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January 10, 2005 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Shaky Jets' Offense Earns a Reprieve

BY SEAN LAHMAN
January 10, 2005

All is well in the Emerald City - for now.

It had been 23 years since the Jets won a road playoff game, and they probably haven't had a bigger win since Joe Namath's guaranteed Super Bowl III victory in 1969. Most important, though, Gang Green's 20-17 overtime victory in San Diego on Saturday made an important statement about the state of the New York Jets and its two key figures.

For the last month, head coach Herm Edwards and quarterback Chad Pennington have been tangled in an incessant grudge match with the press. Edwards took exception to complaints that his team backed into the playoffs, arguing that being in mattered more than how they got there. Pennington bristled at the criticism of his arm strength, insisting that he was still capable of winning big games.

The difference between a win and a loss on Saturday was greater than just the fate of the Jets' season; it was a measure of credibility for Edwards and Pennington. It may not have been pretty, but both men earned a temporary reprieve with a hard-fought playoff win.

After a gritty first half that showcased the comparable strengths of both teams' run defenses, Pennington took the reins early in the third quarter, making a nice play-action fake that allowed Santana Moss to break free down the field. Standing just behind the 50-yard line, Pennington launched a bomb that found Moss in stride 3 yards deep in the end zone. It was a throw that most people believed he couldn't make, a throw he hadn't attempted since suffering a rotator cuff injury in early November. Pennington had the vision to see how his fake handoff created the separation and put the ball right on target.

After a field goal gave the Jets a 10-point cushion in what was clearly a defensive struggle, San Diego's defense adroitly prevented the Jets from eating at the clock by not conceding tough inside yards to Curtis Martin and the Jets' running attack. Pennington responded by turning to receiver Justin McCareins, who has proved over the course of the season that the loss of Laveranues Coles to Washington was not the catastrophe it could have been. The pair connected eight times for 87 yards, the most catches and most yards in a game for McCareins this season. Five of those receptions were good for first downs, allowing the Jets to keep the chains moving in the third quarter with Martin rendered ineffective.

Martin's uncharacteristically skimpy day on the ground created more playing time for backup Lamont Jordan, which in turn led to one of the most memorable displays of emotion from Edwards this season. Though Jordan averaged a hefty 7.1 yards per carry on Saturday, the embattled head coach was caught by the cameras screaming at running backs coach Bishop Harris in the third quarter, presumably for Harris's use of the NFL's rushing champion. Most folks probably hadn't even heard of Harris before the incident, during which he and Edwards had to be separated and nearly came to blows. All parties downplayed the incident after the game, but it served to illustrate the kind of fire that Edwards brings to the sidelines and the intensity with which he leads his team.

The altercation may also have given the Jets a much-needed shot in the arm. Down by seven with under a minute to go in the game, the Chargers faced a third-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Four times during the regular season, opposing teams had the ball on the Jets' 1-yard line, and Gang Green yielded zero touchdowns. The result would be no different on this play, as the Jets line pushed LaDainian Tomlinson back for a loss of a yard.

Unlike Pennington and Edwards, the Jets' run defense did not come under attack this year. True to form on Saturday, linemen Jason Ferguson and Dwayne Robertson, who have become ferocious run stuffers, combined with young linebackers Jonathon Vilma and Eric Barton to quickly plug any gaps Tomlinson might have set his sights on.

Of course, with the game all but in the books, Barton decided to plant his forearm into the jaw of Chargers quarterback Drew Brees, and nearly ruined the entire season. The bonehead play of the year, as it turned out, nearly turned this classic win into a classic collapse. Given another chance, the Chargers tied the game, and the Jets appeared to be headed for yet another date with heartbreak.

With their defense clearly out of gas in overtime, the Jets couldn't stop the Chargers from marching down into field goal position. After being rock solid nearly every week this year, it appeared as though the Jets' defense would simply not be able to compensate for the offense's inability to put games away. One could already see the headlines. Yes, Barton would be the goat, but Pennington and company would take the long-term heat.

Inexplicably, though, lady luck was wearing green this time around. Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer has earned a reputation over the years for not being able to win playoff games, but who could have known that he worked so hard to preserve it? Given the fact that he had a rookie kicker ready to take a rain-soaked field, the decision to lay up on the right hash mark of the 23-yard line rather than take at least one shot at the end zone was curious at best, and unbelievable at worst. The 40-yard attempt by Nick Kaeding missed to the right, with replays suggesting that his plant foot slipped slightly as he was driving into the ball.

In the same situation a few plays later, the Jets didn't let up. After moving into field goal range, they kept attacking and Jordan picked up 24 more yards. Doug Brien's 28-yard attempt was considerably easier, and sailed easily through the uprights.

Pennington and Edwards were thus granted a fortuitous reprieve, to be re-examined next week in Pittsburgh, where no mistakes, bonehead or otherwise, will be forgiven. No matter how dramatic a statement they made on Saturday, the Jets will see all of the questions return if they lay an egg against the Steelers.

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