INDIANAPOLIS -- Revis Island was its usual cold and lonely place on Sunday, but Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had plenty of fun exploring the areas around Lowery, Leonhard and Coleman -- the Lesser Antilles of the New York Jets secondary.
Manning's favorite target, Reggie Wayne, was neutralized by All-Pro Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis -- so Manning worked over New York cornerbacks Dwight Lowery and Drew Coleman and safety Jim Leonhard for most of his 377 passing yards and three touchdowns in the Colts' 30-17 victory that gave them the AFC championship and put them into Super Bowl XLIV.
Manning had an especially good time with Lowery, a surprise starter in place of Lito Sheppard. Lowery spent the game being torched by Colts receiver Pierre Garcon for 11 catches, 151 yards and a touchdown.
"I'd be curious to find out why Sheppard didn't start," Manning said. "He played good for them all season."
People in the Jets locker room were curious as well. People like, well, Lito Sheppard.
"No idea," Sheppard said when asked why he didn't play more. "I feel like I'm a key part of this team, and I helped us get to this point. No answer [to that question] would satisfy me other than being out on the field, but I'm not a disgruntled player. I'm not going to make a scene. That's just the way the game worked out."
Jets coach Rex Ryan wasn't terribly helpful, saying he went with Lowery over Sheppard "because we liked that matchup a little bit better."
Which matchup, exactly? The one of Lowery tackling Garcon 20 yards downfield? That's a question for Ryan to contemplate throughout the offseason. As for the rest of us, we didn't get the anticipated heavyweight bout of superstar quarterback vs. superstar cornerback. We wanted Manning vs. Revis, but what we got was a main event of Manning vs. Lowery, with Manning vs. Coleman and Manning vs. Leonhard also on the undercard. Did we lose? Maybe.
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But so did the Jets.
And that's all the Colts care about. Manning literally got aggravated when he was asked if the Colts had purposely stayed away from Wayne because of Revis, whose dominance this season has led to a nickname for the barren offensive area around him: "Revis Island."
"I'm so sick of that," Manning said. "No, we didn't stay away from Revis."
It sure looked that way. Manning went to Wayne on the first play of the game, a 13-yard gain -- but Revis was lined up elsewhere. Revis then switched to Wayne, and Manning didn't throw Wayne's way until the second-to-last play of the quarter. The game ended with Manning throwing toward his favorite receiver just three more times. But Manning threw toward Garcon 15 times. He threw toward rookie receiver Austin Collie nine times. He threw toward tight end Dallas Clark eight times.
Could Manning have unlocked the mystery behind Revis Island? We'll never know. More to the point, we'll never care. This was a day to acknowledge, once and for all, that the Colts have a lot more weapons than Wayne. Anyone who says otherwise -- like I unfortunately did last week -- is a buffoon. Garcon put up 11 catches for 151 yards and a TD. Collie worked on a mixture of Coleman and Leonhard for seven catches for 123 yards and a touchdown.
So what if Reggie Wayne was held to just three catches for 55 yards and no touchdowns? Darrelle Revis may well have won that head-to-head battle -- but the Colts won the AFC championship.
And Leonhard knows where the blame lies: on the defensive backs not named Revis.
"We made so many mistakes," Leonhard said. "We haven't let balls go over our head all year -- but we allowed that to happen, really, all day today."
Leonhard seemed genuinely mystified, and with good reason. The Jets went into this game with a very clear game plan: Revis would take Wayne out of the game, and the Jets' linebackers and safeties would combine to take Clark out of the game. Between them, Wayne and Clark had caught 200 passes for 20 touchdowns this season, but on Sunday -- even with Sheppard and fellow Jets cornerback Donald Strickland playing very little -- Wayne and Clark combined for just seven catches, 90 yards and one score.
|Rookie wide receiver Austin Collie burns Drew Coleman for a 46-yard catch. (Getty Images)|
"I don't get it," Leonhard said.
Coming in, who would? Austin Collie had been a possession receiver this season, grabbing 60 balls for a middling 676 yards. Garcon had made bigger plays than Collie, but not a lot of them -- he had 47 catches for 765 yards in the regular season. Those are decent numbers, but that's all they are. Decent. But on Sunday, Collie and Garcon were much more than decent. They were dominant, dominant to the point where Garcon couldn't keep up with the number of balls he had caught.
"I lost track," he said. "I knew it was a lot, but I didn't know how many."
It was an AFC championship game record, is what it was. And it was completely unplanned, if you believe what Manning said afterward. He said the Colts weren't ducking Darrelle Revis or forsaking Reggie Wayne.
"When a guy's hot like Pierre, you go to him," Manning said before acknowledging -- finally -- that maybe, just maybe, the Colts had better places to visit Sunday than Revis Island.
"Well," Manning said of Lowery, "when a guy's making his first start all season -- in the AFC title game -- you have to check that out a little bit."