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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / 1982 New York Jets: A Muddy field away from the Super Bowl

1982 New York Jets: A Muddy field away from the Super Bowl

Publish Date: 09/06/2023
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

1982 Jets

In 1981, the New York Jets came out of nowhere to qualify for the playoffs. They came up short in the Wild Card game against the Buffalo Bills, but the future looked bright in the Big Apple.

Video: 1981 New York Jets Team Season Highlights

1981 New York Jets Team Season Highlights “Talk Of The Town”

Freeman McNeil, then 23-year-old running back, was at the heart of their offense and earned 786 yards rushing and led the league with an astounding 5.2 average yards-per-attempt figure. McNeil received 1st team All-Pro honors as well as MVP consideration; unfortunately, voters decided otherwise and gave that award instead to Washington Redskins’ kicker Mark Moseley instead. Remember 1982 was a strike-shortened season of nine games.

Video: 1982 New York Jets Team Season Highlights

1982 New York Jets Team Season Highlights “The Road Warriors”

Wesley Walker provided offense with a potent deep threat, collecting 39 passes for 620 yards in just four games. Two Pro Bowlers on the offensive line provided stability – right tackle Marvin Powell was named right tackle, while center Joe Fields proved himself as the star performer in game one.

As a result, quarterback Richard Todd enjoyed an outstanding year. His 59% completion rate and 7.5 yards-per-attempt were top 10 among NFL quarterbacks; his TD/INT ratio of 14-8 and interception rate were top 4. Joe Walton led an outstanding Jets offense, ranking third overall in terms of scoring.

1981’s playoff run was led by an outstanding defensive front four, known as The New York Sack Exchange, for their regularity in getting to the quarterback. Although their performance decreased slightly in 1982, defensive end Mark Gastineau still recorded six sacks!

Head coach Walt Michaels led an exceptional unit that finished 10th in points allowed per game.

In 1981, the Jets had been one of three AFC East teams to make the playoffs and had narrowly lost in a heartbreaker to Buffalo in their wild-card match-up; Miami took home division honors instead, and their inaugural home game of 1982 would come against them in late Sunday afternoon national TV time slot.

Todd connected with Walker on a 29-yard touchdown pass early in the first quarter, tying up the game at 7-7. However, that quickly changed; Todd then threw three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns by opponents, leading them into an overwhelming 45-14 deficit before getting some late touchdowns that made their score deceptively respectable despite Todd’s mistakes. Was this just “more of the same old Jets?”

A critical test was now in store: traveling to New England against a competitive but less-than-stellar Patriots team was upon them. McNeil ran for 106 yards, keying New York’s 254-61 edge in rushing yardage and scoring their only touchdown on a kickoff return; New York returned home victorious 31-7.

As soon as they were on track, players went out on strike and did not return until a week prior to Thanksgiving. Their schedule had been completely overhauled when they returned; when teams started playing again, it was decided that eight teams from each conference would qualify for the playoffs.

New York faced its division rival, the Baltimore Colts. This awful team would only manage one win – as evidenced by McNeill gaining 123 yards and receiving a touchdown pass from Todd. New York crushed this match-up 37-0 behind this impressive performance by McNeill, who also caught one from Todd.

Todd faced off against playoff-bound Green Bay at home next, with Lynn Dickey playing well against their respective defenses. Still, the Jets were shut out from running the ball at will and leading 15-13 after three quarters before holding on in an intense, scoreless fourth period. Next came an inconsequential Monday Night visit to Detroit; Todd connected with Walker on touchdown passes from 56 and 41 yards to open up a lead before closing it out for another 28-13 victory – finishing 23/32 for 384 yards overall!

Home games against NFC teams continued as Tampa Bay came to New York when McNeil rushed for two early touchdowns while their defense shut out James Wilder. It ended 32-17. By now, the Jets had reached 5-1 record and almost guaranteed their playoff berth.

It was time to shoot for a higher seed, with another nationally-televised matchup against Miami scheduled. This one fell early on a Saturday afternoon, and Todd delivered a better performance this time with touchdown passes of 22 yards to Walker and 45 yards to Derrick Gaffney before missing an extra point and falling 19-17 short when Miami made one final drive and secured their victory via a 47-yard field goal.

At some point in 1982, all of the Jets’ games with NFC teams had somehow managed to remain intact on their schedule; they traveled to Minnesota the day after Christmas against a strong Vikings squad which would advance all the way to round 2 of the playoffs. Linebacker Bobby Jackson had an extraordinary day – blocking a field goal and returning it 80 yards for a touchdown to kickoff scoring before intercepting and returning an interception 71 yards back home for another score – ultimately helping lead his team to an easy 42-14 victory!

On the day after New Year’s, the Jets lost to Kansas City 37-13, a setback which cost them dearly in seeding: they fell into a three-way tie for fourth. Because New York had only played five AFC games thus far, tiebreakers ruled against them: instead of getting home-field advantage they received the 6-seed and had to travel all the way out to Cincinnati where the Bengals – the defending AFC champs with a 7-2 record and four point favorite. First-round NFL playoff weekend featuring eight first-round games requiring regionalized television coverage for the first time, New York Jets-Bengals opened play early Sunday. Cincinnati quarterback Ken Anderson, MVP in 1981, quickly put New York behind as Cincinnati had two touchdown strikes from Ken Anderson that reached Isaac Curtis: 32-yard strike followed by a short touchdown pass to give them 14-3 lead after one quarter.

Gaffney used some deception to jump-start New York. After throwing on the reverse and connecting with McNeil for a 14-yard touchdown pass, Cincinnati appeared ready to respond with another drive – until defensive back Johnny Lynn intercepted Anderson at goalline level and turned the tide in New York’s favor.

Todd and Walker would connect eight times for 145 yards today, including a touchdown pass to put the Jets ahead early in the second quarter, followed by another Leahy field goal that put their side ahead 20-14 at half time.

At 23-17, both teams exchanged field goals in the third quarter. But then New York stormed ahead. In an explosive fourth-quarter performance that broke open the game completely.

McNeill ran 20 yards for a touchdown to give the Jets an early advantage, which they quickly exploited when looking poised to respond with another offensive drive by Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson and receiver Collinsworth looked to response but an interception at the two-yard line by Darroll Ray broke the Bengals back as Ray went 98 yards for the pick-six, ending the game. Lynn finished with two interceptions while Sack Exchange hit Anderson four times; adding one last touchdown made the score 44-17 final scoreboard readings.

New York was the lowest seed left in the AFC, so they traveled to Los Angeles for a game late Saturday afternoon on the East Coast against the top-seeded Raiders led by rookie running back Marcus Allen, who joined McNeil as first-team All-Pro backs.

This should have been a battle between two players who truly deserved to be MVP nominees, Allen being my choice given his superior receiving skills compared to McNeil, Yet today belonged to McNeil.

McNeil ran for 101 yards, while Allen could only muster 36. By halftime, the Jets held a 10-0 advantage thanks to a 20-yard Todd-to-Walker touchdown pass and a field goal by Leahy. But in the third quarter, Jim Plunkett of Raiders scored on a-yard touchdown pass, putting them ahead 14-10 for the climatic fourth quarter.

New York wasn’t going anywhere, though. Their offense was moving the ball along quickly, with Walker having an outstanding day with seven catches for 169 yards and leading a drive which led to fullback Scott Dierking scoring with 3:45 remaining on their clock with a 1-yard touchdown run.

Lance Mehl took up the torch as the closer, intercepting Plunkett to seal the game, and the Jets were victorious in a 17-14 upset victory for McNeil’s squad. McNeil, however, made one major misstep by fumbling back the ball. No problem–Lance Mehl intercepted Plunkett once more to seal their victory!



Round Three between Miami and New York would decide the AFC Championship. Unfortunately, rain poured on Orange Bowl before and during the game, rendering the field an absolute mess. New York was upset the Dolphins hadn’t used tarp as planned to keep New York’s more powerful offense at bay – their plan may have worked; neither team was able to move the ball or keep control of it, thus leading to nine turnovers and 19 punts combined but Miami eventually pulled off a 14-0 victory!

The Jets had much reason for celebration at this point in their season; not only had they advanced in the playoffs for the first time since the Namath era, but they had even defeated AFC defending champs and the #1 seed on the road! Yet, what followed would prove surprising.

Michaels abruptly resigned shortly after the game, citing burnout but with conspiracy theorists believing the Jets wanted Walton in charge. They did, and after two seasons at 7-9 under Walton they made it back to the playoffs in 1985-86 – however, never reaching the AFC Championship Game, this was Todd’s last real high point.

Video: NY Jets 1982 Playoff Wins Highlights

NY Jets 1982 Playoff Wins Highlights

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