- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003

After a week of hoopla surrounding dazzling young quarterback Chad Pennington and talk that they are a team of destiny along the lines of last year's Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, the New York Jets must actually get down to business today.

Fans and experts alike may have anointed the Jets as the popular sleeper team to come out of the AFC during the playoffs, but it should be noted that New York while a strong favorite to win today's wild card game at the Meadowlands has a worse record than its first-round opponent.

Yes, the Indianapolis Colts, despite their No.5 seeding, actually had a better regular season than the fourth-seeded Jets. It's just that no one seems to have noticed.

"We are 10-6," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning reminded this week. "I'm sure you would love to win them all. But in the AFC, that means we have done enough good things this year and we've won enough games to get into the playoffs."

It's been easy to overlook Indianapolis during this season of wackiness and parity. But make no mistake, the Colts are legitimate, having won six of their last eight games to earn the top wild card berth in the AFC.

They've got one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Manning, an underappreciated receiver named Marvin Harrison who merely shattered the NFL record with 143 receptions this year for 1,722 yards, and an improved defense under coach Tony Dungy.

But like their understated coach, the Colts have stayed below the radar screen much of this season.

"We've had a lot of highs and had some lows," Manning said. "We were 4-1, then 4-4, then 8-4, and Tony was very much the same throughout the entire season. He has a presence in the locker room. Whether it was after the game or at halftime or in the middle of a practice week, he was very much the same. I think that really has carried us through the entire season."

The Jets, meanwhile, needed back-to-back wins at the end of the season to finish 9-7 and capture the AFC East title. That guaranteed them a home game for today's postseason opener, not to mention making them 6-point favorites against Indianapolis.

"It doesn't matter who you play, and it doesn't matter what the odds look like," New York coach Herman Edwards said. "It's the nature of the playoff situation. That is why there are so many Cinderella stories in playoff competition. The teams that people are projecting to go to the Super Bowl generally don't."

Neither of these teams needs to be reminded of that; both have a recent history of playoff failure.

The Jets were beaten resoundingly by the Oakland Raiders, 38-24, in the wild card round last year. The Colts bowed out in their first playoff game the previous two seasons, losing in overtime to the Miami Dolphins in a 2000 wild card game and getting upset at home by the Tennessee Titans in the 1999 divisional playoff.

Each team took something out of those losses.

"We appreciate where we are, and we understand where we want to get to," New York running back Curtis Martin said. "No one is looking ahead right now. I think that we have learned our lesson of taking one game at a time. I know it sounds like a cliche, but I think we really know what that means now."

Said Manning: "All we are talking about is the first round of the playoffs and the New York Jets. We are truly taking it one step at a time and not looking ahead. This is where all our focus is. This is why I wanted to play professional football to get into the playoffs and a game where you want to play well and do whatever it takes to win."

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