NFL: Three star QBs and upstart Jets go for Super Bowl
By MIKE FITZPATRICK
AP Sports Writer
The New York Jets can expect to see Peyton Manning for four quarters this time.
With a 17-14 upset of the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, brash coach Rex Ryan and his hard-hitting Jets earned a surprise spot in the AFC title game at top-seeded Indianapolis.
The Week 16 rematch is one of two conference championship games Sunday featuring some of the NFL's top quarterbacks, all within one win of the Super Bowl.
First, Manning gets another shot at the Jets, who handed Indianapolis its first loss of the season — rallying after the four-time MVP and other Colts starters were pulled early in the second half to rest.
"A matchup that probably nobody wanted, but too bad," Ryan said. "Here we come!"
Then, 40-year-old Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings visit Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints for the NFC title.
"I know we're not done yet," Favre said after throwing four touchdown passes Sunday in a 34-3 rout of Dallas. "The New Orleans Saints, they're explosive."
The Jets were the only road team to win in the divisional round, stunning the second-seeded Chargers to fill out the last spot in the league's final four.
New York goes back to Indianapolis, where the top-seeded Colts showed no signs of rust in beating Baltimore 20-3 on Saturday.
"I told them we wanted to end the regular season fresh, ready and well prepared," Indianapolis rookie coach Jim Caldwell said. "I believe we did. It doesn't give you any guarantees. It's what you believe in and your convictions and playing well when it comes time."
The Jets beat the Colts 29-15 on Dec. 27. Of course, Indianapolis had already clinched home-field advantage by then, and Caldwell put Manning and other key players on the sideline with a 15-10 lead in the third quarter.
New York came back to win, ending the Colts' league-record 23-game regular-season winning streak and grabbing control of its playoff destiny.
"I don't know if Santa Claus will be that good to me again," Ryan said Sunday.
Against the Chargers, rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez threw a go-ahead, 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dustin Keller three plays into the fourth quarter, then Shonn Greene gave the Jets breathing room with a 53-yard scoring run on their next possession.
San Diego (13-4) not only saw its 11-game winning streak end, but endured yet another playoff meltdown after winning the AFC West.
The upstart Jets (11-7), who have won seven of their last eight, advanced to the AFC championship game for the third time overall and first since 1999.
New York's only trip to the Super Bowl came before the AFL-NFL merger, when Joe Namath and the AFL champions stunned Don Shula's heavily favored Baltimore Colts 16-7 in 1969.
That famous game was played in Miami, the site of this year's Super Bowl.
After a disappointing loss to Atlanta in Week 15, Ryan didn't even realize his Jets were still in playoff contention. Once they reached the postseason, though, the rookie coach declared them Super Bowl favorites.
"We believed the whole time, the whole year, when it probably wasn't the popular choice," Ryan said. "We don't have to apologize to anyone."
The Vikings and Saints dominated in the divisional round, reminding everyone why the NFC's top two teams ruled all season before late skids. Big games by Favre and Brees over the weekend set up a tantalizing matchup in the conference championship game.
Favre is headed to New Orleans to try to return to the Super Bowl 12 years after his last appearance, with Green Bay. Two frustrated fan bases will be watching closely as the top-seeded Saints host the NFC title game for the first time, less than five years after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans. Minnesota hasn't gone to the Super Bowl since 1977; the Saints have never made it.
The Vikings routed the Cowboys 34-3 on Sunday to set up the showdown. Favre threw three TD passes to Sidney Rice, while a relentless defense sacked Tony Romo six times and forced him into three turnovers.
"To win the way that we did doesn't mean anything going into next week," Favre said.
A day earlier, the Saints trounced the Arizona Cardinals 45-14. Brees tossed three touchdown passes and Reggie Bush scored on an 83-yard punt return and a spectacular 46-yard run.
"There have been some lean years for the Saints. I've been a part of a few of them," right tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. "To be able to be here when I think something special is going on, it's quite an honor."