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December 6, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Pennington, Jets Back on Track
Coach on the Couch

BY SEAN LAHMAN
December 6, 2004

All of a sudden, the New York Jets look like a team to be feared.

The Jets' 8-3 record entering yesterday's game against the Texans was deceptive: Only one of their wins this year had come against an above-.500 opponents, and Gang Green hadn't recorded a convincing win since routing the Dolphins in Week 8. During the three games that quarterback Chad Pennington was out with a shoulder injury, the Jets scored just four touchdowns. That was enough to eke out wins against sad sack teams like the Browns and the Cardinals, but the lack of production was a serious cause for concern as the Jets headed into the toughest part of their schedule.

Pennington's return against Houston yesterday gave the Jets the offensive spark they so desperately needed. From the opening plays of the game, it was clear the Jets were moving the ball more consistently, mixing the short passing game with the rushing of Curtis Martin. Pennington completed his first nine pass attempts, spreading the ball around to six different receivers and leading the Jets on two long drives. Although the Jets had to settle for a field goal each time, sustaining those drives with first downs was a nice contrast to the sputtering attack that had plagued the team in recent weeks.

Backup Quincy Carter showed good throwing ability while filling in for Pennington, but the balanced Jets offense wasn't designed to run a vertical passing attack. It was built to take advantage of Pennington's accurate passing for short strikes, using his play fakes to set up the running game.

The Jets can be explosive when those elements are working, as Pennington demonstrated late in the third quarter during a drive that started on the Jets' 20-yard line. After two straight running plays, Pennington faked a handoff to Martin and hit Justin McCareins for a 12-yard gain. He did the same thing on the next play, selling the running play and finding McCareins for a 15-yard pass. Two plays later, with the Houston defense focused on the pass and the linebackers backed into coverage, Pennington fooled them by handing it off, and Martin broke through for 22 yards, setting up the Jets' second touchdown of the day.

For only the third time in their last 10 games, the Jets' offense scored more than 17 points. They did it by dominating the second half with their ground game, which was made possible by Pennington's ability to keep the defense guessing. The Texans' defense, of course, is among the league's worst, and the Jets' offensive formula may have considerably less success against the Steelers next week.

It's also worth noting another phenomenal performance by the Jets' defense. For the sixth time this year, they shut out their opponent in the second half. Except for a couple of long pass plays, the Jets kept Houston from mounting any kind of sustained attack. They got good pressure on the quarterback, shut down the Houston running game, and forced turnovers.

The Jets got some help yesterday when their two closest competitors in the playoff chase - Denver and Baltimore - both lost. It would seem that the Jets hold their playoff fate in their own hands, and their win yesterday put them in outstanding position to claim a playoff berth. If they continue their success on offense, the Jets could become be a formidable opponent in the closing weeks of the season and into the postseason.

***

Back in June and July, expectations for the Giants' season were tempered. With a new coaching staff and wholesale roster changes, the realistic hope of most fans was that the team could rebound from its disastrous 2003 campaign and get back to .500. But when the Giants earned impressive road wins in Green Bay and Minnesota and burst out to a 5-2 start, fans suddenly set their sights on the playoffs. Yesterday's loss to the Redskins, the Giants' fifth in a row, made it painfully clear that they weren't as good as that quick start suggested.

The Giants' defense ranked as the NFL's 10th best coming into this game, but mounting injuries have taken their toll. The team that took the field Sunday was a shell of the unit that dominated opponents early in the year by forcing turnovers and shutting down potent pass attacks. Big Blue was missing three of its four starters on the defensive line, and playmaking safety Gibril Wilson missed his third straight game.

Washington took advantage of the missing personnel up front and pounded the ball between the tackles relentlessly. Running backs Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts combined for 212 rushing yards on 42 carries. That softened things up for the passing attack, allowing Patrick Ramsey to complete 19 of 22 attempts and connect for three touchdown passes. The patchwork Giants defense was simply overmatched.

The Redskins hadn't scored 20 points in a game all season and weren't doing anything well, but against the Giants they racked up 379 yards and had an astonishing 20:58 advantage in time of possession. On two scoring drives of over 90 yards, the Redskins moved so effortlessly that they never even reached third down.

As poorly as the Giants' defense played, the offense was worse. The running game was stuck in neutral. The receivers appeared to be sleepwalking through the game. The much maligned offensive line, further weakened by the absence of guard Chris Snee, was completely dominated by the Redskins' front four.

It all stemmed from poor play by the interior line. Without strong blocking up front, it was impossible to get the running game going. That allowed the Redskins to focus on containing the Giants' receivers. That in turn left Eli Manning in the pocket without any targets to throw to. When you add it all up, it's easy to see why this offense has managed just 13 points in three games.

Of the 40 plays the Giants ran, only one, Manning's 48-yard pass to Amani Toomer in the fourth quarter, demonstrated that there was any spark of life. Of course, that play came when folks in Washington were streaming out to the parking lots and folks in New York had turned their sets off. Everything else was a case study in ineptitude, eerily reminiscent of the games late last year when the Giants appeared to have given up. Let's hope that's not the case, because despite their problems, the Giants have made progress this season.

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