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Jets lost the game, but won the city

Dustin Keller #81 of the New York Jets

Dustin Keller #81 of the New York Jets celebrates his touchdown in the second quarter with teammate Jerricho Cotchery #89. (January 24, 2010) Credit: Getty Images

History was all ready for another surprise. It would have been quite cool to have seen the Jets return to Miami and the Super Bowl for the first time since the pregame festivities consisted of an 8-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty rolling along on a flatbed truck.

History would have been well served if the Jets finally had revisited the event that they essentially created. Their galvanizing win over the Colts in Super Bowl III helped convert the game from a kitschy postseason get-together into a lavish spectacle and de facto national holiday. As John Schmitt, the center on the Jets team in 1969, says, it has been like going from a covered wagon to a trip to the moon.

For about 29 minutes Sunday, the Jets were close enough to taste it. Another upset of the Colts and a return to the Super Bowl seemed right there for the taking, until that touchdown drive near the end of the first half. Oh well. As it was, the Jets lost the AFC Championship but won New York, which is pretty darn good.

The Jets finally owned New York for the past four weeks. They were the lead story on the TV news, they were on the front pages of the newspapers and they were all over talk radio. This is no small achievement for a franchise that almost never is king of the hill, top of the heap.

Face it, if you ranked all nine New York-area major sports teams for cachet or Q Factor, the Jets normally would be fifth. They are surely behind the Yankees, Giants and Mets and probably behind the Knicks. The Jets are the ones who have been playing home games in a stadium named for another team. The Jets are the franchise that never has been able to get out of its own way or out from under its own leaden karma.

They have the longest champagne drought around here (and the 1969 triumph was so unexpected that they didn't even have their own champagne; Emerson Boozer said at a reunion last year that they had to borrow bottles from the Colts). Since Joe Namath ran off the field in Miami, raising his index finger, the Yankees have won seven titles, the Islanders four, the Giants and Devils three apiece, the Mets and Knicks two each, the Nets two in the ABA and the Rangers one. Zero for the Jets.

So the recent burst of joy for Jets fans has itself been historic. It was liberating for the team and its followers to know how the Yankees feel: A pep rally in Times Square, team colors bathing the top of the Empire State Building, the wacky excesses that come from a run toward a championship. So what that the bet between the cities' mayors is incredibly hackneyed? Big deal that Channel 2 sent a news reporter out days early to give us the breathless missive that there were more Colts fans than Jets fans in Indianapolis. That's the common brew in sports today. Good for the Jets and their fans to finally drink from that cup.

The Jets are the talk of the town in a way they have not been at least since the days of the Sack Exchange, probably not since Super Bowl III and maybe never. Back then, there wasn't the same intensity of coverage or the pent up emotion. In terms of sheer volume of attention and affection, the Jets might very well be at their peak.

These Jets struck a chord because of their amazing, controversial turnaround down the stretch. Their own coach thought they had no shot at the postseason, then the Colts and Bengals raised eyebrows by opening the door for them, then the Jets became a monster that seemingly no one could contain.

This team also raised spirits because it has a likeable, resourceful coach, Rex Ryan, and a dynamic rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez. Honestly, isn't pro football all about the coach and the quarterback?

Most of all, these Jets have people excited because they imply that "J-E-T-S" does not spell "doom." There is legitimate hope for the team's own transformation-maybe not from a covered wagon to a moon excursion, but at least from fatalism to hope.

Fans sense that this is more than the trip to the AFC Championship Game led by an aging Vinny Testaverde and transient hired gun Bill Parcells. There is genuine promise in Sanchez and Ryan (whom the old Jets love because he's the son of Buddy, one of Weeb Ewbank's coaches at Super Bowl III and because he's not Eric Mangini).

There is a liberating feeling that the Jets are getting it right this time. These are not the stumbling Jets who always find a way to get victimized by a fake spike or a wet field; the Jets who watch Bill Belichick make a bizarre, rambling resignation; the Jets who fall short in a dream of building a stadium in Manhattan; the Jets who hire Rich Kotite; the Jets who bet the house on Brett Favre and lose.

Even the most pessimistic follower can't chalk Sunday's loss up to the inevitable failure that's always around the next Jets corner. Sunday was a good effort that was stopped by a great quarterback. Peyton Manning did to them what Johnny Unitas of the Colts did to the Giants in 1958. No shame there.

Sanchez might not ever be quite that good, but it is not too much of a stretch to envision him performing a Manning-like ending someday.

This might not happen overnight. Don't despair if next year isn't as seamless as it might seem right now. The Jets won't have the element of surprise going for them any longer. But they will have new stature. They won't be tenants in Giants Stadium. They will be equal partners in a grand facility. With new technology and the press of a button, the façade will be all green on Jets home games.

And, from the looks of things today, the whole New York area will be a lot greener as well.

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