There is little New Yorkers like better than watching the disgraced reinvent themselves. This is the city that helped an explosively violent Latrell Sprewell recover his status as a beloved all-star and helped Kerry Collins trade in his reputation as an out-of-control alcoholic for that of a mature team leader. This is the city that applauded Darryl Strawberry as he tried to wrest himself from the jaws of drug abuse. Twice.
So it has been with not just joy but smug satisfaction that New York has spent the past week celebrating the Jets and Giants both making the NFL playoffs for the first time in 16 years. Getting there is one thing. Getting there by crawling out of a swamp of failure, as both teams did this season -- that's a New York thing.
"There's no question, there's something about the way we did this that our fans really like," said Jets running back Curtis Martin, noting that the cheers during the team's clinching 42-17 win over Green Bay on Sunday were the loudest he's ever heard. "Of course, we had to make everyone sweat a little bit. But in the end, we pulled it out. Both teams did."
They pulled out what few thought possible: The Giants won their final four games to transform a craggy 6-6 start into a 10-6 wild-card triumph and the Jets rebounded from an unthinkable 2-5 record to a 9-7 mark good enough to win the AFC East. Now, with the Giants heading to Candlestick Park to play San Francisco and the Jets preparing to host Indianapolis at Giants Stadium, talk has already started of a Subway Super Bowl. And while the concept is slightly off geographically -- both teams play in New Jersey, and nowhere near a train line -- it has gripped both fans and players who have gone without a football championship since the Giants polished off Buffalo in 1991.
Local delis are offering playoff sandwich specials; ticket-brokers are out in full force, asking up to $1,000 a ticket for 50-yard-line seats. Giants running back Tiki Barber laughed earlier this week recounting how overeager fans have been wishing him good luck against the Jets in San Diego, although on a whiteboard just a few feet away in the locker room, his coach, Jim Fassel, had scribbled a notion not too dissimilar -- "Why not us?"
Certainly, after the Giants and Jets found their footing in one of the most turbulent seasons in NFL history, anything is possible. The Jets' success story alone is cause enough to refrain from ever saying "never" again; for weeks, they walked a tightrope of elimination, with not just Broncos and Dolphins nipping at their heels but doubt and distrust as well.
"Friends called and said everything to me, like J-E-T-S, Just End The Season," remembered defensive tackle Josh Evans, and with good reason. Since the merger of the NFL and AFL in 1970, no other team had emerged from a 2-5 record to win a division title, and when Edwards proclaimed in early November that the Jets wouldn't fold, "not on my watch," he was met with a mix of derision and pity.
Yet somehow, the Jets marched into San Diego to play the 6-1 Chargers and emerged with an overwhelming victory. Then came consecutive wins against Miami, Detroit and Buffalo, and suddenly no one was laughing at Edwards anymore. The Jets found a promising young quarterback in Chad Pennington, the Rhodes scholar candidate from Marshall who was proving as stubbornly determined as he was clever. The defense, gutted and revamped with six new starters, went from allowing an average of 32.4 points a game over the season's first five weeks to less than 16 a game over the final 11 weeks.
By the time the Jets lined up against Green Bay on Sunday, they had hope, and by the end of the first quarter, they had complete faith. In the NFL's version of a butterfly flapping its wings, the Patriots' Adam Vinatieri kicked an overtime field goal to beat the Dolphins, taking away Miami's chance to clinch the AFC East title. More than 200 miles away, the Jets heard the news and erupted with new determination, spending the next three quarters barreling through the Packers.
"It's like toothpaste, when the tube is almost done and you squeeze just a little more out of the bottom," Edwards said. "When you're in an adverse situation, what you squeeze out is the character of your players."
With the win, Edwards earned the right to keep squeezing. Saturday's game will mark the first time he will face his mentor, Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy, in a game of this magnitude. It will also be the first time two African American coaches have met in the playoffs, and Edwards said he expects to be emotional. "What would Fritz Pollard say right now?" he asked, citing the man who became the first African American professional football coach in 1921. "Tony has worked hard for it his whole career. I've worked hard too."
Edwards, in fact, has gotten much of the credit for the Jets' turnaround this season, with player after player citing his steadiness in the face of the team's early chaos. Many of the Giants have said the same thing about Fassel, who slashed through rumors of his imminent firing after the seventh game by boldly taking over the team's play-calling.
The change was jolting; the Giants went from averaging 12.7 points per game to 25.7. Collins, whose exit in disgrace (amid drunk-driving charges) from Carolina four years ago seems more and more distant, started throwing more accurately, and the offensive line, which allowed 15 sacks in the first seven games, tightened up. Even after an embarrassing 16-14 loss to expansion Houston and an emotional overtime loss to Tennessee, Fassel was calm, certain his players were merely lacking experience, not skill. Indeed, this is a much younger roster than the one the Giants took to the Super Bowl two years ago, with a host of first-time starters and rookies learning on the job.
"It's been so fast, everything that's happened," said tight end Jeremy Shockey, who a year ago was playing with the University of Miami for the national championship and led NFL tight ends with 74 receptions. "We had a young team early in the season, and I didn't know what to do, a lot of people didn't know what to do. We've all gotten older now."
Whether they've gotten old enough will be tested against an inconsistent but capable San Francisco team featuring one of the game's most electrifying players in Terrell Owens. The Jets, too, will have their hands full with the creative passing game of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, yet both teams feel confident. If the adage about adversity making one stronger is true, Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer said, then by now they must all be made of steel.
"We were desperate, and that's when our team showed it was at its best," he said. "Yeah, it was the tougher way to do things. But New York is a tough town."