A courageous performance by Richard Todd put the New York Jets in first place in the AFC Eastern Division today for the first time since 1969.
Despite a broken rib and a painful sprained ankle that prevented him from setting up properly to pass, Todd threw a touchdown pass with 16 seconds remaining to give the Jets a dramatic 16-15 victory over the Miami Dolphins.
The Jets celebrated like schoolboys after tight end Jerome Barkum grabbed Todd's 11-yard pass in the end zone, completing a 77-yard drive against the clock and one of the league's best defenses.
The emotional victory, which had the sellout crowd of 59,962 chanting, "We're No. l," gave the Jets a 7-4-1 record, tying Miami for the division lead. New York tied the Dolphins previously this season and could win the championship on a tie breaker if the teams finish even.
With last-place Baltimore coming here next Sunday, followed by games with Seattle, Cleveland and Green Bay, the Jets have a definite edge in the schedule over the Dolphins. Miami plays Philadelphia, New England, Kansas City and Buffalo.
"It's like a dream come true. I was crying on the sidelines," said Todd after limping to his dressing stall following 30 minutes of treatment for his injuries.
"The ankle bothered me more than my ribs," the six-year veteran from Alabama said. "It hurt when I threw, but I got used to that. The problem was, I couldn't really set up that good because of my ankle.
"Our center (Joe Fields) stepped on it in the second quarter," he explained. "It was a freak thing, but I doubt if I'll be able to practice before Thursday."
Despite missing most of last week's practices, Todd completed 21 of 38 passes for 203 yards and didn't have an interception. The Jets still were stymied most of the day and scored only on field goals of 29, 49 and 45 yards by Pat Leahy before Barkum's touchdown.
The Jets' pulsating final drive at Shea Stadium would not have been necessary if their spirited defense had not stopped the Dolphins three times inside the six-yard line minutes earlier.
Miami led, 12-9, after Leahy's 45-yarder in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. After an exchange of punts, the Dolphins took over on their 20. Quarterback David Woodley immediately gave them good field position by rolling out for a 26-yard gain.
Then Coach Don Shula became very conservative. He called 10 straight running plays, alternating Tony Nathan and Andra Franklin inside the tackles. On third and three at the nine, Nathan hurdled up the middle for a first down at the six.
That's when the Jets dug in. Franklin was stopped on a sweep after one yard, then Nathan was held to no gain on the next two plays. The Dolphins settled for Uwe von Schamann's second field goal, a 23-yarder with 3:10 to play.
"When our defense held them to three points down there near the end, I knew we had a chance to win it," Todd said. "On that last drive, Miami was only rushing three men, dropping everybody else back and giving up the middle. Our line did a great job of holding them out and our receivers really worked hard to get open."
Todd opened the winning drive with an eight-yard pass to tailback Freeman McNeill, then McNeill picked up three yards on a sweep before the two-minute warning.
A swing pass to Bruce Harper gained two yards and a second was incomplete before Todd threw to Scott Dierking over the middle for a first down on the 45. Another pass over the middle, this time to Wesley Walker, gave the Jets a first down on the Miami 37.
Finally Todd went to the sidelines, passing to Bobby Jones on the left side for 12 yards. Then he went over the middle again to Lam Jones for 14 yards to the 11, setting up the touchdown pass to Barkum.
"The play was designed to come across the middle," said Barkum, a 10-year veteran from Jackson State, whose seven touchdown passes this season is a career best.
"The other receivers were flanked wide and they ran corner patterns to spread the defense," he continued. "They double-covered the wide receivers, leaving (Don) Bessilleu on me. I wasn't open right away, but Richard waited, then made a heck of a throw.
"You can't help but give all the credit to Richard," Barkum went on. "To come back and play like he did with broken ribs gave everybody a lift."
When Barkum was asked the last time he could remember the Jets pulling out a game in the closing seconds, he paused, then said, "It had to be back in the days when Joe (Namath) was playing, around 1973. I certainly don't remember anything like this lately."
The Jets, 7-1-1 since losing their first three games, have a chance to repeat those glory days of Namath. They appear a cinch to win more than eight games for the first time since '69 and make the playoffs for the first time in 11 years.
"This was a giant step in our growth," said defensive end Joe Klecko, a five-year veteran from Temple. "Wins like this stay with you; they can carry a team. I've never been here when we've won one like this. It's a great feeling and it does wonders for your confidence."
Said Coach Walt Michaels, criticized after the team's slow start and its 23-39 record in his first four seasons: "This was a real lesson in courage today. In order to become a great team, you have to know what to do in the last two minutes.
"Today we did the right things. Now we're in first place, but the big thing is staying there."