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My Top Ten Jets Heartbreaks #9: 1997 vs. Lions

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The Jets were in a very bad place after the 1996 season. They had just cliched the top overall pick in the NFL Draft for a second straight year. The franchise had spent the decade floundering under coaches such as Bruce Coslett, a too young and too immature Pete Carroll, and Rich Kotite. Amid great controversy, owner Leon Hess had enough and made a bold and controversial move importing Bill Parcells from the Patriots.

Parcells paid immediate dividends. The Jets won a single game in 1996. By Week 17 of 1997 they were 9-6 and needing only a win over Detroit to make the Playoffs. Gang Green headed to The Silverdome for a de facto Playoff game. The Lions would win a Wild Card in the NFC with a win and be eliminated with a loss. The Jets would clinch at least a Wild Card with a win. In the unlikely event of a Monday night tie between the Patriots and Dolphins, a victory would win them the AFC East title. A loss would send them home.

What would follow was a strange game that featured Barry Sanders eclipsing the 2,000 yard mark, a terrifying spinal injury, and two Jets interceptions thrown by players other than their quarterback.

Parcells did not like the spot he was in at quarterback. Just a few weeks earlier he had benched starter Neil O'Donnell and promoted Glenn Foley. Foley suffered a knee injury against the Bears, which forced O'Donnell back into the starting lineup. The Jets hoped Foley would be healthy for the finale, but he wasn't.

The Jets jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first half. They led 10-3 at halftime. Parcells' lack of confidence in O'Donnell was evident in the third quarter when he inserted undrafted second year quarterback Ray Lucas into the lineup for a series. Lucas had never thrown a pass in the NFL. He hit his first three throws before throwing an interception.

They had bottled up Barry Sanders, who was close to the 2,000 yard mark through almost three quarters. Stuck on 23 yards through the final play of the third quarter, when Sanders ripped off a 47 yard run. Sanders had 161 yards on his last 11 attempts, including a 15 yard touchdown to give Detroit a 13-10 lead in the fourth quarter.

One of the most terrifying moments to ever occur on an NFL field followed as Detroit linebacker Reggie Brown suffered a spinal cord injury that delayed the game for over 10 minutes. Brown had to be administered CPR on the field and was taken to the hospital. Brown's career ended, but he did survive and walk a few weeks later.

The Silverdome crowd was so loud that O'Donnell was having trouble getting the snap off. O'Donnell even took the absurd step of asking the officials to quiet the crowd down. Even more absurdly, the officials agreed and demanded the crowd quiet down.

The Jets drove into the red zone. They were in range for a tying field goal or go ahead touchdown. Then the Jets tried a halfback pass to the end zone. Leon Johnson was intercepted by Ron Rice. The officials called it an interception. It wasn't. Rice was out of bounds. If there had been a review system in place at the time, it would have taken like five second to overturn. The Jets didn't get close again and saw their season end in painful fashion.

Parcells did a superlative job in 1997. I can understand not loving O'Donnell. He wasn't that great. I don't understand putting more trust in an inexperienced rookie and a running back to throw the ball.

This game made the list because blowing a 10 point lead to miss the Playoffs was painful. It doesn't rank higher because the Jets were actually playing a game with a shot to make the Playoffs a year after going 1-15. That did take a little bit of the sting away.

The pain against Detroit would not end. Three years later the Jets were in a similar spot Week 16 this time at home against the Detroit. They lost a heartbreaker as John Hall missed a field goal try in the waning moments. A win would have put them into the Playoffs. They lost the next week at Baltimore and missed again. That game barely missed this list. The 1997 game made it.