So Close .. Looking Back At The '98 Jets
It's been 45 years since the New York Jets made their only Super Bowl appearance. In the years that have followed, they have come close to returning on four separate occasions (82', '98, '09, '10). Each of those seasons ended with a disappointing loss in the AFC Championship. But, no team was really closer than the '98 Jets. On January 17, 1999, the Jets held a 10-0 lead in the third quarter of the AFC Championship against the Denver Broncos. They were shutting out a high-powered Bronco offense led by John Elway, Terrell Davis, Ed McCaffrey and Shannon Sharpe. And then, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, it fell apart.
The '98 Jets finished 12-4 and were loaded on both sides of the ball. Vinny Testeverde had his finest season as a pro. After taking over for Glenn Foley in Week 3, he went 12-2 while throwing for 29 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions. Curtis Martin, in his age 25 season, was in his prime, rushing for 1,287 yards. Wayne Chrebet and Keyshawn Johnson were arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the AFC, and combined for over 2,200 yards and 18 touchdowns. Kyle Brady, Dedric Ward and Leon Johnson provided even more depth for an offense that averaged 26.6 points per game (no Jets team has averaged as much since).
On the other side of the ball, Bill Parcell's defense was led by veteran linebackers like Mo Lewis, Bryan Cox and Pepper Johnson. The secondary featured the underrated, hard-hitting safety Victor Green and cornerback Aaron Glen, who led the team with 6 interceptions. The defense only allowed 16 points per game and they demolished the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round. But, the Denver Broncos were 14-2 and led the league in scoring and point differential. It would take a virtually perfect performance for the Jets to upset them, and for two and a half quarters, they did just that.
At halftime, the Jets led 3-0, but it should have been more. Fumbles by Curtis Martin and Keith Byars in Denver territory ended promising drives. But, a blocked punt by Chad Cascadden set up a 1-yard Curtis Martin touchdown, and the Jets led 10-0 with 11:56 left in the third. Despite the touchdown, Curtis Martin was having one of his worst games of his storied career that day, and would end up with only 14 yards on 13 carries. The Broncos would follow his score with one of their own in under two minutes to cut the lead to 10-7.
Then a stroke of bad luck that could only be desribed as Jetsian turned the game. On the ensuing kick-off strong winds would blow the football back towards the Broncos like it was a boomerang. David Meggett couldn't catch it and James Farrior fumbled it away. Nothing can swing a game more than a botched kick-off and this game would be no exception. The Jets' defense would hold Denver to a field goal, but momentum was no longer on their side. Another Jason Elam field goal would follow yet another turnover and the Broncos were leading 13-10.
Late in the third, the Broncos faced a third and 3 at the Jets 31 yard line. If the Jets could have held for a field goal there, it would be still have been a one score game. But Davis took a pitch out and cut up field for a 31-yard touchdown. It was a quintessential Broncos-style run play, and Davis ran virtually untouched thanks to perfect blocking and the Jets' over pursuit.
Testerverde would lead the Jets down the field again, but little-used receiver Alex Van Dyke would fumble deep in Broncos' territory, effectively ending their chances. To this day, if you mention Alex Van Dyke to most die hard Jets fans, they will either: a. stare off blankly into the distance; b. shake their heads, c. immediately wonder why the receiver was even in the game at that point.
Had they hung on for the victory, the Jets would have played the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl, but it was not to be. The epilogue is not a pleasant one. The Jets were one of the AFC favorites heading into the 1999 season, but Testerverde would blow out his achillies in Week 1. The Jets had no back up plan, unless you count Rick Mirer as an acceptable back up plan. They would finish a disappointing 8-8 that season and not return to the playoffs until 2001. If there is lesson here (and there may not be one), it's that veteran NFL teams have a short window to succeed, and once that window is missed, there is no going back. Or perhaps the lesson is simpler: since 1969 the Jets can't seem to catch a break when the Super Bowl is at their fingertips.