Home-field advantage: For Jets?

It wouldn't be too far-fetched to call the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Oakland this Sunday "a homecoming" for the NY Jets. After all, the same hotel near San Francisco International Airport has become for Gang Green a cozy home away from home, as comfortable as an old pair of slippers. Preparing for their fourth trip to the Bay Area in the past 12 months - including back-to-back weekends last season - the team is practically on a first-name basis with the hotel staff,

according to Jets head coach Herman Edwards.

"They treat us real good," noted defensive tackle Josh Evans. "A couple of the people who work there might not want to admit it, but there's some Jets fans out there at the hotel."

And when the Jets' bus crosses the Bay Bridge and enters the parking lot at Network Associates Coliseum, Evans eagerly anticipates the warm welcome they always receive from a delightful female senior citizen.

"She dresses up in shoulder pads," Evans said, before launching into an old-lady-voice impression. She always says, "we're gonna kick your (butt)." When we see her, we know we're definitely in Oakland, we're definitely going to play the Raiders."

More cuddles from Raiders fans are imminent when the Jets take the field for warm-ups, and the partisans' verbal expressions of respect and affection for the visiting team continue throughout the game. During the Jets trip to Oakland in early December, Raider Nation provided a graphic reminder to rookie safety Jon McGraw that he wasn't in Kansas anymore.

"Fortunately, I was warned by the veterans what to expect, so I wasn't taken aback too much," noted McGraw, whose toughness on the field is tempered by temperance and propriety off of it. "But if I hadn't been warned, it would have been a big shock for me."

Uh, Jon, were there any vulgarities hurled from The Black Hole?

"Yeah," McGraw said with a laugh. "That's one way to put it. The Raiders fans are pretty wild, but they're great fans. They try to pick one thing out about you and then they exploit it. I think they called me "Forrest Gump," if I remember right. They definitely know who their opponents are and they'll pick something up about you and let you hear about it the whole game."

OK, so this kind of homecoming isn't exactly material for a made-for-TV Waltons Thanksgiving Reunion movie. But in the victorious Jets locker room last Saturday, a number of players said they were comfortable with traveling cross-country to play the Raiders, the AFC's No. 1 seed, in their hostile environment. Call it a by-product of the brimming confidence that comes from winning.

With the Chad Pennington-led offense seemingly scoring at will in lopsided victories over the Green Bay Packers -- the regular-season finale that clinched the AFC East crown for the Jets -- and the Indianapolis Colts in last week's AFC Wild Card game, and the defense jelling into one of the NFL's finest units, Gang Green is on a juggernaut. As good as the defense has played over the final quarter of the season, who would have predicted a shutout of the Colts' offense and its record-setting duo of quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison?

 

Unfinished business

In the midst of a season-turning four-game winning streak, the Jets were also exuding confidence when they clashed with the Silver and Black on Monday night, Dec. 2, at Network Associates Coliseum. Despite a feisty performance by Gang Green, Oakland came out on top, 26-20 - as quarterback Rich Gannon threw for 342 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown toss to Jerry Rice, and kicker Sebastian Janikowski booted four field goals.

 It was also the night on which Oakland wide receiver Tim Brown recorded his 1,000th NFL reception, a feat that caused the stoppage of play for 15 minutes as Brown was feted with an on-field ceremony. Some Jets whispered that the stoppage had an adverse effect on their momentum and was a turning point in the contest.

It was the Jets' third game in Oakland in the past year. In January of 2002, Gang Green earned a playoff berth on the final game of the regular season against the Raiders with John Hall's 53-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter providing the edge. That game remains the Jets' sole win at the Coliseum, where they sport a 1-7-1 mark dating back to the 1960s.

Hall loves the atmosphere at the Raider Nation world headquarters.

"It's a great place to play," he said. "They're great fans, and they really get into it. It's an exiting atmosphere. But when I'm on the field I don't hear anybody, (the fan noise) doesn't bother me. To win out there you have to play with a lot of will and emotion."

Six days following Hall's heroics, the Jets were once again racking up frequent flyer miles -- jetting back to the Bay Area for the opening round of the AFC Playoffs where the Raiders defeated them 38-24.

Jets cornerback Ray Mickens said last Saturday that the six-hour flight takes a physical toll -- but he cautioned that it shouldn't be used as an excuse for any shortcomings in performance.

"We definitely know (the Raiders)," Mickens continued. "We played them three times in the last year. We know them pretty well, but we haven't played well against them out there. We won one game -- the game we had to win last season (to get into the playoffs). This year, I just think we want it more than we did last year."

Tight end Anthony Becht noted: "Being in Oakland is like home-field advantage because we've been there so many times. But it's gonna be a battle, it's gonna get harder now."

Special teams ace Jerald Sowell said his unit must improve upon its performance of Week. 13. The miscues included the Raiders' block of a Hall field goal and a fumble by Chad Morton on a punt return.

"We have to be on top of our game," Sowell said.

Sowell acknowledged that Raiders' fans "fire me up, they fire the whole team up. They got fans like that. It's good for them and we take it as a positive for us to pump our team up. We don't look at it as a negative."

McGraw agrees with Sowell's assessment.

"Oh, the Raiders fans fire me up," he said. "I love it. It was so much fun when we played them earlier this season. That was the most exciting game for me this year. Since it was Monday night, it was really awesome."

But given the Jets" confidence level, the outcome might be quite different.

"A lot of people said we wouldn't make it this far," said defensive end John Abraham. "A lot of people said we were going to be home right now. Now we're home, and a lot of people are biting their tongues."


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