THE DAY before the Jets headed to Nashville to face the undefeated Titans, the buzz in New York's locker room was so intense that running back Leon Washington had to step into the hallway to continue a conversation. "When you get into November and December, everybody's fighting to get into that tournament at the end of the year," Washington said last Friday. "This game is a great opportunity for us to showcase what the Jets are all about."
There was a confidence to Washington's words that bespoke something special. True, New York had won four in a row after a 3--3 start, but that hot streak had come against Buffalo (which had lost two of three), Kansas City (which has one win), St. Louis (which has two) and New England (which had key starters injured). But Sunday's performance transformed the Jets (8--3) from intriguing curiosity to bona fide contender. Against a Tennessee team that had not allowed more than 21 points in a game, they scored 24 in the second half alone and demolished the Titans 34--13 before a sellout crowd of 69,143 at LP Field. Washington, a third-year speedster, carried eight times for 82 yards and two touchdowns, including a 61-yard score in the fourth quarter.
Among the messages from Sunday:
• Brett Favre, the 39-year-old quarterback whom the Jets acquired in a preseason trade, is having what could be the most memorable of his 18 NFL seasons, blending the conservativeness his coaches desire with the Mississippi gambler the fans love. Since throwing eight interceptions and only three touchdown passes during a four-game stretch from mid-October to early November, Favre has completed 65 of 84 attempts (77.4%) for 649 yards, with five touchdowns and just one interception. The Jets have scored at least 34 points in each of the last three weeks.
• It's easy to get lost in Favre's shadow, but New York's 3--4 defense has proved worthy of the spotlight. Over the last seven games the unit has allowed just nine touchdowns, three of which came in the 34--31 overtime defeat of the Patriots. The Jets have limited five teams to 50 yards rushing or less; the Titans' potent running game gained just 45. "The offense is going to get the credit with Brett over there, but we all know it's a team game," says Jets safety Kerry Rhodes. "We're going to go as far as the defense goes."
• Management is reaping huge dividends from free-agent signees, such as guard Alan Faneca, offensive tackle Damien Woody, linebacker Calvin Pace, fullback Tony Richardson and cornerback Ty Law—not to mention the trades for Favre and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins. Each newcomer has contributed significantly both on the field and in the locker room. "We have a few of us old school guys who've been to the playoffs and won Super Bowls," says Law, the 14-year veteran who was signed on Nov. 10. "A lot of young guys in here have no idea what they're looking at, but it's a good thing because they have an eagerness to get there."
Jets management also is in a hurry. It didn't commit more than $140 million to veteran help before the season because it wanted to win next year. The goal is now, particularly with no guarantee that Favre will return next season. "I'm just trying to cram 16 years of memories into one season," he said after the game.
The Jets' remaining schedule—Denver, Buffalo and Miami at home; road games at San Francisco and Seattle—isn't particularly treacherous, and Faneca, the 31-year-old former Steeler, knows how vital it is to seize the opportunity. "You realize that the stars align only so often," he says, "and the pieces of the puzzle are only together so long."
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Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (WASHINGTON)
WISED-UP Washington (29) is learning how to handle a playoff race from Favre (4) and his fellow old-timers.
AL TIELEMANS (FAVRE)
[See caption above]