A sports heartbreak need not be a close loss. Sometimes it is a blowout when expectations are sky high. Such was the case for me when the Jets traveled to Oakland for the AFC Divisional Playoffs. New York had won the AFC East with a 9-7 record, but the Jets were the hottest team in the NFL. The insertion of Chad Pennington into the lineup had breathed life into this Jets team. His success in the short passing game was drawing early comparisons to Joe Montana. They were 9-3 in their last twelve games, including a Wild Card victory over the Colts, after a 1-4 start.
Even more, they were riding a three game winning streak with double digit victories over teams quarterbacked by Tom Brady, Brett Favre, and Peyton Manning. Heading out to take on the team with the best record the AFC, many viewed this game as the real AFC Championship Game, believing the victor would easily beat the Tennessee Titans the next weekend and go to the Super Bowl.
The game was 10-10 at the half, and it felt like the Jets had Oakland right where they wanted them. I remember during the CBS halftime show Boomer Esiason said he thought the crew to the pregame show was heading to Nashville the next week to watch the Jets play the Titans in the AFC Championship Game.
The Jets saw their season come to an end as they played one of their worst halves of football of the season in the second half. Pennington was off target. It felt like the Raiders made an extra effort to get really physical and take away the short passing game. He threw an interception that set up Oakland's go ahead touchdown. It was one of two interceptions by Pennington, who also took four sacks and fumbled twice. The Jets didn't fare much better on defense as the Raiders did what they wanted, putting up 20 points on their way to a 30-10 win. The Raiders beat the Titans the next week to go to the Super Bowl. Then their story takes a sad turn. They got blown out by the Bucs in the title game and the coach they traded away a year earlier, Jon Gruden. To this day this was their last trip to the Playoffs.
In hindsight this game stings more now than it did at the time. Back then it felt like the Jets were a team on the rise and had a franchise quarterback. As it turns out, injuries derailed Pennington's career, and this was the high point of the Herman Edwards Era. There are only two points during my fandom that I really thought the Jets were on the cusp of becoming a contender every year. This was one of them. It wasn't meant to be. This game was ultimately the beginning of the end.