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To stop getting its stuffing kicked out, a pro football team must first cease being a turkey. Based on this old Pilgrim adage, not to mention past performance, the New England Patriots had only two small things to do on the weekend before Thanksgiving to end their imitation of the bird of their forefathers.
1) Despite their 7-3 record they had to show they were for real.
2) They had to demonstrate total mastery of the meek New York Jets, whom they had beaten soundly earlier in the year, 41-7, but who had knocked them off in 17 of their previous 19 meetings.
Indeed, the Patriots had to struggle back from a quick 10-0 deficit to beat the Jets 38-24 last Sunday, thereby improving their record to 8-3 and practically assuring them a playoff berth for the first time in their NFL history. Fumbles on New England's first two series led to a field goal and a touchdown for the Jets. But the turnover bug was infecting everyone on the Shea Stadium field, where the Patriots had won only a single game in the past 10 years. The Patriots gave up the ball three times—twice on fumbles, once on an interception—while the Jets had 10 giveaways—seven by interceptions, three by fumbles. It was not a well-played game, but it was definitely exciting.
New England Linebacker Sam Hunt picked up the first Jet fumble. Then Don Calhoun—who rushed for 141 yards when he came in for the injured Sam (Bam) Cunningham against Baltimore the week before and was to add 109 against the Jets this day—helped move the ball to the New York 15. Quarterback Steve Grogan passed to Running Back Andy Johnson for the touchdown. The second New York bobble was picked up by Safety Prentice McCray, and this time Grogan hit Wide Receiver Darryl Stingley for a 14-10 lead. With Joe Namath moving the New Yorkers nicely, when he wasn't throwing five passes to various Pats, the Jets were far from collapsing. But then McCray snitched a Namath-to-Rich Caster pass and galloped 63 yards for a 21-10 New England lead. Safe one moment, burned the next, as they say. With 2:45 left in the first half, Greg Buttle, the Jets' tough rookie linebacker, intercepted a Grogan pass. Namath sent his newly returned "favorite target," Jerome Barkum, over Mike Haynes deep into the left corner of the end zone, and New York was in sight at 21-17.
Someone must have said something to Haynes, the super rookie from Arizona State, in the locker room at halftime, for no sooner had he come back out than he stalled another Namath drive with an end-zone interception. McCray struck again moments later, intercepting still another Namath pass and running it back 55 yards for yet another' score—and a 28-17 lead. McCray, a third-year man from Arizona State, where he played alongside Haynes one season, hadn't scored a touchdown as a pro until this game, and now he had two.
In the fourth period Linebacker Steve Zabel recovered a Jet fumble, and Grogan went to work. A pass to Wide Receiver Randy Vataha on third and four brought the ball to the New York six. Three plays later, Grogan threw to a teammate with the number 58 on his back. An interior lineman? Yes and no. Pete Brock is a center, but he doubles as the second tight end on short yardage downs. Brock caught the ball all alone in the end zone, his first touchdown since high school. His teammates now call him "Deep Threat."
By then the turnovers had blended into a blur, but New England added a field goal after an interception by another fine rookie back, Tim Fox, and the Jets—with Richard Todd at quarterback—scored again, this time on a pass to rookie Running Back Clark Gaines. But Haynes grabbed his third interception, and the whole wild mess was over. The Patriot fans back home could hardly believe it. The Patriots have always been fairly unbelievable, and usually overlooked, in sports-minded Boston, home of the revered Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox. Not since 1963, when they were the Boston Patriots, have they managed a first-place finish, winning the old AFL's Eastern Division title in a playoff against Buffalo after an undistinguished 7-6-1 season. Even then, the glory was quickly tarnished as San Diego went on to take the AFL championship 51-10. In fact, until this year, the Patriots had not had a winning season in nine years.
So Patriot fans were wary again this fall, and it wasn't until the win over the Jets, on top of the previous Sunday's 21-14 upset of the Baltimore Colts, leaders of the AFC Eastern Division, that playoff talk heated up in New England. The air had been a little rarefied around Foxboro all week as fans tried to figure out the NFL's baffling system for deciding wild-card playoff berths, particularly those regulations that apply to tie-breakers. Local newspapermen began their explanations with such mind-benders as: "If we beat Denver, but lose to New Orleans and end up 10-4, and Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Denver end up 10-4—of course it depends on in-conference losses...." and then trailed off. As one writer sighed, "It's all a mirage anyway."
Not so. The Patriots are for real. Just how real—Super Bowl real?—remains to be seen. But for the future, they have to be contended with. They are indeed contenders.