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Original Issue

Inside the NFL

Making His Pitch
Third-year quarterback Chad Pennington has directed the Jets
into the thick of the AFC playoff chase

Keyshawn Johnson was 27, just entering his prime, when the Jets
traded him to the Bucs three days before the 2000 draft. New York
fans howled derisively. Johnson had caught 172 passes over the
previous two years and had a personality suited to the town, so
the outcry was predictable: You don't trade a franchise player in
his prime, even for two first-round draft picks. "I said when we
made this trade that you'd only be able to judge it in a couple
of years," Bill Parcells, then the team's director of football
operations and the man who finalized the deal, said on Sunday
night. "Now you're starting to see another side of it."

He's talking about quarterback Chad Pennington, whom the Jets
selected with one of the four first-round draft picks--Nos. 12,
13, 18 and 27--it had in 2000. "To be honest, we fell into
[drafting Pennington] because of the Keyshawn picks," Parcells
says. "They gave us the luxury to take the highest-rated
quarterback on our board with our third pick of the round."

On Sunday, Pennington, the mop-topped and precocious first-year
starter, led the Jets to their sixth win in his nine starts, a
19--13 victory over the Broncos. He has lifted the Jets from a
1--4 hole into the playoff hunt, at 7--6, by limiting his
mistakes and being accurate (68.9 completion percentage). He is
the AFC's top-rated passer (99.3), and the offense has no
turnovers in five of his starts. He is cool under pressure (the
son of a high school coach), is smart (a Rhodes scholar nominee
at Marshall) and plays with a head-butting zeal that has endeared
him to teammates.

"Chad's very confident," says offensive coordinator Paul Hackett.
"The first time I saw him was during a dinner at Marshall. He
wasn't supposed to be the keynote speaker, but that person didn't
show up, so Chad said he might as well speak. He's seen himself
in that role all his life."

Replacing the most popular player in the locker room, 39-year-old
Vinny Testaverde, who was benched two months ago, could have
turned into a disaster for Pennington. But he has been a good
politician in taking over the leadership of the team. After
wideout Wayne Chrebet popped off last month about not getting the
ball enough, Pennington, knowing that Chrebet and Testaverde are
close, tossed the receiver an olive branch by saying, "My job is
to get him the football, and I've got to get better at that."

As the third quarter wound down on Sunday, the Broncos held a
13--9 lead and New York had the ball at its 36. Pennington hit
Chrebet for 19 yards and later in the drive, on third-and-10, hit
Chrebet for 15 more. Three plays later, facing third-and-eight at
the Denver 28, Pennington threw to his favorite target, the
speedy Laveranues Coles, who made a diving catch at the two and
rolled into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. Coles
finished with six catches for 126 yards, pushing his season
totals to 73 receptions for 1,022 yards--Keyshawn-type numbers.
Not accidentally, Coles was drafted in the third round in 2000,
three days after the team dealt Johnson. "Oh, no, I could never
replace Keyshawn," Coles said on Sunday. He already has.

And Pennington is showing the potential to become the Jets'
quarterback for years to come. "You have to see how he'll react
when he gets the crap beat out of him," says Parcells. "That's
what I liked about Phil Simms. He bounced back well from the hard
times. The Jets are doing a great job with Pennington. He's just
what they need."

Drew Bledsoe's Revival
Losses Can't Negate Impact

If you evaluated Drew Bledsoe's 2002 season on the basis of his
performance in the two games against his former team, you'd have
to say that the Bills' quarterback has been a huge
disappointment. Last month the Patriots embarrassed Bledsoe and
his new teammates 38--7 in Buffalo. On Sunday the Pats spoiled
Bledsoe's homecoming and all but knocked the Bills out of the
playoff race by intercepting four of his passes in a 27--17 win.
"The loss," said Bledsoe afterward, "weighs heavy on my

But let's put his season in perspective: He's on pace to have the
best quarterback rating (90.7) and the most accurate passing
season (63.3%) of his 10-year career; he has helped turn a team
that won three games last year into a 6--7 club, directing an
offense that ranks sixth in the league; and, thanks to the trade
last April, Bledsoe's career was revitalized at a time when it
was unlikely to have flourished again in New England.

Bledsoe's situation with the Patriots was eerily similar to Roger
Clemens's with the Boston Red Sox. In a rut in New England and
somewhat victimized by a mediocre team, Clemens went 40--39 in
his final four seasons with the Red Sox, got into a hissing match
with management and left angrily for the Toronto Blue Jays as a
free agent after the 1996 season. He won three Cy Young Awards
over the next five years.

In a rut in New England, Bledsoe admits now that he "kind of took
the starting job for granted" in his last couple of years with
the Pats. After his last Pro Bowl appearance, at the end of the
1997 season, Bledsoe became as undistinguished as most of his
teammates. Among quarterbacks who started at least 25 games from
'98 through 2001, Bledsoe was the NFL's 22nd-rated passer. This
season, among quarterbacks who have made at least six starts, he
ranks sixth.

"Roger got his fire rekindled by leaving," Bills coach Gregg
Williams says. "Same with Drew."

Packers-Vikings Rivalry Heats Up

Green Bay's 26--22 win over Minnesota on Sunday night evened the
alltime series at 41-41-1, but no matchup has been more chippy.
The Vikings thought the Packers hit wideout Chris Walsh too hard
when he kneeled to stop the clock with one second left. The Pack
thought two of its players got drilled unnecessarily on Darren
Sharper's game-ending interception return. The two teams scuffled
after the game. "To say there's bad blood would be an
understatement," said Brett Favre, who jawed with Minnesota
defensive tackle Chris Hovan afterward. Said Hovan of Favre, "I
can't wait to play him again. Everything I do in this off-season
will be done thinking of one guy. Quote me: I'll get a piece of
him next year."...The most unlikely star of the week was Giants
defensive back Kato Serwanga, who was waived by the Redskins the
day before Thanksgiving and signed by the cornerback-deficient
Giants four days before their game with Washington. In New York's
27--21 win, Serwanga recovered a muffed Redskins punt that led to
a touchdown and stripped wideout Darnerien McCants as Washington
was driving for a go-ahead score late in the game.... The
Cardinals broke a six-game skid with a 23--20 overtime win over
Detroit, thanks partly to the play of two recently signed
wideouts. Nate Poole, who was working in a youth correctional
facility before being signed last month, had a touchdown catch,
and Kevin Kasper, with his third team of the year, had a clutch
grab in OT. "My hat goes off to those guys," tackle L.J. Shelton
said. "As soon as I figure out who they are, I'm going to
congratulate them."

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Pennington leads the NFL in completion percentage and is the AFC's top-rated passer.

COLOR PHOTO: WINSLOW TOWNSON Bledsoe had a rough go against his old team, with five interceptions in two games.

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