My Sports Memories: The 2002 New York Jets Win the AFC East

My Sports Memories is a look back at some of the best (and worst) days we’ve experienced as sports fans. For the inaugural entry in the series, let’s welcome new GFS writer and lifelong New York Jets fan Brian Roll. – Chris

Wayne Chrebet / Dave Szott

Wayne Chrebet, Hofstra Legend

The New York Jets franchise has always had a flair for the weird, either in victory or in defeat. One of the greatest sports moments I ever experienced in person happened at Giants Stadium on December 29, 2002. At stake was an AFC East division title for the Jets and a home playoff game the following week. This is a fairly common NFL scenario — win and you’re in. But naturally, this being the Jets, there had to be one hell of a twist. Irony of ironies, the group that helped make it possible that day was the nascent dynastic version of the hated New England Patriots.

The Jets got off to a terrible start in 2002, going 1-4 and earning starting QB Vinny Testaverde a well-deserved spot on the bench. Enter third-year QB Chad Penningon, and the Jets went on a tear. They entered week 17 with a record of 8-7 and owned the tie-breaker over the Patriots, but not over the Miami Dolphins. The Jets were hosting Green Bay at 4:15 p.m. and, lo and behold, the Pats were hosting the Dolphins at Foxboro at 1:00 p.m. If the Dolphins beat the Pats, the Jets were finished. However, if Miami lost, then all the Jets had to do was win and they would clinch the division — only their second since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.

During the pre-game tailgate, every Jets fan was closely monitoring the Dolphins-Pats game on their radios (this was the pre-smart phone era, kiddies). It was a tight game, and it hung in the balance as 4:15 approached. Miami seemingly had the game in the bag, but as we took our seats and the Jets prepared to take the field, the game went to overtime. I don’t pretend to remember the exact details, but I do recall that poor clock management by Dave Wannstedt (shocking!) led to New England having enough time to tie the game, and they sent it to overtime.

As the Jets game started, the Pats-Dolphins game was going down to the wire. The Jets fell behind 7-0, but the most bizarre part of the game experience was the fact that the Jets fans were mostly paying attention to the other game. My seat was on the 10-yard line, 20 rows up from the Jets bench, and there was a running dialog between Jets fans and players as the team tried to learn what was happening up in Foxboro.

Chad Pennington celebrates winning AFC East championship

Chad Pennington in happier days.

Suddenly a roar went up at the Meadowlands, and it had nothing to do with the action on the field. New England had beaten Miami, thanks to the steady leg of Adam Vinatieri. The Jets players were visibly fired up upon hearing the news and, for a moment, Jets fans were able to vicariously enjoy the clutch kicking of Vinatieri, whose game-winner opened up the door for the Jets.

In very un-Jets like fashion, New York stormed through that door. Led by Pennington’s four touchdown passes, the Jets demolished the Packers 42-17. New York roared into the playoffs, blowing out (and shutting out) Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts before bowing out against Oakland in the divisional round.

The Jets’ late-season surge predictably led to absurd hyperbole in the New York press, and columnists (Steve Serby in particular) couldn’t wait to anoint Chad Pennington as the next Joe Montana.

The following pre-season, during the annual Giants-Jets game, Pennington was injured and lost for the year (in predictable Jets fashion). This pretty much destroyed the promise of his young career, and although he would lead the Jets to the playoffs again he was never the same. The Jets eventually petered out under head coach Herm Edwards, starting up the coaching carousel again.

But for one frigid night in the Meadowlands in late 2002, the Jets seized a chance presented to them by their hated rivals (and ruined New England’s own playoff chances in the process). It was an enjoyable game for a Jets fan, a rollicking, never-any-doubt annihilation that kicked expectations into high gear and was seemingly going to set up a decade-long back and forth battle with New England for control of the division.

We all know how THAT turned out.