The journey is not complete.
We've seen the Jets' season go from Mission: Impossible to Mission: Improbable, back to Mission: Impossible and then Mission: Possible, but those were catchphrases used to describe the Jets' playoff chances. After postseason road wins in Cincinnati and San Diego, it's Mission: Miami and an appearance in Super Bowl XLIV.
To claim American Football Conference supremacy, the Jets have to corral the Colts this afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
"Our goal is to move on. We know what's at stake and we're 60 minutes away from being where we want to be," said DE Marques Douglas. "Sixty minutes of all-out football. We need three phases. We need to make plays on special teams, on offense and on defense."
It's fitting that this contest will be played in America's Heartland because the resilient Jets have displayed quite the ticker in December and January. A team that was 4-6 on the morning of Nov. 29 now needs just one more "W" and the franchise will secure its second trip to the NFL's championship game.
"I think Thomas Jones, when he talked about the confetti and going to the Super Bowl, he was like 'Just dream about it. Keep thinking about it,' " said rookie QB Mark Sanchez. "And that's what we've been doing."
The 23-year-old Sanchez hasn't shaved since the Green & White were in the midst of their Week 16 preparations for the Colts. And during their hairy 4-0 run, Sanchez has protected the football and managed games while completing 44 of 73 for 451 yards with two touchdowns and just one interception.
"I think the biggest thing that has made the difference in these last few games is knowing what it takes to win and also knowing what gets you beat. Turnovers have gotten us beat," he said. "We're 10-0 when we win the turnover battle. That's a known fact and that's the way we've got to play."
Although the Jets conquered the Colts, 29-15, on Dec. 27, the NFL's Most Valuable Player exited that contest in the third quarter along with a number of regulars, and a handful of Colts starters didn't even suit up. The Horseshoes are more than Peyton Manning, but the Jets will advance if they can contain one of the league's all-time greats.
"He's a pretty special guy, an unbelievable talent, one of the sharpest quarterbacks around — ever. It's pretty cool. It's great," said Sanchez of the matchup. "But at the same time, I'm playing against the defense. I'm worried about [Dwight] Freeney and [Antoine] Bethea and [Gary] Brackett. Those guys are the ones I'm watching."
While you will always think about offense in Indy as long as Manning's in town, the Colts have a formidable, fast defense. Freeney and Robert Mathis not only can bring the heat off their respective edges, but the Colts will stunt their two athletic ends to clog up the middle against the run. They'll aim to free up space for aggressive linebackers Brackett and Clint Session. One of the most underrated matchups this afternoon will be Nick Mangold vs. Brackett.
"He's a heck of a player. He's instinctive. You can tell that he knows the game," said the Jets' two-time Pro Bowl center. "You see his speed and awareness, and he brings some thump, too, so it adds a little spice to the mixture."
The Jets "D" has delivered quite a few thumps of their own in the postseason, but even head coach Rex Ryan said this week that it would be a "stretch" to hold Manning and company to 14 points.
"He's accurate," said CB Lito Sheppard. "You can't take away from the way he throws the ball and that's what makes a lot of their plays go. Guys are covered, but he finds that small X to hit with the ball. I think that's the biggest thing with that whole team: Manning. Manning is Manning."
This will be Peyton's third conference championship appearance and he's in for quite a duel. Ryan and coordinator Mike Pettine will disguise at the line, change coverages and do everything in their power to disrupt the Colts' passer.
"Peyton Manning is not immortal," Douglas said. "He has his flaws — very few, but we have to be confident in what play's being called and move forward and be aggressive and keep it loose out there. If you don't get after him, you're going to get beat. We've watched countless hours of film now of guys who don't rush the passer and who are constantly out of place and those guys are sitting at home now."
The Jets have set their sights on keeping Manning at home for the Super Bowl. Not given much of a chance to do anything at the beginning of the regular season or even at the commencement of the playoffs, their rookie head coach has done wonders with his defense and a pair of first-year pros on offense — Sanchez and RB Shonn Greene — have matured under the bright lights.
"We're facing a great team in their environment and in a tough place to play, so just go play and have fun and do what we've done forever," Sanchez said. "The field is going to be the same size. The ball, it's still a Wilson NFL ball and you throw it like you know how. Once you eliminate the distractions and everything surrounding the game, you can just go play and try to set yourself free with your preparation."
The Jets own one Lombardi Trophy and they hoisted it after beating the Colts, 16-7, in Super Bowl III on Jan. 12, 1969. That historic contest, which took place more than 41 years ago — in Miami, of all places — changed the football landscape forever as the 17- point underdogs shocked the world. These fighting Jets find themselves a solid underdog again today, but they don't care and have every intention of delivering another knockout.
"Yeah, we got a puncher's chance ... like George Foreman would have a puncher's chance," Ryan said. "That's how I look at it. We don't punch like just anybody. We punch like George Foreman."