By Jason Keidel
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As Nick Folk’s kick slipped inside the right upright, just five feet became the buffer between might and misery, between a coach being the class clown and toast of the town.

Rex Ryan, the brash boss whose persona matches his girth, looks like a genius on Sunday after a one-point win on Saturday, doing just enough to tame a transcendent quarterback, and getting just enough production from his own.

And true to form, the Jets made their rabid fans reach for the defibrillator for four quarters. The Jets were losing this game with four seconds left, thanks to the baffling brilliance of their quarterback, who had a poor grip on the game until the final drive.

Like a nervous pitcher whizzing fastballs over his catcher’s head, Sanchez never found a groove, his throws sailing past perplexed, open receivers. For 59 minutes Sanchez morphed into the timid 24-year-old you’d expect of a second-year quarterback, almost throwing the jets into a premature vacation. But Sanchez calmed when it counted, and his final toss found the fingertips of Braylon Edwards, who played tall all game, snatching the lob and keeping his long legs off the chalk and leading the Jets into field goal range.

You don’t apologize for a win on the road against Peyton Manning. And yes, it was a win over a star more than a squad. Manning, the prolific pitchman, will pass his way to every record in the book before he retires. Manning wills his team with monolithic focus, his flat face of a boxer surveying and shredding defenses with startling precision.

Manning is the only reason pundits picked the Colts to beat the Jets, who were clearly superior in nearly every phase of the game. A solemn Manning was gracious in defeat, though you wonder if he wonders why he must win games virtually alone. He calls the plays, plays the game, and runs the team. Frantic while focused, tapping his helmet, slapping his hips, waving players to and fro, his endless gyrations and comical, shrieking cadence under center, Manning looks like a musician forced to play every instrument in a band at the same time.

Ryan, who howls with the windy bluster of a New York winter, often usurps the spotlight from his players. He framed the game as a chess match between he and Manning, to the exclusion of the men who actually performed on the field. It’s a proper tactic to protect your team, much the way you protect your quarterback with extra blockers, but perhaps he provides too much chalkboard fodder for his foes.

The Jets have a fine blend of youth and useful leaders, young men playing like veterans and veterans with the verve of rookies. Nearly all of them are ringless and ravenous for a championship. They took a big risk when they jammed to the oldies last summer, signing LaDainian Tomlinson and Jason Taylor. But both stayed healthy and hungry, and were essential to the win over the Colts.

And the Jets fleeced my beloved Steelers for Santonio Holmes, giving Pittsburgh little more than a MetroCard and two tickets to Lion King for the Super Bowl MVP. With Holmes and Edwards running deep and Dustin Keller snaking through the secondary, the Jets can be dangerous, if not deadly, on any Sunday.

The team and the town had about 12 hours to savor the sublime ending in Indiana. Lurking over the Jets like Galactus is the galactic Tom Brady. Brady hates the Jets (he said so) and the feeling is most mutual. The final score will be settled this weekend.

Rex Ryan was brought here to win a Super Bowl. (He said so.) But he was also brought here to beat Bill Belichick. The former doesn’t happen without the latter, and the Jets must loosen New England’s ten-year chokehold on the AFC East. As long as Brady and Belichick form a formidable duo, they will be the buffer between the Jets and their first Super Bowl since Ryan’s father coached under Weeb Ewbank.

For all his hubris, it’s easy to understand the urgency in Ryan’s tone, as the team faces a phalanx of free agents once the season ends. Edwards, Holmes, and Antonio Cromartie will become free agents, and the Jets surely can’t keep them all.

The fate of any franchise pivots on the limbs of their quarterback, and in Sanchez the Jets have a good one for a long time if he stays healthy. The Jets have a dominant offensive line, a bull of a running back in Shonn Greene, an owner willing to spend, and a GM who knows how to spend it.

There are no moral victories in January. Ryan’s job beyond a game plan is to paint a motivational motif for his club, reminding them that being within eight quarters of the Super Bowl is not assured every year. And while Rex will roar into every microphone planted under his double chin, he surely knows that the Jets must play perfect football to beat the Patriots on their home field.

If you’re a football junkie – a safe assumption if you’re reading this – you know that wild card weekend is God’s gift to the American male. Nestled in your warm couch on a cold day, spouse out of the house, remote in one hand and a drink in the other, pizza on speed dial, cell phone on silent, and a reason for Jets fans to watch for another week.

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pixy Keidel: Rex Treks

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