For a split second, just after he'd released the most important pass of his five-year NFL career, even Chad Pennington doubted his arm strength. With the ball traveling some 60 yards toward the end zone, the New York Jets quarterback wondered if the pass had enough juice to reach speedy wideout Santana Moss, who was running a skinny post between two San Diego Chargers defensive backs in the third quarter of last Saturday's AFC wild-card playoff. "I thought, Oh, man, I hope I threw it far enough," Pennington said later. "I thought it would either be tipped or intercepted. I could tell by the way the safety [Jerry Wilson] played it that he was surprised I threw it."
Wilson was not alone. Most of the rain-soaked 67,536 fans at Qualcomm Stadium--and anyone who'd read the New York papers or watched NFL-related TV programming over the past month--knew the rap on Pennington was his passing arm, which had been weakened by a strained rotator cuff suffered in a Nov. 7 loss to the Buffalo Bills. Yet here he was, on the Jets' first drive of the second half of a 7-7 game, doing his best Dan Fouts impersonation.
After Moss cradled Pennington's longest touchdown pass of the season, officially a 47-yarder past the outstretched arms of cornerback Quentin Jammer, the triumphant quarterback turned to New York's sideline and flexed his left (nonthrowing) arm. "You know what that was," Pennington said later of his gesture, a Popeye-style dig at his critics. New York never trailed after that, though San Diego tied the game at 17 with 11 seconds to play and the Jets needed Doug Brien's 28-yard field goal in overtime to win their first road playoff game in 22 years, 20-17. Next up for New York is a meeting on Saturday with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In winning a stirring quarterback duel with the Chargers' Drew Brees, Pennington (23 of 33, 279 yards, two touchdowns) drew on his previous playoff experience, in particular a 30-10 divisional-round loss to the Oakland Raiders two years ago in which he threw two interceptions. In that game Pennington played like Martin Lawrence on a Mountain Dew binge; this time he was coolheaded. After arriving at the team's hotel last Thursday, New York coach Herm Edwards could see it coming, saying, "You watch--Chad's going to come up big. He's been through this before, and that's going to give him an edge."
Call it the cutting edge: As Edwards spoke, Pennington was at a San Diego hair salon, honoring an appointment made by his wife, Robin. "His mullet was getting out of control," said tight end Anthony Becht, Pennington's road roommate, whose 13-yard touchdown catch had tied the game 2:54 before halftime.
With San Diego trailing 17-7, it was fitting that Brees, the NFL Comeback Player of the Year, rallied the Chargers with two fourth-quarter drives. His incompletion on fourth-and-goal with 16 seconds left appeared to give the Jets the win in regulation, but linebacker Eric Barton was flagged for delivering a forearm to Brees's head. Brees made good on his second chance, throwing a one-yard scoring pass to tight end Antonio Gates.
"Don't worry, I've got your back," Pennington told Barton, but it was the Chargers who had the first shot at victory in overtime. They failed to capitalize, though, when rookie Nate Kaeding's 40-yard field goal attempt went wide right. Pennington seized the moment, completing passes of 18 yards to Moss and 11 yards to wideout Justin McCareins that helped set up Brien's game-winner.
"Chad's a great quarterback," Brees said as he left Qualcomm. "He's taken a lot of undeserved criticism from a lot of people. This will shut 'em up." --Michael Silver
DR. Z'S FORECAST: JETS vs. STEELERS
THE MOST UNDERRATED unit on the Jets is the front seven, who hung in against the Chargers. They were on the field for 77 plays, but they should be O.K. because they're young. I like what New York is doing offensively, working Curtis Martin hard, then coming in with the slammer, LaMont Jordan. But the Steelers have enough weapons to win even if rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger has an off day, and this is their season. Pittsburgh in a tight one.