It was three years ago this month that the camera found LaDainian Tomlinson in a way it never had before. Always he'd been captured smiling luminously, exuding the relentless energy that had made him one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. Now the camera revealed something else. Tomlinson's Chargers were losing to the unbeaten Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, on a bitter Sunday afternoon in Foxborough, Mass., and LT, injured the previous week in a win over the Colts, had been pulled in the first quarter after just two carries. He stood alone on the sideline, enshrouded in a long hooded parka, helmet on, face shielded by his blackened visor. The image of him from that day, looking sullen and helpless, threatened to undermine all the good Tomlinson had done to that point.
It was six months ago that the camera found Rex Ryan's Jets and turned an already noisy, overexposed franchise into an R-rated sitcom. Or drama. Or dramedy. The experience of performing in HBO's all-access miniseries Hard Knocks became a part of the team's routine. "They said in production meetings that after the first week we'll forget there are cameras in the room," says veteran fullback Tony Richardson. "And a lot of guys did." The summer plotlines have framed the season that followed it.
It was six weeks ago that the camera found the Jets in Foxborough, where they and the Patriots, both 9--2, were playing for sole possession of first place in the AFC East. On that night the camera recorded carnage, as New England laid a 45--3 Monday Night Football beating on New York.
The Jets have lived by the lens and died by the lens, from the truly serious (wide receiver Braylon Edwards filmed leaving a courthouse after his DWI arrest in September) to the truly bizarre (the emergence of foot-fetish videos that might involve Ryan's wife and perhaps even the big man himself), yet the team seems oddly stronger for the experience, as if televised controversy has reached the point where it no longer moves the emotional needle and the exposure is liberating. "So many different headlines," says defensive back Dwight Lowery. "We've had to adjust and just come together."
Consider: Late last Saturday night the Jets trailed the Colts 16--14 in an AFC wild-card game in Indianapolis. New York had second-and-eight at the Colts' 32-yard line with 29 seconds to play, and the safe call was a run that might have left the unsteady Nick Folk with a 50-yard field goal attempt to win the game. Instead someone on the Jets' offense—Ryan and Sanchez said it was the quarterback, Edwards said it was him—lobbied for a risky downfield pass. Sanchez completed a sweet, 18-yard back-shoulder throw to a leaping Edwards on the right sideline. On the next play Folk converted a 32-yard chip shot to give the Jets the win. "I wasn't thrilled with the first call," Sanchez said matter-of-factly after the game.
The reward for beating the Colts is a spot in the divisional-round cleanup slot (where else?) on Sunday, a return to New England to play the Super Bowl--favorite Patriots. After the Monday-night whipping, Ryan symbolically buried a game ball in a hole next to team's practice field. Last Saturday in the visiting locker room, right tackle Damien Woody, who returned to the lineup after missing nearly a month with a knee injury, said of that defeat, "We're not even supposed to remember it."
If it was Sanchez whose cool throw gave Folk breathing room against the Colts, it is the Jets' running game that gives them renewed hope against the Patriots. In the final four regular-season games the Jets' rushing offense went from an anemic 87 yards in a loss to the Dolphins to 106 in a win over the Steelers, 124 in a loss to the Bears and 276 in a meaningless win over the Bills. On Saturday the Jets had 169 against the Colts, including 95 yards on 25 clock-burning carries in the second half.
There's no hiding the value of an effective run game against an opponent with an explosive offense. The Colts averaged 68 offensive snaps per game in the regular season, most in the AFC. By possessing the ball effectively on the ground, the Jets limited Peyton Manning to just 54. The Patriots scored 518 points this season, 77 more than any other team in the NFL. Tom Brady threw 36 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. For the Jets, the same strategy will apply.
"It's a time-of-possession game, just like [against the Colts]," says fifth-year left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. "We want to let our talented guys like Braylon and Santonio [Holmes] make plays, but in the end Rex wants us to pound it. Keep the ball out of the other guy's hands." In 2009 the Jets led the league in rushing with 172.2 yards per game; they slipped to 148.4 this year, fourth in the NFL. "We've persevered," says Ferguson. "We've known all along it has to be a balanced game for us to win."
Tomlinson, meanwhile, played as if reborn. He was a Hall of Fame--sized question mark when the Jets signed him in the off-season after nine years with the Chargers, his production having fallen in 2009 to career lows of 730 yards and 3.3 yards per carry. Through five weeks this season Tomlinson rushed for almost 90 yards per game, but over the following 10 games he averaged less than 50 yards, and he scored just one touchdown after the Week 7 bye. On Saturday night, though, LT called himself "rejuvenated," after running 23 yards on his first touch and finishing with 82 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. Second-year power back Shonn Greene added 70 yards on 19 carries, the type of two-headed production Ryan envisioned from the start of the year.
Among the first to visit Tomlinson in the postgame locker room to offer congratulations was Marty Schottenheimer, his coach in San Diego from 2002 through '06, a stretch during which Tomlinson averaged nearly 1,600 yards per season. Schottenheimer follows the Jets closely because his son, Brian, is the offensive coordinator. "I know they've tried to limit his carries all season, even in practice," said Marty Schottenheimer. "I think it's paid off. He looked fresh out there. It's good to see. He picked this team because he thought they had a chance to win the Super Bowl."
Their chance is one game better now than it was a week ago, but a mountainous task lies ahead. And rest assured, there will be plenty of cameras to keep the Jets happy.
PETER KING'S AFC DIVISIONAL ROUND FORECASTS
It's the eighth meeting in 28 months in this hide-the-women-and-children series, and the previous seven have all been single-digit close. But keep this in mind: Ben Roethlisberger hasn't lost to the Ravens since 2006, he's playing at home, and he's had a bye week to heal all that ails him.
Steelers 20, Ravens 13
This rivalry might just pass Sox-Yanks in the Northeast Corridor. Easy to say the Jets won't have a prayer after the 45--3 Pats' blowout win six weeks ago, but Rex Ryan's D will play significantly better, especially in coverage, than it did in December. Sanchez versus Brady, though, is a gigantic mismatch.
Patriots 30, Jets 17
BOB ROSATO (EDWARDS)
THE GREENPRINT To beat the Pats, wild-card heroes Tomlinson (21) and Edwards (17) will have to stay on the field—to keep Brady off of it.
JOHN BIEVER (TOMLINSON)
[See caption above]