The Jets had made the playoffs in 1981, the first postseason appearance since the days of Joe Namath. One year later they took it one step further—the 1982 New York Jets won two playoff games and made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game to cap off a year where a players’ strike reduced the regular season to nine games.
Freeman McNeil, the 23-year-old running back, was the focal point of the offense. He won the rushing title with 786 yards and his 5.2 yards-per-attempt was also at the top of the league. McNeil made 1st-team All-Pro and should have received strong MVP consideration in a year that voters made the strange decision to give the award to Washington Redskins’ kicker Mark Moseley.
Wesley Walker gave the offense a deep threat and the speedy receiver caught 39 passes for 620 yards. The offensive line was anchored by two Pro Bowlers, right tackle Marvin Powell and center Joe Fields who was the best in the game.
It added up to a great support system for quarterback Richard Todd, and Todd responded with a solid season. His 59% completion rate and 7.5 yards-per-attempt were each Top 10 for NFL quarterbacks. His TD/INT ratio was 14-8, and his interception rate of was fourth in the league. The Jets’ offense, overseen by coordinator Joe Walton, was the third-best in the league in scoring.
The playoff run of 1981 was keyed the defensive front four, a group that got to the quarterback so frequently they were named The New York Sack Exchange. This unit slipped a bit in 1982, but defensive end Mark Gastineau still got six sacks.
In spite of not having any Pro Bowl talent, the defense—the specialty of head coach Walt Michaels—still ranked tenth in the NFL in points allowed.
In 1981, the Jets had been one of three AFC East teams to make the playoffs. They had lost a heartbreaker to Buffalo in the wild-card game, while Miami won the division. And the first game of 1982 would be a home date against the Dolphins in the late Sunday afternoon national TV window.
Todd connected to Walker on a 29-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and the game was tied 7-7. After that, the roof fell in. Todd threw three interceptions, two of them returned for touchdowns and they were down 45-14 before getting a couple garbage-time touchdowns to make the score deceptively respectable. Was this going to be the “same old Jets”?
A trip to New England to face a competitive, if not great, Patriots team was now a key test. McNeil ran for 106 yards, keying a 254-61 edge in rushing yardage. The only touchdown New York allowed was off a kickoff return and they got on track with a 31-7 win.
Just as they were on track, the players went out on strike and stayed away until the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving. The schedule was gutted. When they returned, it was decided that teams would play out the final seven games on their slates after which eight teams per conference would go to the playoffs. Since divisional schedules were a miss, those distinctions were abolished and it would simply be the top eight teams in the conference standings overall.
New York’s return game was against the Baltimore Colts, a division rival in these pre-2002 days. The Colts were awful and would only get a single tie game to show for 1982. The Jets crushed them 37-zip behind 123 yards from McNeill, who also caught a touchdown pass from Todd.
A tougher game against playoff-bound Green Bay awaited at home. Todd and counterpart Lynn Dickey each played reasonably well, but the Jets’ defense again shut down the running game. They led 15-13 after three quarters and hung on in a scoreless final period. Todd opened up in the following game, a Monday Night visit to mediocre Detroit. He and Walker hooked up on touchdown passes from 56 & 41 to open up a lead and then once more from 19 yards to seal the 28-13 win. Todd finished the game 23/32 for 384 yards.
The run of games against NFC teams continued with a home date against Tampa Bay, who had made the playoffs in 1981 and scraped in again this season. McNeil rushed for a couple early touchdowns, while the defense completely shut down the Bucs’ talented James Wilder. The final was 32-17. The Jets were 5-1 and all but assured a playoff berth with three weeks to left (there would be one 4-5 team that ended up qualifying in each conference).
Now it was time to aim for a higher seed, and another nationally televised game with Miami was on deck. This one was in the early window on a Saturday afternoon. The Jets played better this time, with Todd throwing a 22-yard touchdown pass to Walker and a 45-yard strike to Derrick Gaffney. But they missed an extra point in the process and only led 19-17 when Miami made one last drive and won it with a 47-yard field goal.
In a strange twist on a strange schedule year, all of the Jets’ games with NFC teams had remained intact, and they went to Minnesota the day after Christmas. The Vikings were a pretty good team, who would get to the second round of the playoffs. Linebacker Bobby Jackson had the day of his life. He blocked a field goal and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown that started the scoring. He intercepted a pass and brought it 71 yards to the house to end the scoring. The final was 42-14.
On the day after New Year’s, the Jets played poorly in Kansas City, losing 37-13. It was a costly loss in terms of seeding. It dropped them into a three-way tie for fourth. Because New York had played only five AFC games, they were in a bad position on tiebreakers. Instead of getting a home game, they got the 6-seed. Which meant a trip to Cincinnati, where the Bengals were 7-2, the defending AFC champs and a four-point favorite.
On a busy weekend with eight first-round games, meaning regionalized TV coverage for the only time in NFL playoff history, the Jets-Bengals kicked off in the early window on Sunday. The game started poorly for New York. Cincinnati quarterback Ken Anderson, the league’s MVP in 1981, threw a 32-yard touchdown strike to Isaac Curtis and another short TD pass. The Jets only got a field goal from Pat Leahy sandwiched in between and it was 14-3 after the first quarter.
A little trickery got New York rolling. Gaffney threw the ball of a reverse and found McNeil for a 14-yard touchdown pass. Cincinnati looked ready to respond with another touchdown drive, but defensive back Johnny Lynn intercepted Anderson on the goal line. The tide was turning.
Todd and Walker would be productive today, connecting eight times for 145 yards. One of them was a short touchdown pass that put the Jets on top in the second quarter and another Leahy field goal made it 20-14 at the half.
The teams swapped field goals in the third quarter and at 23-17, it looked like a dramatic fourth quarter was in store. Instead, New York blew the game open.
McNeill rumbled 20 yards for a touchdown. The Bengals again looked poised to respond, and again the Jets turned them back on the doorstep. This time it was defensive back Darroll Ray—he picked off Anderson on the two-yard line and 98 yards later was in the end zone. The game was all but over. Lynn finished with two interceptions, the Sack Exchange got to Anderson four times and one more tack-on touchdown made the final 44-17.
New York was the lowest-seeded team left in the AFC, so they went to Los Angeles to play the top-seeded Raiders in a game that was late Saturday afternoon on the East Coast. The Raiders were led by rookie running back Marcus Allen, who joined McNeil as a 1st-team All-Pro back.
This should have been a showdown between the two players who deserved to be the top two in the MVP voting. I’d have voted for Allen, who was a better receiver than McNeil, and a weak Raiders’ defense made them more offense-dependent. But today belonged to McNeil.
McNeil rushed for 101 yards, while Allen could only manage 36. The Jets built a 10-0 lead by halftime, keyed a 20-yard Todd-to-Walker touchdown pass and a field goal from Leahy. The Raiders got on the board in the third quarter and followed it up with a 7-yard touchdown pass by Raider quarterback Jim Plunkett. The Jets were facing a 14-10 deficit going into the fourth quarter.
New York wasn’t going anywhere though. The offense was moving the ball, and Walker had a strong day with seven catches for 169 yards. They mounted a drive and fullback Scott Dierking finished it off with a 1-yard touchdown run with 3:45 left.
Now it was time for linebacker Lance Mehl to be the closer. He intercepted Plunkett and appeared to lock the game up. McNeil then made his one big mistake and fumbled the ball back. No problem—Mehl intercepted Plunkett again and the 17-14 upset was in the books.
Round Three with Miami would settle the AFC Championship. Rain pounded the Orange Bowl and before and during the game, and the field was an absolute mess. The Jets were upset the Dolphins hadn’t put the tarp out, presumably to nullify New York’s more explosive offense. If that was the plan, it worked. Neither team could move the ball or take care of it—they combined for nine turnovers and 19 punts, but Miami’s running game & defense approach eventually churned out a 14-0 win.
The season should still have been a reason to celebrate. The Jets had not only advanced in the playoffs for the first time since the Namath era, they had beaten the AFC’s defending champs and #1 seed on the road. But the aftermath of the season would bring surprises.
Michaels resigned less than three weeks after the game, citing burnout, but with conspiracy theorists believing the Jets wanted to promote Walton. They did, and the team took a brief step back to 7-9 for a couple years before Walton got them back to the playoffs in 1985-86. But they never got as far as the AFC Championship Game and this was also Todd’s last real high point. In that regard, the inability to build off success, was “the same old Jets.”