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New York Jets anxious to avoid the heartbreak of 1986

by Dave Hutchinson/The Star-Ledger Saturday December 13, 2008, 6:42 PM

Former wide receiver Wesley Walker was a member of one of the Jets' most famous -- and infamous -- teams. After Joe Namath's Super Bowl III-winning team, perhaps no squad is the embodiment of the love-hate relationship long-suffering fans have with this snake-bitten franchise than the 1986 Jets.

That year, the Jets won nine straight games and raced to a 10-1 start behind a solid defense and a big-play offense, sparked by Walker and fellow wideout Al Toon. Talk of the Super Bowl was loud and legit.

Then, injuries to nose tackle Joe Klecko, defensive end Mark Gastineau and linebacker Lance Mehl hurt the defense. And the offense was slowed by nagging injuries along the offensive line.

Suddenly, Walker recalled the other day, the bottom fell out as the Jets lost their final five games. They still made the playoffs and won a wild-card game against the Kansas City Chiefs, but they lost in the next round to the Cleveland Browns in double overtime, a disappointing finish after such a strong start.

"That was the best team we ever put together in all my years with the Jets," said Walker, who played with the team from 1977-1989. "I actually thought we were going to the Super Bowl."

Jets fans probably fear this year's team will have the same results as that '86 team. That's what the Jets (8-5) will try to avoid starting Sunday when they meet the Buffalo Bills (6-7) at Giants Stadium.

After an impressive five-game winning streak that included road wins at Buffalo, New England and Tennessee, the Jets have played poorly in losing two straight and are in a three-way tie with the Patriots and Dolphins for first place in the AFC East.

Even so, if the Jets win their final three games, they're division champs.

"Of course, this is a must-win game," right guard Brandon Moore said. "Anybody who doesn't want to admit to that is just playing games. There's nothing wrong with saying that."

This week, memories of past heartbreak have been flooding back for the Jets faithful. Unfortunately, they have plenty to choose from as the Jets have either missed the playoffs or made unceremonious exits throughout their humbling history.

In 1993, the Jets lost their final three games to finish 8-8 and earn coach Bruce Coslet his walking papers.

There was the fake-spike game in 1994 against the Dolphins that sparked a season-ending, five-game skid that doomed Pete Carroll's one-year stint as head coach. Entering the game, the teams were tied for first place.

The Bill Parcells-led Jets held a 10-0 third-quarter lead over the Broncos in the 1998 AFC Championship Game before Denver roared back with 23 unanswered points in a 23-10 victory.

In 2000, the Jets again lost their final three games to turn a sure playoff berth into a 9-7 season. Afterward, coach Al Groh bolted for the University of Virginia after just one season.

Kicker Doug Brien missed two potential game-winning field goals (47 and 43 yards) in the final 2:02 of regulation in a 20-17 overtime loss to the Steelers in the 2004 divisional playoff game.

"That 1998 game against Denver is the one that sticks with me," said former hard-hitting safety Victor Green, who played with the Jets from 1993-2001. "Being up at halftime and into the third quarter and we blew it. We were one game away from the Super Bowl. For me, when you talk about that one game, that's the one that hurts the most.

"Yeah, as a player it bothers you to have been a part of that 'same old Jets' talk. You're not going to go in your room and cry, but you're a human being. You went out there and busted your butt every Sunday and you just weren't good enough. ... I understand how the fans feel. They paid hard-earned money to see us play and they wanted to go home happy."

But no team caused as much heartache as that 1986 team. During their fateful five-game finish, they allowed an average of 36.6 points per game and their once-prolific offense was shut down. Walker, who had 12 touchdown catches through the first 11 games, had none in the last five.

"We had injuries and just went into the tank," Walker said. "We stopped getting great field position and stopped throwing the ball. We were lucky to get into the playoffs. Once you get into that funk, it's hard to come out of it."

For the 2008 Jets, the arrival of quarterback Brett Favre and a $140 million extreme makeover were supposed to change all of that. And for a while it looked as if it would as the Jets raced to an 8-3 mark, capped by back-to-back victories against the Patriots and Titans, one of the most significant two-game stretches in franchise history.

But the Jets' short passing game has grounded to a halt, with opponents now daring Favre to throw deep. And the defense, home of the NFL's next-to-last ranked secondary, is making stars out of middling quarterbacks. Matt Cassel (Patriots), Tyler Thigpen (Chiefs) and Shaun Hill (49ers) have all made a name for themselves against the Jets, who are allowing 251.2 yards passing per game.

"Oh, there they go again, the old Jets," said Favre this past week, echoing the thoughts of many crestfallen fans. "Why wouldn't you say that?

"Pardon my French, but, hell ... I'm aware of what's happened here in the past. But to be quite honest, I don't care. I care about what's happening in the next three weeks."

Moore said the problems these past two games have occurred on Monday through Saturday in terms of the Jets' preparation -- or lack thereof.

"I think it's a function of guys not focusing on those little things during the week that go into winning games," he said. "You can't get caught up on Sunday and say, 'I'm ready to play.' You have to put in the work the rest of the week."

After the Bills, the they travel to the 2-11 Seahawks -- the Jets are 0-3 on the West Coast this season -- and finish at home in perhaps a winner-take-all game against Chad Pennington and the Dolphins.

"I'm even a critic of the Jets sometimes," admitted Walker, who lives in constant pain because of a neck injury that has resulted in nerve damage throughout his body. "We get up and something always goes wrong. The Jets can never make anything easy.

"I would love to have Chad Pennington come back and everything be on the line. I love a good story."

The Bills, who always seem to play the Jets tough, have lost six of their past seven and have been held to just three points in each of their past two games. They seem like the perfect patsies.

But with the Jets, you never know.

"I wouldn't say, 'Here we go again,'" said tight end Chris Baker, in his seventh season as a Jet. "Obviously, we had two major hiccups, but at the same time we still control our own destiny. And we have two home games left. We're in good shape."

Undoubtedly, Walker and his teammates felt the same way back in 1986.


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