Rivals take their war of words to the field in AFC divisional playoff.
By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2003
OAKLAND, Calif. -- It started so innocently, guard Dave Szott suggesting the Jets weren't beaten by the Raiders last month but merely ran out of time.
But then Oakland's Jerry Porter got outraged in response. And snippy cheap-shot accusations flew, topped by Oakland guard Frank Middleton tabbing the Jets the dirtiest team in the game, then questioning their playoff credentials and their intelligence. And an Oakland reserve popped off about special-teams play and a New York assistant called him out by stopping practice to read the damning quotes aloud. And even gentlemanly Tim Brown entered the swill, sniffing about how over time the Jets will be honored to have played against him.
If the action on the field today has half the vitriol and venom as the talk during the week, the Jets-Raiders AFC divisional playoff game should be a classic.
Born of an old AFL rivalry and a newfound dislike between the teams, fueled by a bored New York media corps and an ex-Buccaneer (Middleton) who will say just about anything to get his name in the paper, the buildup to this west side story has been good theater, enough that it could just as well be the Jets and the Sharks rather than the Jets and Raiders.
Basically, it's been a matter of (large, macho and occasionally maniacal) boys being boys, which actually is a good thing, considering Jets coach Herman Edwards said: "I don't want our team to play like a bunch of Girl Scouts."
Kickoff -- if they can wait -- is at 4:30.
What little that's not in dispute is that this is a marquee matchup between two of the hottest teams, the back-from-the-brink Jets and the there's-life-after-Gruden Raiders. There's the old pro (and All-Pro) quarterback for Oakland, Rich Gannon, and the Jets' young gun, Broadway Chad Pennington. There's the mystique of the Raiders and their weekend-on-parole Black Hole fans versus the big-market arrogance of the Jets, who dodge thrown batteries and claim to enjoy the animosity. And there's history, this being the fourth game between the teams, all in Oakland, in a 53-week span.
"They know us, we know them," Edwards said. "It makes for drama."
If the contempt is bred from familiarity, it started last season, when the Jets beat the Raiders in the final week to make the playoffs, but the Raiders won when it counted more, eliminating New York six days later. The Raiders won again last month 26-20, the Jets complaining about everything, including the length of the ceremony for Brown's 1,000th career catch. ("That's something they're probably upset about now," he said, "but five, 10 years from now they'll be telling their kids and grandkids about it.")
Szott seemed to be merely restating the obvious, that the Jets were driving for a score when time expired, but the Raiders, seeking some motivation after a lulling bye week, instantly went on an offensive defensive.
"Have you seen this s---?" Porter said, directing a TV crew to the bulletin board. "I mean, check this. Look at it. That little quote right there. Ran out of time. ... What the hell is that?"
Jets defensive tackle Josh Evans regurgitated month-old complaints that Middleton took cheap shots, then added that Middleton isn't "a good enough player to beat you in a competitive way."
Middleton, his 334-pound frame stuffed into a "60 Minutes of Hell" T-shirt, didn't exactly back off: "I'll be there on Sunday. If he didn't like it then, he's sure not going to like it now."
He was just warming up. By the end of the week, he suggested New York center Kevin Mawae was the dirtiest player in the game, shrugged at the matchup ("This is the game I wanted. I was rooting for Cleveland to lose.") and the Jets' playoff win over Indianapolis ("I'm not impressed with what they did to the Colts. I don't think the Colts should have been in the playoffs.").
Just when the coaches tried to quiet things, Raiders reserve Brandon Jennings trashed New York's special teams ("We whipped their a----") and Jets assistant Mike Westhoff made sure his troops knew about it. "I don't even know who (Jennings) is," Jets kick returner Chad Morton said.
Now, the Jets are trying to diminish the homefield advantage (despite being 1-4 there since the Raiders' return to Oakland), with Pennington saying, "It's like our home away from home. We really enjoy playing in that atmosphere."
Come on out, Porter said. "If they want to keep traveling 2,500 miles to come get this a-- whipping, let 'em."
-- Information from the New York Daily News and San Francisco Chronicle was used in this report.