EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- They gave him the damn ball, all right.
It was a crowd that was ravenous for the Jets' first postseason victory since 1986, and whose team is a victory away from its first Super Bowl since Joe Namath so famously guaranteed a victory 30 years ago.
As for Johnson, it used to be the third-year receiver out of USC was always telling everyone how good he'd be.
Yesterday, in the first NFL playoff game of his career, he showed them. He drove a dagger into the Jaguars with two touchdowns -- one on a 21-yard catch and the other on a 10-yard reverse.
He plunged it deeper with a fumble recovery on a wild play that began with a Jets fumble, one Jacksonville recovered and was rambling with toward the end zone. And finally, he gave the knife one last twist by intercepting the Jaguars' desperate pass at the Jets' 7-yard line in the final seconds of the game.
Yes, an interception. Jets coach Bill Parcells had him in on defense.
"That was their idea," Johnson said. "I hadn't done that since USC, but that was when there was a lot more time on the clock."
If the ball was anywhere near him yesterday, Johnson got his hands on it.
He caught nine passes for 121 yards -- the Jets' first 100-yard receiving performance in a playoff game since Wesley Walker's against the Los Angeles Raiders in 1983, and he tied the club record of nine receptions in a postseason game set by Al Toon in 1985. He also picked up 28 yards rushing on two reverses.
"I would hope this is one of the top games I've every played, because it's a step for me in the right direction," Johnson said. "A step to take our team to the AFC championship game."
Johnson has changed some in his three years in the NFL, learning to temper his words since the book he wrote after his rookie season that so brashly proclaimed his arrival, a book that criticized teammates and now-former coaches and was also the source of the famous "Just give me the damn ball" quote.
"I don't have to demand the ball with these coaches," Johnson said. "They recognize talent and want to get the ball to me."
It wasn't all Johnson. It only seemed that way.
Former Raven Vinny Testaverde passed for 284 yards, completing 24 of 36 with one touchdown and one interception.
More importantly, running back Curtis Martin rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns in 36 carries, outshining Jacksonville rookie Fred Taylor, who ran for 86 yards, and helping the Jets (13-4) control the football for almost two-thirds of the game.
In the second quarter, the Jaguars' time of possession was a stunning 51 seconds -- 18 seconds when Mark Brunell threw an interception on the first play of a possession, and 33 seconds in which the Jaguars (12-6) scored a touchdown as time expired in the half on a 52-yard pass to Jimmy Smith that helped trim the Jets' lead to 17-7.
The Jaguars helped the Jets with their mistakes.
"It wasn't always pretty," Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin said. "It was dismal at times, but it's a long game, and the courage and fortitude these people showed was tremendous."
Brunell threw three interceptions and completed only 12 of 31 passes for 156 yards.
One of the gaffes was by safety Chris Hudson, who picked up a second-quarter fumble by Martin at the Jacksonville 18 and returned it 47 yards before appearing to attempt a lateral.
Johnson pounced on the ball, and after debate over whether it was an illegal forward pass, it was ruled a bobbled ball and a Jets' fumble recovery at their own 35.
"I was just trying to make a play, that's about it," Hudson said.
But what was once a 24-7 Jets lead dwindled to 31-24 in the fourth quarter.
Reggie Barlow's 88-yard kickoff return set up Brunell's 3-yard touchdown pass to Keenan McCardell in the third quarter that made the score 24-14.
After Martin's second touchdown, the Jaguars scored on a 19-yard pass from Brunell to Smith, and after a fumble by Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet was recovered by Dave Thomas, the Jaguars' Dave Hollis kicked a field goal that cut the lead to seven with 6: 38 left.
The impact of Testaverde's only interception with 2: 24 left was lessened when safety Donovin Darius tried to return it out of the end zone and was tackled at the 1.
Jacksonville gave up the ball on downs and the Jets kicked a field goal for the 10-point lead before Jacksonville's last pass was intercepted by Johnson.
By picking off that pass, he completed a strange feat that hadn't been accomplished in the NFL playoffs since 1937, when the Chicago Bears' Jack Manders also caught a touchdown pass, ran for a touchdown, recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass.
"Someday, he wants to go down as one of the top receivers ever to play the game. You can't do that in three years," said Keith Byars, the Jets' veteran fullback. "You do that over time. You do that by making the tough catch and the easy catch, by running your routes, by blocking. He sacrificed his body, laying it on linebackers. He even recovered a fumble."
Now the Jets have to try to do it again against the Super Bowl champions.
"Denver is a hell of a team, as we all know," Johnson said. "We can't play like we did today and beat them. Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith and Shannon Sharpe? I hope we score 100. We're going to need it."
Jets coach Bill Parcells, whose team will meet the Broncos next Sunday for the AFC title, is 3-0 in NFC or AFC championship games:
Season.............................Team. ..................Opponent...................... Result
1986..................................N.Y. Giants..........Washington...................W, 17-0
1990..................................N.Y. Giants...........at San Francisco..........W, 15-13
1996..................................New England........Jacksonville..................W, 20-6
Pub Date: 1/11/99