Freeman McNeil rushed for a playoff-record 211 yards, threw a touchdown pass and rushed for another today, powering the New York Jets to a 44-17 drubbing of the Cincinnati Bengals in a first-round NFL playoff game.
McNeil ran 20 yards for a touchdown, and safety Darrol Ray returned an interception 98 yards--another playoff record--to key a three-touchdown fourth quarter.
The Jets eliminated the defending American Conference champion Bengals while notching their first playoff victory since Joe Namath led them to a Super Bowl victory in 1969.
The Jets, 6-3 in the regular season, visit the Los Angeles Raiders in the semifinals at 4 p.m. Saturday. The Bengals finished 7-3.
McNeil, the NFL's leading rusher, gained 211 yards on 22 carries to set up a touchdown pass by Richard Todd and Pat Leahy's three field goals. McNeil also threw his first professional pass--a 14-yard touchdown strike to Derrick Gaffney for the Jets' first touchdown.
"I'm not going to Cincinnati to lose," McNeil said as he nursed a hamstring injury earlier in the week. "If I have to be Superman Sunday, that's what I'm going to be."
"I think taking karate lessons helped me a lot," he said after his performance today. "It helped my mind and muscle control. I can set my shoulders square and cut on a dime. I don't like the fighting involved in karate, just the movement."
"Freeman and I like to kid each other a lot," Jets Coach Walt Michaels said. "He's a student of the game and he said, 'coach, what do you think?' I said, 'Freeman, get the ball and run like every play is a touchdown.'
"When you get a cannon you should shoot it. So we let Freeman run the ball."
Todd agreed: "we came into the game thinking more pass than run. I thought it would be a fun game for a quarterback, but the way Freeman was running, you couldn't deny giving it to him."
McNeil's 20-yard scoring run with 8:24 to play put the Jets ahead, 30-17. His rushing performance eclipsed the playoff record of 206 set by San Diego's Keith Lincoln in 1963.
Ray stepped in front of a pass by Ken Anderson and returned it 98 yards for a 37-17 lead with 4:50 to play, breaking Walt Sumner's playoff record 88-yard return set for the Cleveland Browns in 1969. Dwayne Crutchfield added a one-yard touchdown run with 1:56 left after the Jets' third interception.
Cincinnati scored twice in the first period on Anderson touchdown passes of 32 yards to Isaac Curtis and two yards to Dan Ross.
However, the Jets scored on each of their four first-half possession to grab a 20-14 halftime lead, and they never trailed again.
After McNeil's touchdown pass to Gaffney had cut the deficit to 14-10, Anderson hit consecutive passes of 15, 11, 26 and 20 yards to drive Cincinnati to a first and goal on the Jets 10.
But Johnny Lynn, who had two interceptions, stepped in front of Cris Collinsworth at the one and returned the ball 14 yards to the 15. The Jets drove 85 yards in 11 plays and took the lead for good on Todd's four-yard pass to wide receiver Wesley Walker with 4:02 to go in the half.
The Bengals were limited to just a 20-yard field goal by Jim Breech over the final three periods.
The key defensive play came with the Jets leading, 23-17, early in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati moved to a second and one on the Jets' 25 but 260-pound Pete Johnson twice was stopped short and Breech's 46-yard field goal try missed.
New York's defense sacked Anderson four times and intercepted three passes.
The Bengals twice had apparent touchdowns nullified by penalties on the same fourth-quarter drive--a 69-yard pass from Anderson to Collinsworth and a six-yard run by Anderson. Ray's interception ended the threat.
A crowd of 57,560 saw the game, reflecting 1,935 no-shows.