Jets back up brash talk and shock the heavily favored Chargers to advance to the AFC Championship for the first time in 11 years.

SAN DIEGO, CA – When the San Diego Chargers were really rolling this season, their kinetic pass happy offense in perfect rhythm, they were capable of conjuring refined metaphorical comparisons outside the realms usually associated with professional football.

Sure, a downright nasty offensive line was on constant guard, but the enduring images of this dynamic attack most definitely struck an artistic nerve. There was Phil Rivers, fluttering pinpoint spirals downfield, unorthodox throwing motion producing an astounding level of accuracy.

Here were his weapons, tremendously gifted athletes plucking flying footballs from the sky with grace transcending simple highlight reel fodder. The Chargers were a finesse team so talented and deep that their weaknesses appeared a mirage, worthless stat sheet bookkeeping bearing little weight on an inevitable date with destiny. Many of their fans believed them invincible.

Vincent Jackson defying the laws of gravity with outrageous downfield leaps. Darren Sproles exploding from the backfield on a screen, leaving vapor trails in his wake. These were the Chargers, a sun splashed thrill ride, the coach cast perfectly, cerebral Norv Turner conducting an orchestra.

So naturally, as Rivers faded back to throw on the second play of San Diego’s final drive of the third quarter, perilously drifting into his own end zone, a foreboding pall had already spread among the denizens of Qualcomm Stadium. The Chargers may have been ahead, but their scoring output of a mere seven points, far removed from the twenty-point marker that had become customary, represented a very pressing source of concern.  San Diego’s surprising struggle, manifested by a tenacious Jets defense, was painted vividly within their defining characteristic: Image. Despite Rivers’ satisfactory statistical performance, the Chargers simply looked… off. Fighting for every yard. Unable to summon a game-changing moment at will. Were different players suddenly residing inside those super stylish jerseys? Where were the theatrics? Rivers and company showed signs, even been denied points by a disintegrating kicker. But it was a clear which team was dictating tempo, despite the scoreboard’s 7-3 verdict favoring the home team.

Those numbers were about to change.

S Kerry Rhodes with a blind side sack and ball strip on Chargers QB Philip Rivers during the Jets 17-14 win over San Diego. ( Photo)

For Rivers, appearing rushed in his mechanics, unleashed a throw resembling a wounded duck. The floater was directed toward Antonio Gates, who never even turned around to find the wayward pass. Instead, resourceful Jets safety Jim Leonhard scored an interception, corralling the pigskin with care, protecting a gift. A contest that had been pointing in New York’s direction for nearly the entirety of the afternoon, based on basic feel and an inexcusable parade of mental blunders by the favorite, was about to tilt completely to the underdog.

The grand orchestra had arrived out of tune. That much was certain. Now their instruments were about to be splintered.

When it was all over, the final tally 17-14 for the Jets, many questions lingered, most concerning the Chargers. How had this exquisite machine been so thoroughly dismantled? A scapegoat could be cast, explaining away all the intricate details producing this decade’s first true playoff shocker. Nate Kaeding’s inexplicable meltdown does indeed provide plenty of fuel for that argument. The real explanation is multifaceted, however.

“We looked ugly there for awhile, we took their best shot though,” said Jets coach Rex Ryan afterward. “We say that fourth quarter is like championship rounds, and our guys really stood up, we needed that first down by our offense, great job man, came down to it, that’s a heck of a football team over there, we knew it was going to be an all day event, that’s for sure.” 

 The Jets live and die with their defense. In a game testing this unit’s ability unlike any other, with a trip to the Conference Championship at stake, against an aerial attack verging on unstoppable, this group defense dug deep and delivered.

David Harris chalked up ten tackles, nine of the solo variety. He was a constant presence, patrolling the underneath lane with incredible range, curtailing a potential weakness in the Jets’ aggressive, attacking game plan. Considering the remarkable receiving talents of San Diego’s running backs, and Norv Tuner’s slick motion formations creating free space for receivers just beyond scrimmage, the importance of Harris, smack in the middle of all the chaos, could not be understated. While Darrelle Revis is finally receiving due appreciation for his incredible play at cornerback, David Harris continues establishing his credentials among the upper echelon in relative anonymity.

As for Revis, his incredible, sprawling, third quarter interception of a pass intended for Vincent Jackson just may have changed the outcome. Revis somehow managed to snag the football after it deflected off Jackson’s leg, as the acrobatic receiver fell to the turf. The Chargers had started this particular drive with favorable field position, planted at the Jets thirty-eight after a Mark Sanchez interception. They faced a third and eight, the impact of a big Jackson catch and sprint on first down limited due to an illegal block in the back by Malcolm Floyd.

Rivers faced pressure from the Jets defensive line, fully asserting themselves. Rivers scrambled out of the pocket to avoid a certain sack, taking quick, panicked steps before heaving a prayer toward Jackson. Jackson, in single coverage against Revis at the Jets seventeen, leapt for the pass, and managed to outbox Revis for position. The catch belonged to Jackson, Revis left batting at his hands, which, for one precious second, possessed the football. But Jackson could not complete the play, the pigskin slipping through his fingers and bouncing off his legs, still up for grabs. Incredibly, as Revis laid flat on his back, he managed to catch the still live football. The All World Defensive Back returned the interception for six yards, stunning the Chargers. Had they been able to punt, the Jets could have been faced with the same type of terrible field position that had short-circuited their offense in the first half. Instead, New York was able to pin San Diego on their own four-yard line thanks to a quality Steve Weatherford punt, which concluded their proceeding drive. This sequence set up Rivers’ devastating miscommunication with Gates.

Revis placed it all in motion.

Sione Pouha, who has filled in quite admirably for Kris Jenkins, was a frequent, and surely unwelcome, disruption at the Chargers’ point of attack, collecting five tackles. Unsung defensive line grinders like Pouha and Mike DeVito were instrumental in the Jets’ dominant efforts against the run. Tomlinson was completely neutralized. Meanwhile, Bryan Thomas, who seems to be playing his finest football at a most opportune time, encapsulated the Jets’ defensive day with a bone jarring tackle of Chargers fullback Mike Tolbert.

The defenses’ emotional leader, boisterous Bart Scott, chipped in with four tackles, and Jim Leonhard had that aforementioned, momentum shifting interception.

Safety Kerry Rhodes, maligned by critics for an inconsistent campaign, shined bright. He racked up eight tackles, a strip sack of Philip Rivers that flashed shades of his previous pass rushing prowess, and a big time recovery of a perfectly executed, high arching onside kick by Mike Scifres. Rhodes utilized a nifty vertical leap and sure hands to place the Jets in perfect position to run out the clock. The Chargers had just cut New York’s lead to three in the fourth quarter.

Here was a total team effort, and the plaudits do extend to the offense.

Much of the credit for a tempo-setting 169 yards of total rushing offense should be reserved for the offensive line, a synchronized force comprised of heralded free agents and high draft picks. They knew when to seize the moment. The Jets, leading 17-14, were a first down away from totally salting away the game. Facing a fourth and one from the Chargers twenty-nine, their fearsome trench troupe blew the Chargers defensive line off the ball one final time, allowing Thomas Jones to gain two yards, securing a truly extraordinary victory.

But the biggest rush of the game had occurred earlier in the fourth quarter. With nearly nine minutes remaining, and the Jets toting a 10-7 lead after cashing in on Leonhard’s pick, Shonn Greene took a first down handoff up the middle for fifty-three yards and a resounding touchdown. Greene bowled over Safety Eric Weddle on his way to paint. The Jets were now up 17-7, giving themselves the breathing room often missing in other disappointing regular season defeats.

The regular season couldn’t be further away.

Greene, becoming a certified freshman sensation, rushed for 128 yards, his second straight 100-yard excursion in the playoffs.

 Speaking of rookies, it was another fine exercise in game management for Mark Sanchez. While he started off slow, missing a few easy completions, Sanchez proved more than capable. His touchdown to Dustin Keller early in the fourth quarter gave the Jets a lead that they would not relinquish. Sanchez, who was rolling out on the play, demonstrated ample agility and patience, finding Keller in the right corner of the end zone with a dart-like strike. Greene’s touchdown was only possible due to a third down Sanchez completion to Jerricho Cotchery. Sanchez flashed commendable accuracy on the seven-yard pass, hitting Cotchery on his back shoulder, where only his receiver could make the catch. “I’m not comparing stats in any game, that’s not what I’m all about,” said Sanchez. “And that’s not what this team’s about. We want to win the game. That’s the most important stat… It’s unbelievable. It’s special. I’m counting my blessings.”

The Chargers’ one dimensionality was revealed against the Jets. Forget a viable alternate option, their running game was a weakness. With Darrelle Revis and the Jets secondary refusing to allow a game-breaking play, the Chargers were left collecting chunks of yardage that New York seemed willing to sacrifice. “The passing game I don’t think was an issue. They’re very good up front. They did a good job against us. We weren’t able to get anything going in the running game,” acknowledged defeated Chargers head coach Norv Turner. “That’s what ultimately makes it difficult and we missed opportunities obviously as we know. We missed a couple field goals we normally make and a couple times down in there we had penalties that took us out.”

When the defense was pushed, they responded, leaving the Chargers relying on kicker Nate Kaeding. Incredibly enough, Kaeding, one of the most accurate kickers in League history, missed three field goals. The misfires occurred, in order, from 37, 57, and 40 yards.

The Chargers were also undisciplined, a myriad of penalties pushing them backward throughout all four quarters, culminating in Vincent Jackson’s immature, insolent kick of a challenge flag as San Diego attempted a frantic comeback.

San Diego had opened the scoring with a thirteen-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, from Rivers to Kris Wilson.

The Jets, of course, would close the show.

Cancel the symphony.

The grunge band is moving on.

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