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Sunday, January 17, 2010

The New York Jets upset the Chargers

The N.F.L. finally got the upset it was waiting for. And then some.

The Jets — that is correct, the Jets — are going to the American Football Conference championship game.

An improbable 17-14 victory in an improbable season was all but secured when Shonn Greene, a rookie running back, broke away for a 53-yard touchdown run with 7 minutes 17 seconds left. Greene’s run, the longest in Jets postseason history, gave his team a 17-7 lead, although even a 10-point lead was barely enough. With less than three minutes remaining in the game, the Chargers cut the lead to 17-14 on a touchdown run by Philip Rivers.

But alas, these are not the same old Jets. They seem destined.

Now it’s on to Indianapolis for the mother of all grudge matches against the Colts, a team the Jets defeated Dec. 27 to keep alive their playoff hopes. If you listen to the Colts tell it, that was only half a win because Coach Jim Caldwell pulled most of his starters in the second half. The thinking around the league was that the Jets would not have beaten the Colts in a meaningful game.

Now we’ll see.

A number of things had to fall in place Sunday for the Jets to make their first A.F.C. championship appearance since 1998. Mark Sanchez, a rookie quarterback, had to continue his string of not making the costly turnovers that plagued him early in the year. He did. Sanchez threw just one interception Sunday and made a number of clutch third-down throws.

The Jets’ top-rated defense had to find a way to slow down the Chargers’ high-powered passing attack. For the most part, it did. The defense allowed one touchdown in the first half and another late in the fourth quarter.

The Jets needed help from the Chargers. They received that, too. Nate Kaeding, the N.F.L.’s most accurate field-goal kicker, missed three times.

Finally, the Jets’ offense, with the N.F.L.’s top-rated running game, had to dominate the Chargers’ defense, and it did with a grinding performance, culminating in Greene’s touchdown. On fourth-and-1 with 1:42 to play, Coach Rex Ryan decided to go for a first down. When Thomas Jones tore through the line for a 3-yard gain, the Jets’ sideline exploded in celebration.

Before Sunday’s game, Brad Smith, the Jets’ all-purpose player, predicted N.F.L. fans were in for a surprise.

Noting that each Jets win recently had been discounted or diminished, Smith said: “We want them to keep discounting us. That’s what binds us together.”

Smith in many ways is the symbol of all the disparate pieces that suddenly have come together for the Jets.

Although he played a minimal role Sunday, Smith’s contributions are part of the selfless attitude that has characterized the Jets’ surge.

Smith is part of a silent majority of professional athletes that young fans don’t hear from nearly enough.

There is certainly something to be said for highlighting athletes who have made mistakes and having them talk about their blunders. There is a more substantial argument for athletes who walk the straight and narrow to describe how to avoid mistakes.

Smith, the Jets’ everything man — quarterback, running back, receiver — is a person of faith who has stayed the course. His approach to handling football’s ups and downs is a handy approach to life. Smith was raised in the church, his metaphor for team harmony is the choir — the group singing with one voice.

In football, he promotes the virtues of the team, the importance of fitting in, of sacrificing individual goals to achieve the greater good.

His N.F.L. career certainly has been a testament to that.

Smith was drafted by the Jets in the fourth round in 2006 after a stellar career at Missouri. He entered the league with remarkable quarterback credentials, having become the first player in N.C.A.A. history to pass for 8,000 yards and run for 4,000.

He worked out for N.F.L. teams as a quarterback and expected that would be his position in the N.F.L. But when the Jets drafted Smith, they told him they wanted him to help in several areas, and not necessarily at quarterback.

Not what he wanted to hear. But Smith said his immediate goal was to play in the N.F.L.

“When you get drafted, you don’t really have a choice in the matter,” he said. “When I first came into the league, I did whatever I could do to get on the field and help the team.”

Smith has become the quintessential hybrid, the Jets’ latter-day Slash: quarterback/receiver/running back/kick returner.As this season progressed, Smith was given an expanded role in the Jets’ offense. He became a spark as the Jets went 5-1 in their last six games and earned an unlikely postseason berth.

The challenge for Smith is whether he can go beyond being an N.F.L. novelty and have a legitimate opportunity to play quarterback. But for now, his focus isn’t on himself.

“I don’t know if I’ve really had that real first opportunity to get the practice reps, have the chance to grow into the position,” he said. “That would be awesome. Right now, the focus is on one game and the rest of the season.”

from the new york times

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