 10-7.
Sanchez and the rest of the Jets ran over to congratulate Keller, then the rookie QB kept running to the bench, stopping once to celebrate with a teammate.
The Jets turned to their top-ranked running game on their next drive, and Greene, a third-round pick from Iowa, broke his long scoring run up the middle, running over safety Eric Weddle in the process.
"Once I got to the secondary, I had one tackle to break and I did, and it was off to the end zone,'' Greene said. "A lot of people didn't know about me, but they know about the Jets.''
Greene rushed for 135 yards and a TD in last week's playoff win against Cincinnati.
San Diego's All-Pro kicker Nate Kaeding missed three field goals. He was wide left from 36 yards on San Diego's second possession and was short from 57 yards as the first-half clock expired. With the Chargers trailing by 10 with 4:38 to go, he was wide right from 40.
Ryan pumped his fist and smiled after Kaeding's third miss.
The last time these teams met in the playoffs, after the 2004 season, the rookie Kaeding was wide right from 40 yards on a wet field in overtime. The Jets moved down the field and won it 20-17 on Doug Brien's 28-yard field goal.
The first half was a defensive struggle, although the Chargers at least moved the ball against New York, which came in with the league's top-ranked defense.
New York had four straight three-and-outs, failing to pick up a first down until its fifth drive, midway through the second quarter.
By then, the Chargers were ahead 7-0 on Rivers' 13-yard TD pass to third-string tight end Kris Wilson in the back of the end zone. San Diego's Pro Bowl tight end, Antonio Gates, made a spectacular, one-handed catch for 23 yards as Rivers was going down. The drive was also aided by a pass interference call against Jets cornerback Lito Sheppard.