But on Sunday the Jets revisited the theme of trying to help a lowly foe to an embarrassing victory at their own playoff expense. This time the opponent was Cincinnati at home, not Carolina on the road. And unlike seven weeks ago, this time a big green monster mascot was in attendance along with 70,000-plus fans, many wearing giveaway headgear.
"I didn't want to go into the tunnel after the game," said tight end Anthony Becht, "with all those Shrek ears raining down on me."
With that motivation finally kicking in, the Jets offense finally came to life with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Vinny Testaverde to his tight ends, James Dearth and Becht. And with their latest one-point comeback win, this time by 15-14, the Jets continued to educate the masses.
The win over the Bengals counts and they're not giving it back. It lifts them to 8-5, and with a loss dropping the AFC East-leading Dolphins to 9-4, they are sitting pretty in the wild card race and are even in position to sneak away with the division title.
"We talked about achieving things, and to achieve those things you have to believe you can do it," coach Herman Edwards said after steering his team through its latest swamp adventure. "The second half was reflective of what we are as a football team."
But the first nearly three quarters: U-G-L-Y, they didn't have any alibi. After a week dominated by safety Victor Green's playoff "guarantee," a players-only meeting, and talk of the offense spreading out and opening up, the Jets laid a pair of eggs in the exchange of opening drives. On offense, they went three-and-out, with the third-down play a bad drop by Becht down the middle.
Then on defense, they had no solution for running back Corey Dillon and third-string quarterback Akili Smith, 3-12 as an NFL starter, playing in place of Jon Kitna, who had compiled the lowest passer rating among qualifying QBs before mangling a finger last week. Twenty plays, 87 yards, 12 minutes on the nose. Four third-down conversions and a fourth-down pickup. All leading to Dillon's 1-yard run.
"Oh, yeah, that's not fun," said nose tackle Steve Martin. "We should've gotten off the field on them a couple of times," end Shaun Ellis said. "Akili was getting rid of the ball quick. He was running the ball more than dropping back and looking for a receiver. Their game plan was to just hang around."
They did more than that, even after Smith, on the last of his five scrambles, pulled his left hamstring when Jets DBs Victor Green and Ray Mickens landed on him hard in the second quarter. On came Kitna to lead another monstrous 87-yard drive to Dillon's second short TD run and a 14-3 lead with 1:57 left in the third quarter.
"Any time you're down like that, you're nervous," said linebacker James Darling. "I had a terrible feeling in my stomach," said wide receiver Kevin Swayne. Unlike their two-game losing streak to New England and Pittsburgh, this time the Jets answered their gut check. Testaverde, turned loose by Edwards and coordinator Paul Hackett to pass the Jets back into the game, worked hard and walked the tightrope in connecting on long third-down plays with Swayne and Wayne Chrebet.
Swayne was especially impressive, considering this is, oh, about his 100th consecutive week of pro football (following his XFL and Arena incarnations) and that he had recently hit a four-game wall during which he had no catches. On Sunday, the first-year man caught four passes from Vinny Testaverde for a game-high 74 yards. All converted third downs of 10 yards or longer - not bad for an offense that came in having gone 3-for-28 on third-and-10 or longer. The middle two receptions came on the first touchdown drive.
"I thought last week Kevin had a couple of big catches and that was his breakout week," Testaverde said. "He gained some confidence, and today he really stepped up." So did Testaverde before his first TD pass, although he angrily called a timeout because guard-fullback David Loverne was sent onto the field and then ran back off it because the wrong personnel package may have been called. After the timeout, Testaverde popped a 1-yard TD pass to a wide-open Dearth. Then the Bengals went three-and-out, the Jets came right back, and this time Loverne was supposed to be in the game.
If you recognized the 2-yard scoring pass to Becht near the end line, tipped by Cincy corner Artrell Hawkins, it was the same play that failed on opening day when Loverne ran into Testaverde, who fumbled to the Colts' Chukie Nwokorie for the deflating 95-yard TD return.
"That was it," said Becht. "And we haven't been able to run it for a while." The Jets finally lurched to the finish line, when interceptions by safety Damien Robinson and linebacker James Farrior, both in Jets territory on bad Kitna overthrows, negated dropped INTs by Marcus Coleman and Robinson, plus a missed 34-yard field goal by John Hall that would have put the Bengals down by four with 1:11 to play.
"There are a lot of things going through your head," said Testaverde about his storybook-ending, game-ball-winning rally. "But mostly you're thinking about how to pull yourself out of a hole." The Jets did it. It was homely, and you'd better believe Edwards and his staff will let the players hear how homely before their final prime-time appearance at their Indianapolis house of horrors Sunday night.
As for the Shrekkies in the media and the stands, linebacker Marvin Jones had this observation: "You can call it the ugliest bleeping game of the year. I don't care."