Jets Can Reflect On Their Next Foe

Anyone looking for proof that human cloning is possible would be wise to take a gander toward the Meadowlands this Saturday. While neither the Jets nor their playoff opponents, the Indianapolis Colts, are descendants of an alien race discovered by a former French race-car driver, both clubs seem to have been conjured up in the same test tube.

Start from the top. Gang Green’s Herman Edwards and Indy coach Tony Dungy, both former defensive backs, go back 24 years, and Edwards began his professional coaching career as a defensive assistant to Dungy in 1990, when both were with the Kansas City Chiefs. Six years later, the two joined forces again in Tampa, where they turned around a moribund Buccaneer franchise with a marauding defense anchored by a rabid defensive line and complemented by a strict zone coverage in the secondary.

The story, or at least the attempt, is the same today. The Cover-2 zone was installed by Edwards when he took over New York a year ago and has proved effective toward the latter half of each season (presumably after the players have learned the scheme). Dungy was hired by the defensively challenged Colts before this season, largely based on the scheme’s success, and he hasn’t disappointed: Indy has the league’s second-best pass defense and ninth-best overall defense.

The mirror image of the two clubs is further polished by the teams’ quarterbacks, both with Tennessee connections and both born in 1976. Much has been written about the hours of game film the Jets’ Chad Pennington studies in preparation and the tutoring he received at the hands of his high school football-coaching father back home in Knoxville. Not too long ago the papers bled the same ink about the relentless film study of the Colts’ Peyton Manning, who played college ball in Knoxville (at UT), and the tutoring he received at the hands of his football-playing father.

The blueprint seems to be an effective one. Manning is a two-time Pro Bowler who enters the post-season having thrown for 4200 yards with a 66.3 completion percentage. Pennington, although in only his first season as a starter, has been a model of efficiency, completing 68.9 percent of his passes and connecting for 22 touchdowns versus six interceptions.

Both teams also have workhorse running backs. New York’s Curtis Martin and Indy’s Edgerrin James have suffered through aches and pains all season long, and they exhibit the battering they’ve taken: Martin had a career-low rushing total for the season and James a career-low average yards per carry.

If similarity breeds contempt, next weekend’s game at the Meadowlands ought to be rousing. —Paul Forrester

Giants Find that Fassel Fuel is Renewable

As he left the field Saturday night after his team’s tense 10-7 OT win over rival Philadelphia, Giant linebacker Brandon Short shouted, “Great season. Great football season.” And with the Giants finishing 10-6 and in the playoffs at San Francisco this Sunday, it was.

Indeed, an hour or so later, as workers changed the Meadowlands’ motif from blue to green for Part II of New York’s win-to-get-in football weekend, several Giants acknowledged that their season took shape only after their coach challenged them in the press.

“Very reminiscent of the 2000 Super Bowl season,” said defensive back Jason Sehorn. On the surface, the remark seems as much hooey as Sehorn’s play for most of this year. But think about it: The Giants went on a roll in 2000 after coach Jim Fassel made his now famous playoff guarantee heading into Week 12. This time around, with his job again on the line and his team at 6-6 a week further into the campaign, Fassel channeled Yogi Berra when he told the press, “It isn’t over until we say it’s over.” As in 2000, Fassel’s statement was ridiculed in the tabloids and quietly questioned in his own locker room. But as the wins mounted, so did the belief in Big Blue Nation. After the playoff-clinching win, Fassel was asked if he felt like saying “I told you so” to those calling for his head. “Not my personality,” he said. But he didn’t hesitate to begin his post-game press conference with a reminder of the bold Berra-ism he had made.

“He got us going,” Sehorn said. “Again. I mean, we’re a 10-6 team, with three ugly losses to Houston, Arizona, and Tennessee, and a few ugly wins. Did I think I’d be standing here on the last week of the season talking about the playoffs when we were 6-6? No way.”

No one would have blamed Sehorn and other Giant veterans for doubting their chances even earlier—say, in training camp. Beset with salary-cap problems (thanks, in part, to extravagant contracts like Sehorn’s), the Giants couldn’t re-sign key players or sign significant new ones. With unproven youth at several important positions—including offensive line and defensive secondary—this was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Several veteran players admitted Saturday that the playoffs were “gravy.”

“Coming out of training camp, you always want to win the Super Bowl, but you don’t always think you can,” admitted offensive lineman Luke Pettitgout, rendering any and all pre-season quotes to the contrary pabulum for eternity. “We set more realistic goals.” And thanks again to their coach’s bravado, they overachieved them. —Brian P. Dunleavy