January 9, 2010

1983: Jets Surge Past Bengals Behind McNeil’s 202 Rushing Yards

The strike-shortened 1982 NFL season resulted in a restructuring of the playoff format. The divisional alignments were cast aside and the top eight teams in each conference qualified for a postseason Super Bowl tournament. There were eight first round games (four per conference) with one of them matching the New York Jets against the Cincinnati Bengals at Riverfront Stadium on January 9, 1983.

The Bengals were the defending AFC champions and had finished with a 7-2 record in the truncated schedule, good enough for third place in the conference. Under Head Coach Forrest Gregg, the offense was directed by QB Ken Anderson (pictured below right), who led the NFL in passing (95.3) while setting a new record for completion percentage (70.6). The running game was powered by FB Pete Johnson, who had 622 yards, while the top pass receivers were WR Cris Collinsworth and TE Dan Ross.

The visiting Jets were one of three teams to finish 6-3 in the AFC, and with tiebreakers applied qualified as the sixth-ranked team in the tournament. A more physical team under Head Coach Walt Michaels, they had the league’s leading rusher in RB Freeman McNeil with 786 yards, who also had the best rushing average (5.2). QB Richard Todd was the AFC’s third ranked passer, with deep threat WR Wesley Walker his favorite target. The defensive line, known as “The New York Sack Exchange”, was formidable.

In the first quarter, the defending conference champions jumped out to the lead. Anderson threw two touchdown passes, the first of 32 yards to veteran WR Isaac Curtis and the second a short throw of two yards to Ross. In between, the Jets had mustered a 33-yard field goal from Pat Leahy, but it was 14-3 in favor of the Bengals.

However, the momentum shifted to the Jets in the second quarter. First, it was McNeil throwing for a TD on an option pass to WR Derrick Gaffney that covered 14 yards. The Bengals moved back downfield, but in one of the key plays of the game, Jets CB Johnny Lynn intercepted an Anderson pass at the one yard line. Not only did the interception prevent a possible score by Cincinnati, but the Jets then marched 85 yards down the field, with Todd throwing a four-yard scoring pass to Walker that gave New York a 17-14 lead.

Leahy kicked another field goal, from 24 yards out, before the half was over, and New York extended the margin to 20-14 at the intermission. The game stayed close through the third quarter, with the teams trading field goals to keep the Jets ahead by six points at 23-17.

McNeil scored on a 20-yard run in the fourth quarter, but the Bengals drove the ball downfield and seemed poised to score when, for the second time, the Jets picked off a pass by Anderson deep in their own territory. This time it was safety Darrol Ray snagging the ball at the two yard line and returning it 98 yards for a touchdown. For all intents and purposes, the game was over.

New York scored one more touchdown, on a one-yard run by RB Dwayne Crutchfield, and the final score was 44-17.

Freeman McNeil was the headliner for the Jets, rushing for 202 yards on 21 carries with a TD, plus the one scoring throw. Richard Todd completed 20 of 28 passes for 269 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Wesley Walker was the top receiver with 8 catches for 145 yards and a score.

Ken Anderson, who was sacked four times and pressured on many more occasions, completed 26 of his 35 passes for 354 yards with two touchdowns, but also three interceptions. Cris Collinsworth caught 7 passes for 120 yards to lead the team, while Dan Ross was right behind at 6 receptions for 89 yards and a TD. The running game was inconsequential, as the team ran just 21 times for 62 yards on the day; Pete Johnson led the way with 26 yards on 9 carries.

The Jets made a good run into the playoffs, winning their second round game over the Raiders but coming up short in the AFC Championship game at Miami. Coach Michaels left after the season, and the team slumped in ’83. Cincinnati also dropped off after the two strong years in 1981 and ’82; they didn’t return to the postseason until 1988. Freeman McNeil played until 1992 and retired as the all-time leading rusher for the Jets (since passed by Curtis Martin) with 8074 yards.