So maybe New England receiver Stanley Morgan, who always did like going deep, went a bit overboard when he said of today's American Football Conference wild-card game between the Patriots and New York Jets: "I see a dog-eat-dog, World War III fight."

But it's likely that the first thing you'll notice when the Jets and Patriots play at 4 p.m. today at Giants Stadium (WRC-TV-4) for the right to meet the Raiders in an AFC semifinal next Sunday in Los Angeles is that these teams don't tease. They drop gauntlets. They take victory the old-fashioned way: they earn it.

The Jets and Patriots are in the same division (the Eastern), have the same record (11-5) and are of the same ilk: each possesses one of the league's preeminent defenses and an offense that is dominated by a tough-it-out, 1,000-yard rusher (Freeman McNeil for the Jets and Craig James for the Patriots).

"New England is the best team we've faced this year," said Joe Klecko, the Jets' nose guard who hasn't forgotten that his team also played Miami and Chicago this year. "They always come ready for us."

Oddsmakers favor the Jets by a field goal. Season-long trends favor a low-scoring game, with the winner scoring in the mid-20s, tops.

"I wouldn't be surprised," said Fred Marion, the Patriots' safety, "if it goes down to the final second."

Both of these teams possess a sad history of failure in clutch games over the past decade or so. They have a sorry habit of suffering a shortage of breath come big-money time. New England hasn't won a playoff game since 1963; the Patriots have failed three times in the postseason since then and, in two other seasons, failed to make the playoffs after 7-3 starts.

"Over the years, I think we were overrated," said linebacker Steve Nelson, a 12-year Patriot. "We have the ability now and most of it is young."

Several times in the recent past, Jets fans swore they saw Joe Namath, Super Bowl III and 1969 all over again. Such as in 1981, when New York won seven of its last eight games, but committed five turnovers in a 31-27 wild-card loss to Buffalo.

Or in 1982, when Richard Todd threw five interceptions and the running game got stuck in the mud of Miami, 14-0, one game shy of the Super Bowl.

Or one month ago, when the Jets had just polished off these Patriots, 16-13, in overtime to bring their record to 9-3. They led the division by a game with one month to play. Then the Jets got blown away by Detroit, 31-20, and suffered a 19-6 loss to the Bears a couple of weeks later. They needed a 37-10 victory over Cleveland Sunday just to get the wild-card berth.

The Jets and Patriots split two games this season, both decided by a touchdown or less. The Patriots won, 20-13, early in the year, and the Jets won that 16-13 overtime game on Pat Leahy's 32-yard field goal that was tipped at the line.

Both teams have a third-year quarterback who has some remarkable traits mixed with some of the abominable habits of youth. The Jets' Ken O'Brien threw for 25 touchdowns with only eight interceptions this season and his 96.2 percentage ranked tops in the league in the quarterback rating system.

However, in his unwavering effort not to throw interceptions, O'Brien too often has refused to throw the ball out of bounds. He was sacked 62 times this year, most ever for a quarterback in a single season.

"The flak jacket comes in handy, I guess," O'Brien told a reporter this week. It might be extremely handy Sunday, seeing as how the Patriots have sacked O'Brien 11 times this season, with all-pro linebacker Andre Tippett (4.5 sacks) doing much of the damage.

New England's Tony Eason has had a remarkable season of ebb and flow. He suffered a shoulder injury in Week 6 and was replaced by veteran Steve Grogan, who ran off a six-game winning streak. Then, Eason returned to lead the Patriots to three wins in the final month after Grogan was injured in Week 12 against the Jets (who else?).

Eason has shown in recent weeks that he can throw the deep ball with the best of them. However, Eason has also shown he can throw the interception with the best of them (17 this season, for an atrocious 5.7 percent rate, second worst in the league to Vince Ferragamo's 5.9).

"Tony's getting better and better," said Morgan, who caught a 50-yard scoring pass from Eason Sunday. "He's reading (defenses) and I think the thing for him was to get his confidence in the long ball, being able to throw it and knowing he's got wide receivers who can catch it."

Grogan, an 11-year veteran, suffered a broken leg when Jets defensive end Ben Rudolph accidently fell on him following a handoff. Grogan is walking without crutches now and said that if the Patriots beat the Jets, he rates his chances at "50-50" for being ready to play against the Raiders, "and I'll definitely be ready the week after that."

The offenses of these teams mix a variety of short- and mid-range passes with numerous runs by their dominant back. James may have had the most quietly devastating season of any running back in the league. He ran for 1,227 yards and caught 27 passes for 360 yards, including a 90-yarder for a touchdown. He is one of only two running backs to have rushed for at least 100 yards (108) against the Jets this season.

McNeil has been slowed by injury throughout the season, but still managed to run for 1,331 yards. He did not play in the first game against New England and was limited to just five carries in the second. Although he has had a knee injury and did not practice until this Thursday, McNeil is expected to start today.

"We're so preoccupied with the sack total that we're forgetting what got us here -- power running," Jets tackle Marvin Powell said this week. "(Defenses) are concentrating on stopping us on first down and putting us in second and eight."