Late this afternoon in Indianapolis, the 7-7 Jets will look to keep their playoff hopes alive and end the Colts' hopes of perfection in 2009. But the fascinating angle to this contest is the Green & White will tangle with the NFL's Michelangelo and they have no idea how long the Colts' Renaissance Man will be on the field.
Peyton Manning, on his way to an unprecedented fourth MVP award, will make his 191st consecutive start for the Horseshoes. That much we know and we also know the Colts have a Painter — Curtis Painter — backing up Manning and you'd think they would like to get the rookie from Purdue some snaps before the postseason begins. The Colts, just the third team in NFL annals to being a season 14-0, are the AFC's top seed and clinched homefield throughout the playoffs before their Week 15 win at Jacksonville.
"I think we're kind of going into it with the mindset that Peyton is going to play," said Jets TE Dustin Keller this past week. "We're always going to prepare for their best and I know their main goal is winning the Super Bowl, but they would love to go undefeated. We're going into this with the mindset that he's playing."
Keller actually played college ball with Painter at Purdue. Painter, selected in the sixth round in April's draft, was running the spread for the Boilers in '06, when DK caught collected 56 catches and 4 touchdowns, and '07, when he had 68 catches and 7 TDs.
"He is a strong leader, a very smart guy and has a strong arm," Keller said of his former college teammate. "He is a real smart quarterback, really good with his checks with everything and just a really dependable guy. I don't know if he's second or third on their depth chart right now."
You can forgive the Jets' second-year tight end for not knowing Painter's depth chart position. Keller plays offense so he doesn't have to worry about who's tossing the rock on the other side. Also, Manning, whose 365 completions, 4,213 pass yards and 33 TDs pace the NFL, is a fixture in the lineup — the prolific 33-year-old passer has never missed a game since leaving the University of Tennessee. And the media didn't give a lot of attention to the Colts placing backup Jim Sorgi on the injured reserve in early December.
So now, two days after Christmas, there is a chance that Michelangelo brushes a few strokes and then turns it over to the inexperienced Painter with history on the line.
"It would be cool. I'd like to see him get that chance and see how he can do against our defense," said Keller, a Lafayette, Ind., native who will have more than 30 family members and friends in attendance for the must win. "It would be a tough first opponent in the NFL, but we'll see how it goes."
Even if Manning is a 60-minute man, the Horseshoes are going to get all they want and then some from the Jets' No. 1-ranked defense. Wideout Reggie Wayne, eight catches short of 100, will have to deal with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Darrelle Revis, and Jets head coach Rex Ryan and coordinator Mike Pettine will have a plan to contain TE Dallas Clark, 11 receptions shy of the century mark himself, that will include Kerry Rhodes.
"Hopefully, one day Dustin Keller can be like Dallas Clark," Ryan said. "He's a matchup nightmare. The quarterback is so accurate that when he breaks, he's got such great timing with him, he'll throw Dallas Clark the ball before he's ever looking for it or coming out of his break. He knows exactly when he's going to release. That's the tough thing. Those two are in sync, there's no question about it. I don't know if there's another tight end in the league with better receiving skills than him."
While the Colts offense vs. the Jets defense is strength vs. strength, any hopes for a Jets upset depends on solid play from the special teams and the offense. Coming off a 10-7 home loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the Jets can't afford another three miscues on field goal attempts and QB Mark Sanchez has to be steady in the hostile Lucas Oil Stadium dome. Sanchez, victimized by three picks last week, has thrown 20 interceptions his rookie campaign and the Green & White have the NFL's 29th-ranked passing offense.
"Occasionally we'll see some routes where our timing isn't down where it should be," said Keller, whose 41 receptions rank second on the club.
Turnovers are always a key stat, but you can't emphasize ball security enough against the Colts. Even if Indy head coach Jim Caldwell limits the time of DEs Dwight Freeney, who's amassed 11.5 sacks and will go to-to-toe with LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson, and Robert Mathis (9.5 sacks), the Colts will attempt to load the box against the NFL's top-ranked rush offense and then go get the rookie.
"If you give Peyton a short field, he can just shred you apart. That's important in any game — even more in this one, especially since it's a game we have to win to have a chance to get in the playoffs," Keller said. "They're an athletic defense that floats around and the guys are pretty solid in coverage, but I think in the passing game we can have some stuff for them."
When the Jets drive the field against this defense that will bend, they have to break them with seven. The game plan is to use Jay Feely for extra points and not field goals.
"We're going to need to score touchdowns," Ryan said. "As confident as I am in our defense, this team is the premier offense in the league."
Keller, who grew up about an hour away from the RCA Dome, was a Colts fan growing up and his guy was Manning. But the goal of the entire Jets team is just win by any means necessary. In the process, they want to trash the Colts' canvas, and it doesn't matter who the painter is.
"If he happens to be in there, he's not a guy where we can just relax and say, 'Oh, it's Curtis Painter,' " said Pettine. "It's certainly not Peyton Manning — there's only one. If we want to accomplish our goals, we're going to have to play well no matter who they have in there at quarterback."