HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- The sound told Kyle Clifton what he didn't want to hear. He was expecting cheers because, after all, this was a home game and he had just leveled Warren Moon, ostensibly halting a Houston Oilers drive at a critical stage of the fourth quarter. It was the kind of defensive play, he thought, that might enable the New York Jets to overcome a 16-13 deficit.
"We had a blitz called," the middle linebacker said Thursday, "and I came free. I hit him just as he was releasing the ball. I thought it was a sack or, at worst, the ball would pop straight up in the air."
But the reaction of the Giants Stadium crowd on that mid-October afternoon told him something had gone amiss. "I heard sighs," Clifton said. And Moon, the Oilers' perennial Pro Bowl quarterback, kicked up his heels as he lay on his back in celebration of a stunning 37-yard touchdown pass to Drew Hill.
Clifton shook his head at the memory Thursday as the Jets prepared for their first NFL playoff appearance in five years. To beat the Oilers in the Astrodome Sunday, the New York defense will have to be a step quicker and a lot more opportunistic than it was 11 weeks ago at the Meadowlands. But how can you stop a quarterback who is so quick on the draw?
"We executed perfectly," Clifton said. "I had to loop [outside], but nobody touched me. Yet [Moon] hung in there and made a great throw." The defender said he didn't fully appreciate the artistry until he viewed the films the following day.
Dennis Byrd, the defensive tackle, had a better view of the play that clinched a 23-20 Houston victory. It's something he has come to expect from quarterbacks of Moon's caliber. "That's why they're paid millions of dollars," he said, "and I'm paid like a car salesman."
The Jets managed only one sack of Moon in their previous meeting this season. It was credited to linebacker Mo Lewis. Only one defensive lineman, right end Jeff Lageman, spent any time in the quarterback's company and that occurred after Moon threw one of his two interceptions.
Lageman took the occasion to lay a crunching block on the passer, who was as inviting a target as any of his receivers. Moon lectured the third-year Jet on professional courtesies. "I said the game didn't have to be played that way," the quarterback said.
Both the defender, who said that the action was within the rules, and Moon agreed there would be no carry-over. "We apologized to each other after the game was over," the quarterback said Thursday.
If the Jets have nothing to apologize for after Sunday's second meeting, the likelihood is that the local football season will be history. It behooves the visitors to disrupt Houston's run-and-shoot offense by any and all means. The Jets certainly can't expect to advance simply on talent. They will have no representatives on the American Football Conference squad in the Pro Bowl; the Oilers will have eight.
"I heard the uniforms they [the AFC Pro Bowlers] are going to wear are a mixture of Oilers and Bills," Byrd said. Buffalo also had eight players selected to the squad. Fittingly, should the Jets triumph tomorrow, their next opponent would be the Bills.
But that's getting ahead of the story. First, they have to overcome the Oilers on the fast indoor track where the home team has been lethal. Back in October, Moon completed 35 passes (a career high he since has exceeded) and burned the Jets for 423 yards.
"They're going to get a lot of yards on us, no doubt about it," Lageman said. "You've got to come to the realization he's going to throw 45-50 times a game. It's a quick-step offense. You've got to realize you're not going to get the statistics you want, such as sacks. You have to disrupt his rhythm and you can't give him the big plays."
The clinching pass to Hill certainly fell into that category. Yet, defensive coordinator Pete Carroll was pleased with the effort in that first game.