Once considered potential Super Bowl opponents this year, both teams nudged their season closer to oblivion with some suspect play-calling in Week 6.
The Jets were driving for a go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter of a 13-13 tie with the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. Facing first-and-goal at the 3, with first-time starter Ray Lucas at quarterback, Jets coach Bill Parcells called for a pass -- an out route to Keyshawn Johnson.
When Lucas threw the ball too flat, cornerback Jeff Burris intercepted and returned the pass 55 yards. That set up a 27-yard field goal by Mike Vanderjagt with 14 seconds left and a 16-13 Colts victory.
It was if you consider that Lucas hadn't practiced the play all week and was anointed the starter just hours before the game, replacing Rick Mirer. It was when you consider that running back Curtis Martin, who has a $36 million contract with the Jets, had just carried five times in a row to move the ball from the 47 to the 3, and was enjoying his first 100-yard rushing game of the season.
Parcells, who missed the playoffs two years ago with the Jets because of his fondness for gimmick plays in the passing attack, explained it this way after the game: "You can write what you want, but we were stuffed a couple of times in short yardage [in recent weeks]. I thought it was the perfect opportunity for that play. I have to live with that one, too."
Even Jets wide receiver Wayne Chrebet admitted the obvious. "When you're running the ball like that, you should keep doing it," he said.
Of course, if Lucas had put more air under the ball and completed the pass, no one would have objected. But he is an inexperienced quarterback who had thrown only seven passes in the NFL before Sunday, and that is a recipe for disaster in tight games.
The Vikings, meanwhile, lost when they played it safe late in their game against the Detroit Lions. Trailing 22-20, they had driven to the Lions' 15, largely with the passing game. At the 15, they ran three straight times to reach the 8, then settled for a go-ahead, 26-yard field goal by Gary Anderson.
At least one player -- wide receiver Randy Moss -- thought the Vikings should have taken a shot at the end zone.
"Why stop [passing] if it's working?" said Moss, who caught a career-high 10 passes for 125 yards. "The only thing I'm really mad about is we had an opportunity down in the red zone to throw to the best. You've got Jake [Reed], myself and Cris [Carter]. That's the best out there, as far as a trio of receivers. And the only thing I wanted to see was at least give us the shot to make the plays."
Vikings coach Dennis Green said quarterback Jeff George could have audibled to a pass on third-and-seven but didn't get the coverage expected and stayed with the run. The Lions won the game, 25-23, on a 48-yard field goal by Jason Hanson with seven seconds left.
Those losses left the Jets 1-5 and the Vikings 2-4, and both former Super Bowl contenders are in last place in their respective division.
Iron Mike responds
Former Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka is struggling with defeat. Twice Sunday -- at halftime and right after a 24-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans -- the Saints coach made obscene gestures to New Orleans fans.
After an ill-conceived running play cost the Saints a chance at a field goal before the half, Ditka gave sign language to a group of heckling fans. Then, after the 1-4 Saints blew their fourth straight fourth-quarter lead, he responded to a vulgar chant by grabbing his crotch. The Saints yesterday fined Ditka $20,000 for inappropriate conduct.
Even though his passing numbers were modest Sunday, St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner's 15th touchdown pass of the season tied for the second-most productive five-game start in the league's recorded history.
That matches the fast starts by the Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino (1984) and the San Francisco 49ers' Steve Young (1998) but is one short of the five-game record by the Green Bay Packers' Brett Favre, who threw for 16 in 1996.
Warner was 13-for-20 for 111 yards in a 41-13 demolition of the Atlanta Falcons. He threw only eight passes in the second half.
Now we know
Maybe Denver Broncos safety Eric Brown knew something after all when he suggested last week that Favre was "really lucky" in three fourth-quarter comebacks this season. Brown grabbed one of three interceptions Favre threw in a 31-10 Packers loss.
"I didn't feel any additional pressure at all," Brown said, referring to his critical comments. "The guys were messing with me all week, telling me I had screwed up by making him mad.
"I was just joking. It was funny to me. And it was amazing how fast it spread. I kept seeing it all over TV. It seemed to be the topic of the week. I'm sure people were saying, 'Who is Eric Brown?' "
After his dismal 7-for-23 performance, Favre said: "The comment didn't affect me one bit. I didn't even know who Eric Brown was until this game."
By the numbers
The Packers ran only 35 offensive plays in the loss, and 23 of those went for zero or negative yardage. Quarterback Jay Fiedler, who directed Jacksonville's 24-7 win over Cleveland after replacing the injured Mark Brunell, had thrown only eight career passes before Sunday. And quarterback Damon Huard, who replaced Marino in Miami's 31-30 win at New England, had thrown only nine. At 2-4, the Vikings are two games under .500 for the first time since 1995, when they started 3-5. In four previous 2-4 starts, the Vikings have never finished above .500. The Bengals are 1-5 for the third time in four years. Three other times this decade they've started 0-6. Teams with 100-yard receivers have won 62.3 percent of their games (33 of 53) this season. Teams with 100-yard rushers have won 65.6 percent of their games (21 of 32).
What would the Vikings give to get QB Brad Johnson back now? Randall Cunningham? Cunningham and Jeff George?
Will the Jets' terrible season encourage coach Bill Parcells to return in 2000 for another attempt to go out on top?
With so many teams desperate for quarterbacks, why doesn't someone give the Ravens a third-round pick for Tony Banks?
As toothless as the AFC West appears, the 2-4 Broncos have temporarily revived playoff hopes with a pounding of the Packers. After this week's game at New England, the Broncos have just two games against 1998 playoff teams the rest of the way.
The way to disrupt the Vikings' once-vaunted offense is to blitz Cunningham. The Lions chased him out of the game -- and his starting job -- with that strategy this week.
The better QB Damon Huard looks, the shorter Dan Marino's time in Miami gets. Jimmy Johnson will be quicker with the hook when Marino struggles now.
Who said parity is bad? After another round of nail-biters, the NFL is reveling in it this season. Six of 13 games Sunday were decided by three points or fewer.
For the season, that makes 33 of 85, or 38.8 percent. The NFL record is the 1997 season, when 67 of 240 games (27.9 percent) were decided by three points or fewer.