Tonight's AFC Wild Card Game between the Jets and the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium might be a rematch of the AFC Championship Game played between these teams at the same site last January, but the teams are different. Additions and subtractions have been made to both clubs over the past year.
And perhaps no new face will have more of an impact on the outcome than the player who dons No. 10 for the Green & White.
"I might be the missing piece to the puzzle," said Santonio Holmes this week on "Four Quarters."
Equal parts engaging and electrifying, Holmes missed the playoffs last season after the Steelers failed to capitalize on his 79-catch, 1,248-yard, five-touchdown campaign. While the Jets were making their improbable playoff run, Holmes would often sit down with his friends and play the video game Madden NFL and select the Jets as his team.
"They were the hot team at that time and nobody was playing with them, so I figured I'd jump on these guys and start playing with them. And lo and behold, I'm here playing with the Jets," he said just days after completing his first regular season with New York's AFC representative.
For the bargain-basement price of a fifth-round pick, general manager Mike Tannenbaum and head coach Rex Ryan acquired Holmes on April 12. In 12 games (Holmes was suspended for the season's first quarter after violating the league's substance abuse policy) with a new team, a new quarterback and a new offense, he had 52 receptions for 746 yards and six touchdowns. And in four of his first six games, he proved to be the difference with the game on the line.
"The way we have started building with me being part of the team now was kind of tricky. It was getting me involved with the system. It kind of took time and Coach Schotty [Brian Schottenheimer] figured it out," Holmes said. "He and Mark and those guys spent numerous hours after practice, meetings and late nights, trying to put this thing together. Eventually we all started recollecting together and stated we have to get this job done or else we won't go anywhere."
Now in a few hours, the 5'11", 192-pound wideout will play in his fifth playoff game. He remembers his first one, a 31-29 home loss to the Jaguars, in which he had three catches for 49 yards and a TD, on Wild Card Weekend following the 2007 season.
"My first playoff game in Pittsburgh didn't go so well," he said, "so this time around I definitely want to make this one go the right way."
But Holmes became a champion in '08. He was great over three games, but none better than Super Bowl XXLII when he was named MVP after hauling in nine balls for 131 yards and the game-winning 6-yard TD that gave the Steelers their thrilling win over the Cardinals.
"We had a great team at that time. We had guys who were willing to sacrifice everything that they had," he said. "And we're building that same chemistry around here. Guys look for a leader and I feel I'm one of those guys who can be a leader for this team. I want to bring all the experience I had as a player playing for the Steelers, knowing what it felt like to have everybody in the locker room together, everybody on the field together and everybody doing the same thing."
Mark Sanchez is hot entering the playoffs and the Jets are more explosive and balanced in facing Peyton Manning and company this time around. Holmes and Braylon Edwards will be defended by the Colts' young corner pair of Jacob Lacey and Justin Tyron.
"A lot of the guys are very young, so we definitely have to get after those guys and exploit them and use the veteran leadership we have and our experience to the best of our advantage," he said. "We can't allow these young guys to get out here and capitalize on everything. We have to be sound, protecting the football, running good routes, attacking the ball and making the plays."
The Colts defense starts with the best end combo in football with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and they ask their defensive backs to largely play zone coverage.
"These guys love to run zone. They're going to stick to their base, their bread and butter. They are definitely going to try to take a lot of that away by disguising coverages and moving guys around," Holmes said. "But I think we have the perfect plan coming in this week."
Systematic in his approach, Homes will repeat his pregame routine today.
"I always try to keep it consistent. I talk to my mom and I talk to my kids every game. I have a specific breakfast plan that I stick to, so on gamedays everything kind of stays the same," he said. "It's specific and I try to keep it traditional and as routine as possible."
Then it's Tone Time. He was brought here for this. On gamedays, he can hear Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" and he thinks of the lights, the stage and putting on a show.
I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
And I've been waiting for this moment all my life, oh Lord
Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord, oh Lord
The Jets' second season commences tonight in primetime, on the road and against the defending conference champion. January is when champions are defined and the Jets should be in good shape if they get Santonio Holmes the football.
"It's a special one because it's the first one here with the Jets," he said. "I definitely want to make it a memorable one."