They have lost two games to the Miami Dolphins this season, once in a rout, once on a last-second field goal. The third time around will be different, say the New York Jets. "We're talking Super Bowl here," says defensive tackle Marty Lyons. "It's the game of our lives."
It begins today at 1 p.m. (WRC-TV-4) in the Orange Bowl, with a capacity crowd in excess of 75,000 expected for an AFC championship game that matches Miami's defense, the best in the National Football League, against the NFL's leading rusher, Freeman McNeil, and two of the fastest receivers in the league, Wesley Walker and Lam Jones.
The Dolphins are rated 1 1/2-point favorites to do what no NFL team has done since 1965--beat another team three times in one season. The Packers did it to the Colts that year, a Baltimore team coached by Miami's Don Shula.
"That has no bearing on this game," Shula said. "I don't look at it as having to beat the Jets three times this season. I look at it as beating them for the first time in 1983."
The series between the teams has always been a bit streaky. Going into this season, the Jets had seven victories and a tie in their last eight games against Miami. New York won the first eight games between the teams in the late '60s and Miami won 14 of 16 before the Jets' most recent domination.
"But all that stuff's ancient history," said Lyons. "If you get hung up on that kind of stuff, you will lose. We just have to remember who we are, how we played to get here and go out and win the football game. We've got a lot of respect for them and I think they respect us. A lot of guys on both teams are friends in the offseason. But you forget about that stuff, too. Should be a great game."
The Jets have advanced this far the hard way, with on-the-road playoff victories over defending AFC champion Cincinnati and the Los Angeles Raiders, who had the conference's best won-lost record in the regular season. Miami won both its games at home, knocking out the New England patsies in the first round and stifling the Chargers and their prodigious offense last week.
The Dolphins will face far better balance than they did a week ago, when they held three of the league's most dangerous receivers, Kellen Winslow, Wes Chandler and Charlie Joiner, to a total of four catches.
"For one thing, they've got McNeil," said Miami safety Glenn Blackwood, "and they use him quite a bit more than the Chargers used (Chuck) Muncie. They can hurt you a lot of ways, because if you concentrate on stopping the run, they'll burn you deep with Lam and Walker."
And in Richard Todd, the Jets have a far more mobile man calling signals than the Chargers' Dan Fouts. Todd has had another outstanding season, finishing as the third-leading passer in the AFC with l4 touchdown passes, a 58 percent completion average and only eight interceptions.
McNeil ended the regular season with a 5.2-yard per carry average, which also led the league, and he has been just as successful in the playoffs. He had 21 carries and 202 yards against the Bengals and 23 carries for 95 against the Raiders.
The Dolphins had difficulty containing him in the regular season. He gained 116 yards in the first game, a 45-28 Miami victory, and 89 in the second, a 20-19 Dolphins victory on Uwe von Schamann's 47-yard field goal in the final seconds.
Todd also likes to throw to Walker, his swift wide receiver who had 39 catches, six of them for touchdowns in the regular season. In the playoffs, he's already caught 15 passes, averaging 21 yards a catch, and had two touchdown receptions last week in Los Angeles. He has always played well against Miami, averaging 19 yards a catch over his career, with nine touchdown receptions in 10 games against the Dolphins.
The Jets defense has some injury problems, particularly along the defensive line. Lyons has a pulled hamstring, tackle Abdul Salaam has a pulled groin muscle and defensive end Joe Klecko has still not recovered from knee surgery in September. "Some players have been performing on sheer guts," Coach Walt Michaels of the Jets says.
Still, the Jets have been playing wonderful defense. They forced four turnovers against the Bengals and held Pete Johnson to 26 yards in nine carries. Last week, they had five turnovers and held Marcus Allen to 36 yards in 15 carries.
Today they will have to contend with a Miami offense that has peaked at just the right time. Quarterback David Woodley directs a well-balanced, ball-control attack, with an occasional long pass thrown in.
He will frequently hand off to Andra Franklin, his big fullback, or throw short passes in the flat to Tony Nathan, a halfback who struggled in midseason but was a major factor in the victory against the Chargers.
The Dolphins are still concerned about von Schamann, who suffered a hairline fracture of the transverse process in his back against the Chargers and hasn't kicked all week. He probably will not be used on kickoffs--punter Tom Orosz will handle that chore--but will be available for field goals and extra points.
Like the man said, we're talking Super Bowl here.