By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts architect of upsets
Jets fans looking for the perfect blueprint to beat the Colts Sunday might be well served to dig into their own team's past – to a certain little game known as Super Bowl III.
You know the story: the AFL's Jets that day shocked the pigskin "pundits" and much of the sporting world with their 16-7 victory over Don Shula's NFL Colts – a team that, to this day, remains one of the most dominant forces in the history of pro football and that still sits very high on the list of the "almost-greatest" teams in league annals.
It's known as the greatest upset in pro football history. We're not entirely sure it is. But, at the very least, it is part of an elite trio of signature games that stand, in some order, as the three greatest upsets in pro football history. Interestingly, New York teams are responsible for each victory:
  • The 8-5 Giants beat the 13-0 Bears, 30-13, in the 1934 NFL championship game
  • The 11-3 Jets beat the 13-1 Colts, 16-7, in Super Bowl III (1968 season)
  • The 10-6 Giants beat the 16-0 Patriots, 17-14, in Super Bowl XLII (2007 season)
(The 11-0 Bears of 1942 were another dominant and undefeated team that lost in the NFL championship game, but the team that finally beat them was a fairly dominant 10-1 Redskins team led by Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh playing at the height of his powers.)
Comparing the 2009 Jets and Colts to the 1968 Jets and Colts is not a perfect metaphor. The 11-3 Jets of 1968 were better than their 9-7 counterparts of 2009, and they were largely different teams. The 1968 Jets won with an elite offense and a fairly average defense. The 2009 Jets won, when they did win, with an elite defense and a fairly average offense.
The 13-1 Colts of 1968 were also better than their 14-2 Colts counterparts of 2009. Sure, the 2009 Colts toyed with a perfect season. But they won a lot of close games. The 1968 Colts, meanwhile, rolled just about everybody on the schedule. They were No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 2 in scoring offense and mauled their opponents by an average of +18.4 PPG. It was the greatest scoring differential by any pro team since the 1942 Bears (+26.6 PPG), and remained so until surpassed by the 2007 Patriots (+19.7 PPG).
The 1968 Colts, in other words, were one of the great juggernauts in history. The victory by the Jets in Super Bowl III was not a colossal upset because the AFL topped the NFL. That's the conventional storyline. We found out a year later, when the Chiefs crushed the Vikings in Super Bowl IV, that the leagues were much closer in talent than we realized.
No, the Jets victory in Super Bowl III was a colossal upset because they upended rather easily the most dominant team the NFL had produced in a 65-year span of its history.
A victory by the Jets over the Colts Sunday would fall somewhere short of that level. But it would be impressive just the same. The Jets are just 9-7. And the AFC has never sent a nine-win team to the Super Bowl (The NFL/NFC has sent three: the 9-4-1 Packers of 1967, the 9-7 Rams of 1979 and the 9-7 Cardinals of 2008).
Regardless of the differences between these teams and games, one thing is true: the 1968 Jets laid out a perfect blueprint for the 2009 Jets. If this year's version of the Gang Green adheres to this blueprint, they'll be able to call Sunday's battle against the Colts the second-greatest victory in franchise history.
We studied the statistical outcomes of Super Bowl III and found six pillars of pigskin that the Jets must build upon on Sunday to make a shocking return visit to the Super Bowl, 41 years after the organization's finest hour.
1. Force three interceptions!
As CHFF readers know, Negative Pass Plays, and interceptions in particular, are the key to any victory – especially a major upset.
The 1968 Jets certainly proved the importance of INTs in Super Bowl III. It was four picks by the defense – three against Colts starter Earl Morrall and one by replacement Johnny Unitas – that were the four most critical plays in the game.
As Cold, Hard Football Facts readers learned this week, four picks in a playoff game is a death notice. You simply do not win when you throw four picks in a playoff game.
The 2009 Jets do not need four picks. But they do need three. Teams that force a trio of INTs are 78-17 (.821) in postseason play (since the merger) and those three picks will be enough to tip the balance of power in favor of the upstart Jets against a superior team.
Conveniently, the 2009 Jets are well poised to do this: they fielded the No. 1 pass defense in football this year (58.8 Defensive Passer Rating). However, they were not particularly adept at picks: with just 17 INTs all year, they trailed 12 other NFL teams in this category. They'll have to grow adept at picks real fast to win on Sunday.
2. Adhere to the conservative passing offense
Joe Namath is the signature figure from Super Bowl III – largely because of his famous "guarantee" of victory.
But on game day, he was hardly spectacular. In fact, he was down right pedestrian: Namath completed 17 of 28 passes for 206 yards, 7.4 YPA and an 83.3 passer rating – good for its era, but hardly great.
Namath didn't even throw a touchdown pass in his signature win. But Namath did the one thing he absolutely, positively, needed to do to ensure victory: he avoided picks. Namath did not throw a single INT. It was something of a miracle for one of the most mistake-prone passers in NFL history (Namath, in his career, threw 197 TDs and 220 INTs).
The Jets merely need a similar performance out of Mark Sanchez: a conservative effort in the passing game, without forcing any throws and, more importantly, keeping the ball out of the hands of his opponenents. Post Namath-in-Super Bowl III numbers, and we like New York's chances.
(As we noted after the upset over the Chargers, Rex Ryan's religious commitment to conservative old-school football is admirable. And, as we noted before the game, it's a-O.K. for Sanchez to play the Dilfer roll that helped lift the 2000 Ravens to a Super Bowl championship.)
3. Play bend-but-don't-break defense
The 1968 Colts pushed the Jets around the field at many points in Super Bowl III. Tom Matte ripped off a 58-yard run in the first quarter to move the ball into Jets territory; and did so again with a 30-yard catch in the second quarter and a 19-yard run in the fourth quarter.
The Jets yielded, and yielded and yielded ... but only once did they surrender points, and those points didn't come until late in the game.
The Colts picked up a respectable 324 yards of offense that day and spent much of the game in New York territory. But thanks largely to turnovers, they converted those 324 yards into just 7 points. As measured by our Bendability Index, the Jets were awesome on defense that day: they yielded an incredible 46.3 Yards Per Point Allowed. That number will win almost every game, anytime, anywhere.
The 2009 Jets have to do the same: it's unreasonable to expect that they'll completely shut down Peyton Manning and the Colts offense. But if they can, bend, bend, bend, like the 1968 Jets, they'll take a giant step toward the second-biggest win in franchise history.
4. Make the Colts one dimensional
The 2009 Jets are well designed to turn the Colts into a one-dimensional offense, much like they did last week against the Chargers. We discussed this effort earlier in our preview of the AFC title game.
If all goes according to plan (and according to our expectation for the Jets), New York will force the Colts to abandon its inept ground game (3.54 YPA, 30th) and rely almost solely on Peyton and the passing attack.
That's exactly what the Jets did in Super Bowl III. Colts running back Tom Matte had incredible success on the ground that day (11 carries, 116 yards, 10.5 YPA, including a long gain of 58 yards). Colts QB Earl Morrall, meanwhile, had a terrible day passing the ball (6 of 17, 71 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT). Johnny Unitas was not much better in relief (11 of 24, 110 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT).
Yet Don Shula panicked when he fell behind in the second quarter and insisted on passing the ball at all costs: the Colts attempted 41 passes, and just 20 rush attempts. That pass-run ratio is infrequent today, let alone in 1968. In fact, Matte and backfield mate Jerry Hill combined for 145 yards on those 20 attempts – the Colts had a very good day on the ground in Super Bowl III.
But the Colts abandoned the ground game that day and it backfired: playing one dimensional football, Morrall and Unitas forced one pass after another into the waiting arms of Jets defenders. A one-dimensional Indy offense on Sunday might yield similar results against New York's shutdown pass defense.
5. Pound away with your powerful ball carrier
Joe Namath famously earned MVP honors in Super Bowl III, but the award should have gone to workhorse fullback Matt Snell – he truly carried the load for the Jets that day.
New York ran the ball 43 times in Miami – Snell with 30 of those attempts for 121 yards (4.03 YPA). He also caught four passes for 40 yards. In other words, Snell handled the ball on nearly half of the Jets offensive plays that day (34 of 72) and produced nearly half of the team's offensive output (161 of 337 yards). He also scored the team's only touchdown, with a 4-yard run in the second quarter.
Actually, in retrospect, when you look at those numbers, it's a travesty that he didn't win MVP honors.
In any case, the 2009 Jets have just the Snell-like workhorse they need to win: rookie running back Shonn Greene, a rising NFL star who's rapidly emerging as the MVP of the 2009 postseason.
Like Snell, he's carried the load for the Jets, with 44 carries for 263 yards in two playoff games (a remarkable 5.98 YPA), though he's caught just 1 pass for 4 yards.
In fact, Greene's 45 touches and 267 yards of offense represent, like Snell, a large percentage of the team's postseason totals (119 plays for 615 yards).
If he carries the load and punctures the offense and scores a touchdown, much the way he has in New York's first two victories, and much the way Snell did in Super Bowl III, the Jets have a fighting chance.
6. Pray for a little good ju-ju
Hey, a little good luck never hurt anybody, especially a big underdog. The Jets got a little last week when San Diego kicker Nick Kaeding choked on the big hairy fur ball and missed three field goals in one game after missing just three all year.
The 2007 Giants got a little bit of luck in Super Bowl XLII when New England cornerback Asante Samuel dropped a sure INT on New York's game-winning drive, and then again when David Tyree defied the understood truths of the cosmos by sticking a slippery leather oblate spheroid against a hard, round plastic helmet. Phootball physicists are still unable to explain that phenomenon.
The 1968 Jets got a bit of luck at the end of the first quarter of Super Bowl III, when receiver Jimmy Orr raced virtually untouched down the left sideline, wide open for a sure touchdown – but Morrall never looked at him. Instead, he threw into coverage and Jim Hudson came up with a critical Jets interception that set the tone for the rest of the game.
Asking the Jets to successfully build upon all six pillars of pigskin on Sunday is a lot to ask in one game. But the Jets have proven capable of playing this same exact style of football in their first two playoff games.
And if they do pull off the upset, they can thank Weeb, Joe, Matt and the rest of the 1968 Jets for laying out the blueprint.