My favorite New York Jets team of all-time is the 1986 New York Jets. They never won a title, but they won me over with their effort.
While New York is the home of Subway Series for baseball, it has never had a Subway Super Bowl. The media would call it a Subway Super Bowl if the Giants and Jets ever meet in a Super Bowl. But, neither team plays in New York City, and you can’t take a train to the Meadowlands.
Neither team has ever played on Conference Championship Sunday on the same day. There is always a fun scenario on what would happen if both the Jets and Giants hosted Championship Sunday. It has never come to this, but in the 1986 season, both teams almost played on Championship Sunday.
Take a moment in time with me. The 1985 Jets season had a disastrous finish when the New England Patriots ousted the Jets on Wild Card Weekend with a 26-14 win at the Meadowlands. The Patriots went on a miracle run winning twice more on the road to make it to the Super Bowl, before getting thumped by the Bears in Super Bowl XX.
One of the great games in Jet history and arguably NFL history took place that season. In week 3, Dan Marino and the Dolphins came to the Meadowlands. Just say 51-45 to any diehard Jet fan and they will think of the game where Ken O’Brien went head-to-head with Dan Marino and the Jets pulled out the miracle win.
O’Brien hit Wesley Walker for a 21-yard touchdown with :00 on the clock to tie the game at 45. Just over 2 minutes into overtime, O’Brien launched a deep ball to Walker who hauled in the 43-yard pass and the Jets won it in overtime, 51-45.
It was only five games in NFL history where two quarterbacks threw for over 400 yards. The total of 927 passing yards by the two class of ’83 quarterbacks (473 by O’Brien, 448 by Marino) is a record that still stands, 23 seasons later.
This victory propelled the Jets to win their next 8 games. A team record that still stands. The Jets were 10-1, and had the best record in the NFL, and many people won’t remember, but in mid-November, the talk of New York football was the team in Green and not the one in blue.
The Jets’ offense flew higher than it ever had, thanks to the right arm of Ken O’Brien, and to the great tandem of receivers in Walker and second year receiver Al Toon. Jet fans could not have felt any better about this club, but then it happened.
The NFL on NBC’s, Paul Maguire, said at the time that the Jets would not win another game in 1986. Every Jet fan wanted to strangle him, and some of them almost did as he was locked into his trailer at the Meadowlands during one game that year. Paul, was absolutely right.
He must have seen that the Jet D was not 100 percent and that the offense would cool as the weather got colder.
This team had holes and if the offense struggled, then the defensive needed to step up. Some of you may think that 1986 was a part of New York Sack Exchange years; it really was not.
The player who led the Jets in sacks was actually a defensive back. Bobby Humphrey had four to lead the Jets. Abdul Salaam retired in 1983, Mark Gastineau, Marty Lyons and Joe Klecko were Jets in 1986, but they were not as dominant as they were earlier in the '80s.
Gastineau started only seven games and had just two sacks, and missed the final five games of the regular season. Lyons started 10 games, with 4 sacks, and Klecko started 10 games with three sacks.
The best player on the Jet D was linebacker Kyle Clifton, who recorded a total of 174 tackles. The Jets finished the season at 10-6. The Patriots, defending AFC Champions, won their final game and won the division at 11-5.
It was a complete a stunner. I was 10, and really did not know what “same old Jets” meant. Luckily, that great start still led to a wild card playoff game at home against the Chiefs.
Rolling the dice, Jets head coach Joe Walton, started Pat Ryan in the game against the Kansas City Chiefs. It was a stroke of genius. Ryan passed for three scores, and ran for 24 yards on a fourth down play early in the game as the Jets flew by the Chiefs 35-15.
The Jets would head to Cleveland to play the Browns in the AFC Divisional Playoff Game. The Browns were the No. 1 seed in the AFC and Cleveland Stadium aka the Dawg Pound was no place for a fatigued and battered Jet team to even think about advancing.
The big question was would it be Ryan or O’Brien at quarterback? The answer was both.
Ryan started the game, and threw the first touchdown pass of the game, but O’Brien came in after Ryan was hurt in the game and led the Jets in the second half. The game was tied 10-10 at halftime, and you were starting to think that maybe the Jets could pull off the upset.
In the second half, the Jets defense did not let Browns’ quarterback Bernie Kosar breathe. The Browns offense was stymied, and the Jets would take a field goal lead after three quarters.
Then, it became Charley Steiner’s fault.
Freeman McNeil ran for a 24-yard touchdown with just 4:14 left in the fourth quarter to give the Jets a 20-10 lead. I can still hear Charley Steiner who was broadcasting on the radio for the Jets saying, “And the Jets are going to the AFC Championship Game!” It was Charley’s first year as Jets announcer, he had no idea.
The Browns had the ball from their own 18, it was second down and 24 and Kosar through an incomplete pass. Shortly after Kosar threw the pass, he was hit by Mark Gastineau, who would be called for the most infamous roughing-the-passer penalty in Jets history.
The Browns drove down the field and scored to cut the Jet lead to 20-17. The Jet offense would sputter and the Browns had 51 seconds, no timeouts and would find a way to get to the Jets 10 and set up a 27-yard Mark Moseley field goal to tie the game and send it into overtime.
The Jets offense basically flatlined in overtime, but the defense never quit. The Browns got all the way down to the Jets five-yard line, and you felt this was where it ends for the Jets.
Except, it didn’t.
Mark Moseley missed a 23-yarder and the game continued and then went into double overtime, when an exhausted Jet defense could hardly stand and the Browns were inside the Jet 10, and Moseley converted the 27-yard field goal and the game and the Jets season was over in an exhausting and devastating defeat for the gang green.
No AFC playoff game has gone to double overtime since. The Browns went on to play the Denver Broncos at home in a game that will be forever remembered for John Elway’s 98-yard “The Drive” to tie the game. The Broncos won the game in overtime and advanced to play the Giants in Super Bowl XXI.
The Jets had a chance to prevent “The Drive” from ever happening and a chance for that elusive Subway Super Bowl. What would have happened if the Jets played in Denver for the AFC Championship? We don’t know for sure.
We do know that th Jets embarrassed the Broncos on a Monday night in week seven winning 22-10 at the Meadowlands. The Jets led 22-0 at one point and chased John Elway from the game.
The rematch would have been at Mile High for the AFC Championship and who really knows what would have been the result. But, I am sure the Jets would have been confident playing Denver no matter where.
I love the 1986 New York Jets, not because they made me tear up as a disappointed 10 year old, but because they gave you everything they had. It was not the most talented Jet team, but I cannot remember a Jet team that gave me more. To quote Garth Brooks, “I could have missed the pain, but I’d of had to miss the dance.”
The 1986 season belonged to the cohabitants of the Meadowlands, the Giants, but all three of their playoff games were blowouts, the Jets played in a playoff game for the ages that really does not get remembered except by those diehards who still own Jets merchandise with the old winged Jets logo.
NFL Films paid tribute to the Jets-Browns game with a special “NFL’s Greatest Games” show. A “Subway” Super Bowl was a lot closer than a wing and a prayer in 1986.