ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Fifteen minutes after the New York Jets' historic victory yesterday over the Buffalo Bills -- a division-clinching win that took 29 years to script -- Bill Parcells stood before his delirious players and started to deliver the speech his nine predecessors never got to make.
Just one problem: Parcells -- the big, bad and brilliant coach who rescued the Jets from oblivion two years ago -- couldn't get the words out. He choked up, pausing for almost two minutes. The awkward and emotional silence caused many players to fight back their own tears.
"That's all I remember -- the pause," cornerback Ray Mickens said after the Jets' 17-10 win at a damp and gray Ralph Wilson Stadium. "It sent chills through my body to see him like that, because he's always a tough SOB."
AFC East champions.
Still can't believe it? Well, it said so on the green caps that were distributed in the locker room. Mo Lewis, the longest tenured Jet -- a polite description for the player who suffered the most -- held up his cap and stared longingly at it.
"God, doesn't that look good? That's a pretty sight," Lewis said. "I might wear this for a whole week. After 3-13 and 1-15. I've seen my prayers answered."
Pass the stain remover; it's time to clean the Jets' reputation. They no longer have to live with the indignity of being the only non-expansion team since the 1970 merger not to capture a division title. Their last division title came in the AFL, 1969, when Joe Namath was throwing to Don Maynard.
"I think we deserve it, we really do," Parcells said after toweling off from his ice-water bath. "I'm not gloating at all, but beating those teams on the road, it means we deserve the championship."
In the span of six days, the Jets (11-4) defeated Miami and Bills on enemy turf.
Fittingly, it was Vinny Testaverde, who should be the comeback player of the year, winning it for the Jets with a quick-strike 71-yard touchdown pass to Dedric Ward.
That gave the Jets a 17-10 lead with 2: 15 left in the third quarter, and the defense stuffed Doug Flutie & Co. on their final four possessions. The biggest play was Victor Green's interception at his 17 with 3: 52 remaining, a pass that ricocheted off the hands of receiver Kevin Williams.
"Tight coverage and getting up in his face," said Lewis, explaining how the defense made Flutie look very small again. "We used different looks and kept him off-balance."
Flutie (14-for-38, 220 yards) was misfiring all day, seemingly confused. Even his touchdown pass -- a 25-yard screen to Thurman Thomas -- was less than artistic. He lofted the ball just as a hard-charging Bryan Cox was about to turn him into a hashmark.
The Jets, who have won 11 of their last 12 games, can lock up the No. 2 seed in the playoffs tonight if Jacksonville loses to favored Minnesota. The second seed would mean a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the divisional round.
"I'm going to be the biggest sports fan in the world, rooting like hell for Minnesota," said Keyshawn Johnson, who caught seven passes for 66 yards.
Former Towson State star David Meggett, who didn't join the Jets until last Tuesday, made an impact on the team's opening drive, reeling off an 18-yard gain on a second-down draw play.
"It's like riding a bike," Meggett, who had been rehabilitating a broken foot for 10 months, said of his comeback, which included two punt returns. "Bill does a real good job of spotting plays for me. He knows how far I can go and what I can do. I had a lot of gas in my tank today."
The Bills (9-6), who needed a win to clinch a playoff berth, beat the Jets on the stat sheet, outgaining them 366-269.
The Jets also struggled on offense, with Testaverde (14-for-23, 184 yards) under pressure at times. But he made two big throws, a 7-yard touchdown pass to Wayne Chrebet on the opening drive and the bomb to Ward.
Then they partied.
"Damn, 1-15 to this," Johnson thought to himself as time expired. "Unbelievable."
"There were a lot of long, ugly seasons for a lot of these guys," Dwayne Gordon said. "This is an awesome, awesome achievement."
The Jets, who gave the game ball to 84-year-old owner Leon Hess, knew how special the achievement was when they saw Parcells step back to compose himself.
"He won a division championship after coming from a long ways down," Otis Smith said, "so you can't help but have a little frog in your throat."
Two minutes of silence that must have felt like 29 years. Golden silence.
N.Y. Jets.... 7 0 10 0 -- 17
Buffalo ..... 0 7 3 0 -- 10
Pub Date: 12/20/98