Lucas Oil Stadium was loud and proud as usual, and the blue-and-white-clad fans had a slogan on thousands of placards to get them fired up for tonight's AFC Wild Card Game against the Jets: "ALL IN."
But late at night, it was the Jets who were the team that went all in with their winning hand — with their running game just enough timely passing, and defense, not to mention Nick Folk's right foot. As a result the Jets are moving on and Indianapolis is the team staying home after the Green & White cashed out Peyton Manning and the defending AFC-champion Colts, 17-6.
The Jets mounted a pair of monster ground-based second-half drives, both capped by LaDainian Tomlinson 1-yard runs, for a 14-10 lead. But the always-dangerous Manning and the always-resourceful Colts moved to one Adam Vinatieri field goal with 4:37 to play and then another Vinatieri crusher down the middle from 50 yards out to put the Colts ahead, 16-14, with 53 seconds to play.
However, after Antonio Cromartie immediately returned the kickoff to the Jets 46, Mark Sanchez and the Jets used their remaining 45 seconds and two timeouts to set up Folk's 32-yard field goal to pull out the one-point victory. And so the Jets are heading on to New England for an AFC Divisional Round date with the Patriots a week from Sunday.
"To come down and pull this out against a great football team, against a great quarterback — it was a Herculean effort from our team," said head coach Rex Ryan. "Really, I'm just thankful for the men that I coach, thankful for the two backs we have that pounded it in there, thankful for that coaching staff and thankful for Nick Folk. And I'm thankful I finally got to beat Peyton Manning."
The final drive was helped greatly by Sanchez's best throw of the night, a back-shoulder 18-yard completion to Braylon Edwards against Jacob Lacey to the Indy 14. The Jets let the clock run to 3 seconds and sent on Folk for his second game-winner of the season from the right hashes. The sound — or lack of sound — from the Colts faithful as the ball sailed through told Sanchez, the Jets and their fans in the stadium and around the country all they needed to know.
"I hit it pretty pure," Folk said. "I think I probably would have made it from pretty far. I hit it really well."
The Green & White ended their longest start of a game without points since the 1982 AFC Championship Game, the 14-0 shutout loss at Miami, by moving smartly for 63 yards to the tying score on the first possession of the second half. LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene split up eight carries for 43 yards and Sanchez had only one completion but it was a big one, his first hookup with TE Dustin Keller for 20 yards to the Colts 23. Tomlinson capped the drive with a second-effort 1-yard run off right guard with 9:48 to play.
Manning responded with the Indy offense's second scoring drive, although David Harris made the key stop of Joseph Addai on third down, forcing the hosts to settle for Adam Vinatieri's 47-yard field goal and a 10-7 lead with 4:53 left in the third quarter.
"Peyton Manning's the same guy, a smart guy," said S Eric Smith, who returned to action with a game-high 10 tackles and several big pass breakups. "He always knows what defense we're in. But we just wanted to keep the ball in front of us this year better than we did last year, and all except for one play we did that. That was key."
Then the Jets began moving again into Colts territory as the third period turned into the fourth. With some more tough, smart running and a few timely Sanchez completions, the Green & White marched 87 yards on 17 plays to Tomlinson's standing-up TD on third-and-goal from the 1. It was LT's second TD of the game, the Jets' second in three red zone opportunities, and it gave them a 14-10 lead with 9:59 to play.
"Just being back out there against this team, it was emotional but at the same time, I felt rejuvenated," said Tomlinson. "Obviously the rest helped us, Shonn and I. And we knew it was going to come down to a game like this where the run game was going to have to control the game and the offensive line did a great job moving those guys, controlling the line of scrimmage and giving us lanes to run through."
The defense slowed the Colts just after they got into the red zone, forcing them to settle for Vinatieri's second field goal. And the visitors had 4:37 left to burn to post a hard-earned victory in Indianapolis.
They seemingly eliminated only 1:27 of it as Sanchez's third-and-5 pass that Santonio Holmes on an out-route couldn't hold. But then the Jets got a big gift when the Colts' Taj Smith ran into punter Steve Weatherford. The Jets got a new set of downs.
Then they faced third-and-5 again. This time Sanchez went for the downs and just missed Edwards with the home run ball. This time Weatherford punted and Manning and the Colts had the ball at their 20 with 2:36 to play and one timeout plus the two-minute warning.
Predictably, Manning moved the Colts to the Jets 32. Then the V-man with ice water in his leg veins nailed it deep down the middle from 50 yards out with 53 seconds to play, setting the stage for the final-minute heroics.
For the entire first quarter the Jets defense had all the answers. S Brodney Pool's nice tackle for loss on Joseph Addai on third down started the game off right for the Jets defense. The NFL's top three-and-out team for the second straight season posted its first three-and-out of the playoffs.
On the punt, Santonio Holmes flirted with disaster when he inexplicable positioned himself close to the rolling ball, letting it pass between his legs. But the near gaffe turned into a big play when Indy coach Jim Caldwell challenged the officials' ruling that Holmes didn't touch the ball. Ref Gene Steratore upheld the call and the Colts were down one challenge and one timeout 1½ minutes into the game.
That was one of the highlights of an otherwise quiet first quarter as the Jets moved the ball a little and the Colts moved it almost not at all — Manning and his offense went three-and-out on their first three drives. Then after entering plus territory for the first time as the second quarter began, they were stalled again.
Sanchez hit his prettiest pass of the day, a 24-yarder to Braylon Edwards down the middle, but the Indy pass rush was getting into the QB's kitchen too often and again the Jets stalled.
Then it was Manning time. The Colts' superb QB, who was 9-for-12 but for an unimposing 65 yards, play-faked, then loaded up and let it fly for Pierre Garçon. The fleet WR curled down the deep middle in front of Antonio Cromartie and Pool, who didn't provide deep help, caught the pass in stride and outran "Cro" to the goal line, giving the Colts a 7-0 lead with 5:25 left in the half.
Not coincidentally, Manning's first TD pass in last year's AFC Championship Game went to Austin Collie with 1:13 left in the first half. A sign of things to come?
It appeared as if the Jets were intent on evening the score as Sanchez directed a 60-yard march into the Indy red zone. Then on three straight passes the Jets QB tried to find his tight end, Dustin Keller. The first two were just high, with Keller unhappy at no flags on the coverage.
The third was overthrown at the goal line pylon, with corner Justin Tryon snapping up the game's only turnover and assuring that the Colts went in at intermission, despite trailing in yards (153-147), rushing yards (74-31) and first downs (8-7), with a 7-0 lead.
"That wasn't my best in the first half, but we just found a way to win," Sanchez said. "I love playing at this time of year. It's very exciting, it's fun to look back on. We've just got to keep this rolling."
To stay on this role and get the second of the four wins they want to secure their stated goal of a Super Bowl title, all they have to do is go back to Foxboro six weeks after they were pounded by New England in primetime, 45-3.
Some Jets declined to play any Patriots games prematurely.
"We're going to enjoy this one for the next day or two," said LB Jason Taylor, "and then we'll address the Tom Brady stuff and the Patriots stuff during the week. It'll be a big one."
But others weren't so reserved.
"We're ready to go," said Keller. "This will be a chance for a rematch. That 45-3 game, it's not the team we are. We couldn't really establish our running game or passing game. And our defense, we definitely don't give up 45 points. I don't care if it's Tom Brady. They just don't."
Edwards' big catch was his fourth of the game for 62 yards. ... Tomlinson ended the night with 99 yards — 82 rushing, 17 receiving. ... Eric Smith, in his first game after sitting out three with a concussion, had a game-high 10 tackles and two pass breakups, and LB David Harris added nine solo tackles.
The Jets have gone 14 games without a first-quarter offensive touchdown, or since Tomlinson's 1-yard run in Game 4 at Buffalo. The only other TD in that time was Brad Smith's opening-kickoff-return TD at Pittsburgh. ... Smith pulled up after almost blocking a Pat McAfee punt late in the first quarter, left the field, then returned to the sideline. But his quadriceps injury made him an infrequent contributor the rest of the game. ... Rookie Kyle Wilson returned a second-quarter kickoff with Smith out and Cromartie took the second-half kick out smartly to the Jets 37.
The Jets' second TD drive last 9:54, their third-longest drive by time since 2000. ... They committed just three penalties for the fourth straight game after committing 94 in their first 13 games, or 7.2 per game.