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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Rookie Mark Sanchez more than matched Peyton Manning, throwing two touchdown passes in the first half and giving the New York Jets a 17-13 halftime lead over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game Sunday.
After a scoreless first quarter, both teams opened up their passing games. Sanchez bested the All-Pro, putting rookie coach Rex Ryan and his underdog Jets just 30 minutes away from their first Super Bowl since Joe Namath more than 40 years ago.
With the game so close, it focused even more attention on their previous meeting last month. Indianapolis was undefeated and on an NFL record 23-game regular-season winning streak, but instead of going for a perfect season, Colts coach Jim Caldwell pulled Manning and other starters.
Minus their stars, Colts let a 15-10 lead with 6 minutes left in the third quarter turn into a 29-15 loss. Had the Jets lost, they would’ve been eliminated from playoff contention.
Fans were upset by the Colts’ decision to pass up perfection, and a national debate began about whether Indianapolis did the right thing. The overriding theme of the week leading to this game was that it was a chance for the Colts to redeem themselves against the Jets.
Sanchez showed poise throughout this championship meeting, making it 14-6 with 4:53 left in the half by finding Dustin Keller in the front of the end zone, delivering the pass while getting popped by a Colts defender for a 9-yard touchdown.
The fifth overall draft pick out of Southern California was 5 for 7 for 124 yards and the two touchdowns.
Manning brought the Colts right back into it with three consecutive passes to Austin Collie, capped by a 16-yard toss with 1:13 remaining to make it 17-13. The four-time MVP was 11 for 18 for 218 yards and the score.
After the Jets bottled up Manning in a scoreless first quarter, Matt Stover gave the Colts a brief lead with a 25-yard field goal on the first play of the second period.
But the Jets came right back with a quick strike. Sanchez found Braylon Edwards zipping down the left sideline ahead of Jacob Lacey, playing for the injured Jarraud Powers, and went untouched 80 yards into the end zone.
The TD may’ve marked the start of a high-scoring game in the matchup of a star quarterback against a rising NFL newcomer. It also was the first time a pair of rookie head coaches faced each other in a conference championship.
The winner of the game between the Colts (15-2) and Jets (11-7) will advance to the Super Bowl in Miami against either Minnesota or New Orleans, playing in the NFC championship later Sunday.
The Jets missed a chance to take an early lead when Jay Feely was wide right on a 44-yard field-goal attempt with 6:40 remaining in the opening quarter. After New York’s first offensive possession stalled at its own 27, Feely’s kick whizzed a few inches from the outside of the right upright.
Stover’s 19-yarder made it 7-6 with 8:44 remaining in the first half. Feely booted a 48-yarder with 2:11 left, giving the Jets a 17-6 lead.
The game got off to an auspicious start when referee Tony Corrente mistakenly said, “The New York Giants call tails,” before the coin toss.
New York was sparked by the victory at Indianapolis, beating AFC North champion Cincinnati in the Giants Stadium finale the following week and clinching a playoff spot. The Jets then won the wild-card rematch against the Bengals at Cincinnati and upset the high-scoring Chargers 17-14 in San Diego last Sunday.
Sanchez is only the fourth rookie quarterback to get his team into a conference championship game, joining Tampa Bay’s Shaun King, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco.
It’s the third AFC championship game for the Jets, and first since they lost to the Broncos in Denver in 1999.
The Jets are trying to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1969, when Broadway Joe delivered the franchise’s only title. Ryan’s father, Buddy, was a defensive assistant on that team that upset the Baltimore Colts.
The Colts are 5-2 in their last seven home playoff games and were looking for their second Super Bowl title in four years.
Indianapolis running back Joseph Addai went out early with a shoulder injury, but returned in the second quarter.
Powers was inactive after he did not practice all week because of a left foot injury.