High-voltage Bolts put win streak on line
SAN DIEGO — In typical Southern California fashion, the San Diego Chargers have been chillin' since the end of the regular season.
They've rested, rehabbed, practiced and largely kept their mouths shut about their chances of finally winning the Super Bowl. The NFL's hottest team and AFC's No. 2 seed, the Chargers (13-3) will try to win their 12th straight game when they host the New York Jets (10-7) in the divisional round on Sunday.
It's the first stop along the road that they hope ends with their first NFL title. It's just that they're not openly talking about being a Super Bowl favorite, something they've done in the past, only to fall short.
"You have a team in the Jets that is very physical and wants to come in and kick our (rear)," Chargers outside linebacker Shawne Merriman said. "Here we've got a team in this locker room that is very focused, humble about winning, not saying much, that's eager to get on the field and play on Sunday. It's going to be a battle."
The upstart Jets, on the other hand, aren't shy about proclaiming themselves as Super Bowl favorites, starting with their rookie head coach, Rex Ryan.
Ryan even created a postseason itinerary for his players that included the Super Bowl in Miami followed by a parade two days later.
He's not sure of the exact route, "but I sure hope we find out," said Ryan, who has presided over six wins in the last seven games.
It's a bold proclamation, considering that a few weeks ago, Ryan thought the Jets were out of the playoff picture.
"I think the vision that we have for our football team is we only have one goal, and that's to win a Super Bowl," Ryan said. "Anything less than that is going to be a disappointment for us. That's just how we go into it. It's not a slight on who we play or anything else, it's a belief that we have that this is why we're here."
Ryan said he had "a great deal of respect" for the Chargers, whom he considers an elite team.
"But that doesn't mean that I'm coming in there not expecting to win, because we are," Ryan said.
Although the Chargers are favored by a touchdown, it's an intriguing matchup. The Chargers have a high-voltage offense that's difficult to stop and sometimes can score at will, with Pro Bowler Philip Rivers throwing to Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates and 6-foot-5 receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd. Rivers also has a healthy LaDainian Tomlinson and the speedy Darren Sproles at his disposal.
The Jets have the NFL's top-ranked defense and No. 1 running game, led by Thomas Jones and rookie Shonn Greene, who had 135 yards in the Jets' playoff opener.
While the Chargers rested during their bye weekend, the wild-card Jets went to Cincinnati and beat the Bengals 24-14 in a game that gave rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez some confidence.
There's talk that the Chargers need to shut down the Jets' powerful running game and make Sanchez beat them.
"They're a physical bunch of guys," Merriman said. "They've been really good at certain areas and just good at certain areas. They're a good team all the way around, but they do certain things extremely well, like running the ball."
"He's good," Merriman said. "He can make plays and he's going to come in here and look for there to be a big playoff run as a rookie. He's definitely capable."
Although it's a road game for the Jets, it's a homecoming of sorts for Sanchez. He grew up in Orange County and played at Southern California, so he'll have lots of friends and family members cheering him on.
Efficient against the Bengals, he's trying to join Baltimore's Joe Flacco (2008), Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (2004) and Tampa Bay's Shaun King (1999) as the only rookie starting quarterbacks to reach the conference championship game since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
Sanchez hopes he's gotten past the point of being considered the Jets' weak link.
"I knew I had some tough games, that's for sure," he said. "I knew that I played well in spurts and that I needed to keep plugging away, keep preparing, not lose focus, not lose faith in myself and this team. To let things work for me instead of forcing.
In his last three games, Sanchez has completed 32 of 50 passes for 351 yards and one touchdown, with no interceptions.
Coming into that stretch, he had 20 interceptions.
"These last couple of weeks, I haven't really forced anything," Sanchez said. "I haven't really tried to make something work out of nothing and that's where we've gotten in trouble in the past. When I stay away from that, there is nothing to worry about. We just have to play and hope for big plays. We know our defense is going to play well."
The marquee matchup is expected to be Jackson against Jets All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis. Jackson caught 79 passes for 1,157 yards and nine touchdowns.
Revis, who is 6 inches shorter, has become league's premier cover cornerback. He had six interceptions during the regular season and intercepted Carson Palmer in last weekend's win against Cincinnati. Revis also held Chad Ochocinco to two catches for 28 yards after shutting him down in the first half of the regular-season finale between the teams.
"When you've got a great player on the other side, they have an impact and can affect things you may want to do," Rivers said. "But this game isn't between Vincent and Revis. There are 10 other guys on both sides of the ball and a lot of things have to happen to go get the ball in the end zone and a lot of things for them to stop us. That will be certainly a matchup worth paying attention to. We'll be focused on finding ways to get the ball into the end zone."
Tomlinson is healthy after being slowed the last two postseasons by knee and groin injuries. With his future with the Chargers uncertain, this could be his final game at Qualcomm Stadium.
After the Chargers fired Marty Schottenheimer following the 2006 season, Ryan interviewed for the job that went to Norv Turner.
Now Turner has the Chargers one victory shy of reaching their second AFC championship game in three seasons.
Game info — N.Y. JETS (10-7) at SAN DIEGO (13-3)
When — 4:40 p.m. Sunday; CBS
Series record — Chargers lead, 19-12-1
Last meeting — Chargers beat Jets, 48-29, Sept. 22, 2008
Last week — Jets beat Bengals, 24-14, in wild-card round; Chargers had bye
Inside the game — Chargers have won 11 straight games, tied for fifth-longest winning streak to enter playoffs since AFL-NFL merger in 1970. ... Jets have both NFL's top-ranked rushing offense and overall defense. ... Jets won only previous playoff matchup between teams, 20-17 in overtime in wild-card round after 2004 season in San Diego. Chargers rallied to force OT, then watched as rookie Nate Kaeding pushed 40-yard field goal attempt wide right. Jets then won it on Doug Brien's 28-yard field goal. ... Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan interviewed with Chargers in February 2007 for head coaching job that went to Norv Turner after Bolts fired Marty Schottenheimer. ... Schottenheimer's son, Brian, is Jets offensive coordinator. ... New York's Mark Sanchez became fourth rookie QB to win playoff game since 1970, joining Shaun King (1999), Ben Roethlisberger (2004) and Joe Flacco (2008). ... Marquee matchup is expected to be Chargers WR Vincent Jackson against Jets All-Pro CB Darrelle Revis. Jackson is 6-foot-5 and caught 79 passes for 1,157 yards. Revis, who is 6 inches shorter, has become league's premier cover cornerback. Revis had six interceptions during regular season and intercepted Carson Palmer in last weekend's win against Cincinnati. Revis also held Chad Ochocinco to two catches for 28 yards after shutting him down in first half of regular-season finale between the teams. ... Jets are trying for fifth straight road win.
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