2005-12-30 / Sports

Big Blue Are Giants, But The Jets Crashed

By John J. Buro

There is one week remaining in the NFL regular season. So, in many , it is still blurred by the unforeseen.

But, inside Giants Stadium -home to both the owners and their Long Island-based tenants, the New York Jets- much of the football played there can be viewed as a mere formality. Life and death, and threatening injuries, have headlined the most painful campaign in recent times.

The passings of the much beloved Wellington Mara and Robert Tisch, his partner, within a two-week period could have been enough to sap the Giants of their strength. But, it inspired them even more. With a 10-5 record and a playoff spot clinched, Big Blue has clearly passed the litmus test.

They haven’t always played to expectations, but there is a balance of veteran leadership in RB Tiki Barber [a team record 1,657 yards] and DE Michael Strahan [third with 77 tackles and second with 11.5 sacks], and youth with QB Eli Manning [282 of 533 for 3,558 yards, with 23 TD and 17 INT], DE Osi Umenyiora [12.5 sacks, 65 tackles] and S Gibril Wilson [a team-leading 106 tackles].

And even though New York’s playoff hopes were momentarily dashed in Washington, 35-20, on Saturday afternoon, they were quickly redeemed when the Baltimore Ravens eliminated the Minnesota Vikings on Christmas Day. A road win against the Oakland Raiders on New Year’s Eve will give the Giants the NFC East title.

The Jets will play in January, though they have been out of contention since QBs Chad Pennington and Jay Fiedler damaged their shoulders on consecutive possessions against the Jacksonville Jaguars on September 25. On New Year’s Day, New York will host the Buffalo Bills in a game that means absolutely nothing in the standings.

The Jets, who are not expected to tank on purpose, hope that Reggie Bush, the Heisman Trophy winner and potential No. 1 pick in the 2006 Draft, is on the other side of this nightmare; the Bills, playing for next season, will simply finish third in the AFC East.

Within a week after the Jaguars’ 26-20 OT win, Gang Green brought in Vinny Testaverde, an old friend, to take their snaps. Then, New York was just 1-2, but the season had quickly gone south.

They split their next two games, before starting a seven-game losing streak in Buffalo. During their latest collapse, they lost two home games -one by two points [to the displaced New Orleans Saints, 21-19] and another by five [to the San Diego Chargers, 31-26].

The Charger game during Week 9 was the last for Wayne Chrebet. His 580 th, and final, reception of a brilliant –but concussion-filled- Jet career was a third-down catch that, ultimately, moved the chains.

For the better part of 11 seasons, Chrebet –once an undrafted free agent from Hofstra- was the team’s heart and soul. At 5’10”, he was considered undersized. But, he soon developed into a clutch possession receiver and, for a time, threatened to break Don Maynard’s franchise record of 627 catches.

It is unfortunate when a season –particularly one that lasts a mere 16 games- screeches to a halt because of injury. And, while Chrebet forfeited a chance at a coveted record, Pennington’s breakdown was the most severe. He had hurt this shoulder before and, subsequently, inked a $64 million extension in the summer of ’04 that may financially cripple the team in future years.

The Giants, thus far, have been spared from losing players. But, they do know heartbreak. Mara’s death followed a stunning defeat of the Broncos. And Tisch’s death, exactly fourteen days later, was on the heels of a record-breaking performance by the Vikings, who returned an interception, kickoff and punt for touchdowns -the first time in the league’s 83 year history that all three oddities have been accomplished by one team in the same game.

To their credit, however, Big Blue regrouped and won several big games down the stretch. Home victories against the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs sandwiched around a road win in Philadelphia- bumped their record to 10-4. Then, there was the debacle in DC.

Now, with the postseason looming, the margin of error becomes slimmer. But, it is in that margin where great teams are separated from mere qualifiers.

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