The press box at Cleveland Stadium was so warm that it was almost suffocating. When Jets running back Freeman McNeil broke a 25-yard run for a touchdown with 4:14 left in an AFC divisional-round playoff game after the 1986 season, it gave the Jets a 20-10 lead over the Browns, and it seemed as if they were well on their way to the AFC Championship Game in Denver.
But that’s not how it worked out. I would spend more than an hour standing in the snow. I left my overcoat behind because we would be in the locker room in a short time. I was wearing just a tweed sports jacket and standing in the dirty snow behind the end zone at the opposite end from Lake Erie.
But this game turned into a microcosm of the Jets’ season. Quarterback Ken O’Brien was brilliant in a 51-45 overtime win over the Dolphins and Dan Marino to start a nine-game winning streak that carried the Jets to a 10-1 record. But O’Brien fell apart in a five-game losing streak at the end of the season and was replaced by Pat Ryan, who led a first-round playoff win over the Chiefs. Ryan was hurt in the second quarter of the playoff game at Cleveland after throwing a touchdown pass in the first quarter and O’Brien took over with the score tied at 7.
After McNeil’s TD, the Browns faced second-and-24 at their 18 late in the fourth quarter, and Bernie Kosar threw an incompletion. But Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau, who always rushed the quarterback no matter the cost to the defense, hit Kosar and was called for roughing the passer. That first down sustained what turned into a TD drive that made the score 20-17.
When the Jets recovered an onsides kick at the Browns’ 45-yard line with 1:57 left, it still seemed the game was over. But coach Joe Walton called three running plays that lost three yards, and the Jets punted. The first one went to the Browns’ 7-yard line, but a holding penalty on Marion Barber forced a do-over, and the Browns started at their 33 with 51 seconds left. Jets cornerback Russell Carter dropped a potential end zone interception in the final seconds of regulation before Mark Moseley’s 22-yard field goal sent the game to overtime.
Moseley missed kicks of 23 yards in overtime and 43 yards in regulation but hit a game-winning 27-yarder with 2:02 gone in the second OT to end the third-longest game in NFL playoff history. Browns 23, Jets 20.
I’ve never visited a more grim locker room. Jets defenders played close to 100 plays and were totally exhausted.
“We had it in our hands, and we dropped it,’’ offensive lineman Dan Alexander said. “I don’t know how or why.”
This scene opened my book “Nose to Nose,” the only book I ever have authored, and it foretold the breakdown of that Jets team under Walton.