The New York Jets earned their ticket to dance and the playoff music will officially commence at 4:30 p.m. today in Cincinnati, Ohio. Paul Brown Stadium promises to be a zoo as the Bengals attempt to protect their den against the team that trounced them, 37-0, just six days ago.
But they'll find a group of Jets — young and old — ready to scrape for survival in the expected frozen conditions.
"I felt this similar feeling when you play in big bowl games," rookie quarterback Mark Sánchez said this week. "There will be a point maybe before the game, midway through the game, halftime, where 'This is unbelievable.' I remember feeling that way at the Rose Bowl when the B-2 bomber flies over and you step outside of yourself and look back and think, 'This is pretty cool, look what I get to do.'
"It's one of those situations where you know you're really fortunate, but at the same time you want to take advantage of it. You don't want to let anything slip. You've got to win the game today."
Once a ballboy for Carson Palmer's Santa Margarita High School team in Southern California, the 23-year-old Sánchez will now try to end the 30-year-old QB's season.
"You always have this feeling — I'm sure Carson had it too growing up — that this is what is supposed to happen," said the rook. "This is what you want to have happen and you always kind of knew. But did I know it would be exactly like this? No."
While the Jets' future appears bright, nobody can predict what tomorrow will bring. Just take a look at Sánchez's boyhood idol. Palmer's easily considered a top-10 QB, has had a terrific pro career over seven seasons and yet has taken only two playoff snaps.
"You really see how important it is to these other players. You just kind of see it when you say hi to guys in the morning and you see them in the cold tub and you see them in the huddle," said Sánchez of his teammates. "It's a look, knowing this is it. These next few weeks can change your life. It can change a lot. It's do or die."
Although this is the Jets' first playoff game in three seasons, they have five former Ravens — Ryan, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, DL Marques Douglas, WLB Bart Scott and S Jim Leonhard — who advanced to the AFC Championship Game last season before falling just short to the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
"I think any of the guys that have had success in the playoffs, you know what it takes," said Leonhard, the "quarterback" of the league's best defense. "You know just how close as a team you have to be to be successful in the playoffs. I think we're trying to get that across.
"Individually, it's huge. That was my first experience in the playoffs last year. To have some success, hopefully it will carry over. I feel like I have a lot of confidence going into the playoffs knowing what I have to do as a player and as a leader on this team."
It remains to be seen if the Bengals have a short memory. The Jets beat them up at the line of scrimmage six days ago, but the Cats think they'll get a boost from having RB Cedric Benson back in the lineup.
"He's been our guy all year. He brings an attitude and a toughness to the game that we love," Palmer said of the 5'11", 225-pounder who rushed for 1,251 yards in just 13 games. "He's one of those guys the line loves blocking for. They know if they just get a piece of a guy he'll run through a tackle and if they give him a crease, he'll hit it hard. Having him back, and especially having him healthy with the week off and really getting rested, he'll be ready to roll."
Benson got his mouth rolling this week, saying he didn't know how big of an impact David Harris makes on the Jets. Harris, who practiced Thursday on a sprained right ankle he suffered last weekend, only led the Green & White with 142 tackles and added 5.5 sacks, two interceptions and 12 QB hits from his Mike 'backer spot.
"It's the biggest game of my career so far," Harris said Thursday. "It's been tough on me this week, but I've been doing everything I can to get back and be out there with my teammates,"
Nobody in this 12-team dance field plays better defense or runs it better than the Jets. If they get steady play from Sánchez, who threw 20 interceptions during the season, there is no reason to think they'll be eliminated today.
"It's like a new life, a breath of fresh air. We made it out of a tough stretch during the season where I was being careless with the football," he said. "And now, I don't want to say I've hit my stride, I don't want to say anything like that yet, but I just feel a little more comfortable."
The regular season is where résumés are built but the playoffs are where legends are made. It's time for this organization to put its best collective foot forward.
"I want rookies 10 years from now saying, 'Oh my God, I'm in the playoffs with Sánchez!' That's what I want," said the fifth overall selection in last April's draft. "The only way to get that way is to win these games. The kind of team we have, we have the potential to do it."