With a blue horseshoe on his white helmet, Donald Strickland got his first AFC Championship Game experience with the Indianapolis Colts on Jan. 18, 2004, at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.
"I remember us losing to New England. [Peyton] Manning threw a couple of big interceptions in that game and that's when they established the 5-yard chuck rule, penalizing you for putting your hands on receivers," said Strickland this week inside the Jets' locker room.
It would also later be known as the "Ty Law Rule" because Manning was not only sacked four times during that 24-14 championship loss but was also picked four times. In snowy conditions and freezing temperatures, the physical Law beat up Colts receivers and collected three picks in an incredible individual performance.
But the future was bright for the Colts because Manning was a youngster and Strickland, a rookie at the time, naturally figured he'd become a postseason regular. It didn't quite work as planned because Strickland's second conference championship appearance will come Sunday when the Jets visit the Colts.
"After that, I always thought it would be easy to get back there," he said. "It's kind of ironic that this is the first time I'm getting back to this game and it's to face them."
After starting eight games as a rookie, Strickland appeared in just five games combined over the next two seasons. A shoulder injury ended his sophomore campaign, he was waived by the Colts on Oct. 25, 2005 and finished up '05 by playing three games with the Philadelphia Eagles.
"I ran into a rash of injuries and the next thing I know I'm exported out of the locker room and on to a different team," said Strickland of his Indy exit. "Things didn't really go the way I planned, but I think God has a plan and now I'm back in the situation."
During the Jets' 17-14 divisional-round win over the Chargers, Strickland recorded three tackles and one pass defensed. He sat out Wild Card Weekend with a quad injury, so last Sunday was his first postseason experience since that AFC Championship Game with the Colts six years ago.
"It was a learning experience. I was talented and making plays, but I learned the business side of the league," he said. "It was hard on me at first, but it forced me to really dig deep and see how badly I wanted to play. I think once I went back to San Francisco — my hometown — it kind of rekindled that spirit and I got back falling in love with the game again."
Before joining the Jets in March, Strickland played 31 games with the 49ers from 2006-08. He played nine contests for the Green & White this season, collecting 25 tackles, four PDs and two sacks in addition to nine special teams stops. Strickland sacked Curtis Painter on the Colts' final possession back in Week 16 as New York's AFC representative took down Indy for its first loss.
"When they took their starters out, the game was fairly close. They had only a five-point lead, so we know we can play with them," he said. "It's just a matter of us going out there and executing all of our assignments. Special teams, I think we had them beat. Defense, I think we were playing real good. And I think the offense was getting a rhythm at that point."
The Jets have to disrupt Manning's rhythm with disguises, pressure and sticky coverage. While the task will be difficult, the Jets will bring the NFL's No. 1 pass defense to do battle with Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie.
"It's definitely going be on us in the back end to play well if we expect to be victorious, but I think we're more than capable," said Strickland. "We've got Revis as a shutdown corner, we have Lito [Sheppard] and [Dwight] Lowery, [Drew] Coleman and myself, Kerry [Rhodes] and Jim Leonhard. So we have some playmakers on that side of the ball, too. We are definitely going to go out there and compete and try to give them a run for their money."
A third-round pick of Indianapolis in 2003, Strickland, a Colorado product, was part of the same Colts rookie class that produced Clark (first round, Iowa), DE Robert Mathis (fifth round, Alabama A&M) and Gary Brackett (undrafted free agent, Rutgers). Those three earned Super Bowl rings when the Colts topped the Bears in XLI, and they're two wins away from another Lombardi Trophy. But Strickland has taken a long road back to the big stage and he's hoping he has luck on his side as he opposes the Horseshoes.
"It would really be a dream come true because I've persevered through so much," he said. "Just looking back at those times in Indy, they cut me prior to them going to another Super Bowl. I felt like I missed out on one and now that the time has arrived, it's here for us to stake that claim. It's a great group of guys around me and supporting me and we all believe in one another. And I think we can make it happen."