You want exciting Sunday football, there are no guarantees. But if you want victories, play the Jets.
In a game played at a yawning pace Sunday until rookie wide receiver Nate Lewis provided a fourth-quarter spark with two touchdowns, the Chargers defeated New York, 38-17, in front of 40,877 fans in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
The Chargers (6-7), who have yet to defeat a team with a winning record, took advantage of this year’s fifth-place schedule and outscored the Jets (4-9), 77-20, in two meetings.
“The intensity wasn’t where it should be for this game, and even with that we were able to win,” Charger linebacker Gary Plummer said. “I think that’s a sign of a good team. You can’t let that happen very often, but to be able to win when you’re not at your best says something for us.”
Or maybe it says something about the woeful Jets, who sabotaged an offensive output of 352 yards with three turnovers and a 4-for-14 performance in third-down conversions (29 percent).
“We were real flat on defense; there wasn’t any pop in the way we were doing things, and they were controlling the line of scrimmage,” Charger cornerback Gill Byrd said. “But fortunately for us, our offense came to play today, and they wouldn’t be denied. That was the difference.”
Take away the fifth-place teams on the schedule, and the Chargers have a 3-6 mark and average 15.5 points a game. But against the likes of Dallas, Tampa Bay and the New York Jets, the Chargers are 3-1 with an offense producing an average of 33 points a game.
“If we’ve taken advantage of the fifth-place schedule and we’re 6-7,” Byrd said, “I’d hate to get a fourth- or third-place schedule. We have a long way to go, so I really don’t see where we’re doing something at 6-7.”
Bring on the Jets, though, and watch what the Chargers can do. They piled up 412 yards in offense in a 39-3 victory over the Jets in Giants Stadium earlier this season, and Sunday they gained 409.
Not since Oct. 19, 1986 had the Chargers scored a touchdown in each quarter of play, but they did it Sunday against the Jets, and it was fun for all:
--Running back Marion Butts scored a pair of touchdowns, went over the 1,000-yard mark in rushing and gained 159 yards on 26 carries.
--Wide receiver Anthony Miller ended a 20-quarter scoring dry spell and caught a 24-yard touchdown pass.
--Quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver, who was booed again for his scatter-gun passing attack, rallied in the second half to throw a pair of touchdown passes.
--Lewis entrenched himself in the starting lineup with a 10-yard touchdown run and four catches for 89 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown reception.
“We had some outstanding plays, and then we had some plays that weren’t so outstanding,” Coach Dan Henning said. “That’s part of this team right now.”
The Jets jumped ahead of the Chargers 3-0 on Pat Leahy’s 38-yard first-quarter field goal, and made it obvious they were going to run the ball with conviction. They would go on to gain 145 yards on the ground, but it would not be enough to offset a series of mistakes in the passing game.
Free agent rookie cornerback Donald Frank intercepted quarterback Ken O’Brien’s pass intended for Rob Moore in the first quarter at the New York 13-yard line, and moments later Butts was running in untouched from the one for a 7-3 lead.
Linebacker Billy Ray Smith forced a Chris Dressel fumble on the Jet’s next possession, and the Chargers’ offense took over on its 47-yard line in the closing seconds of the first quarter.
Tolliver completed a 25-yard pass to Lewis, and on the following play Lewis gained an additional five yards on a reverse to put the ball on the Jets’ 23.
Then Butts ran right for three yards, left for 14, left again for two and finally up the middle for a four-yard touchdown. The Chargers led, 14-3, with 11:57 remaining in the half.
“We knew we had to stop Butts,” Jets Coach Bruce Coslet said. “That was one of our goals. But nobody’s been able to stop him. He’s for real. He’s the best in the league.”
Butts, who came into the game leading the league in rushing, surpassed the 100-yard mark for the fifth time this season. He needs 26 more yards to pass Earnest Jackson’s single-season rushing mark of 1,179 yards.
“To be able to get 1,000 yards is beyond my wildest expectations,” said Butts, who was dragged down from behind after gaining 52 yards on a fourth-quarter burst up the middle. “I wasn’t even a starter at Florida State, and I came here just hoping for a roster spot. What’s happened since then is like living in a dream world.”
After Butts steamrolled the Jets to build a 14-3 lead, New York appeared to take exception and struck back with a touchdown. Their anemic offense had come into this game with only one touchdown in their previous 12 quarters of play.
But they chipped away at the Chargers’ defense, picked up six first downs and marched 84 yards to make it 14-10. Wide receiver Al Toon, who had a seven-inch height advantage on Chargers’ cornerback Sam Seale, grabbed an O’Brien jump ball for a 21-yard touchdown with 6:38 remaining in the half.
The Jets were in position to close within a point in the closing moments of the first half, but Leahy, who had made 17 field goals in a row, was wide right from 36 yards.
The Chargers followed up Leahy’s miss with a 77-yard drive that produced a John Carney 22-yard field goal with three seconds remaining in the half. And in the third quarter, they refused to let up.
Tolliver, who hadn’t been within an area code of completing a pass to Miller, finally found him for a 24-yard touchdown.
“It’s not often you get single coverage on Anthony,” said Tolliver, who completed 14 of 27 for 220 yards with an interception. “I told the guys that nothing was going to be short today, and they were going to have to go after everything.”
Miller, who has been starving for touchdown attention since catching a 31-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter Oct. 28 against Tampa Bay, was so happy after catching the ball that he threw it in the stands.
“I thought it was a $200 fine for throwing the ball in the stands and now I hear it’s $500,” Miller said. “So I’m going to stop doing it now. I was just happy, and I had seen somebody up in the stands, so I just threw it to him.”
After the Chargers’ celebration, the Jets struck back, with O’Brien going up the ladder again to Toon for an eight-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“The Jets had a good game plan,” Chargers linebacker Leslie O’Neal said, “but our offense kept scoring the points and that broke their spirit.”
The fourth quarter became Lewis’ coming-out party after the Jets had closed to within a touchdown at 24-17. Lewis, a seventh-round pick, left Jets’ rookie Tony Stargell, who had been on the Chargers’ draft-day wish list, behind and hauled in a 19-yard Tolliver dart to push his team ahead 31-17.
And then Lewis raced around left end a few minutes later with a handoff, and with a generous ruling from the officials, was credited with a 10-yard touchdown run.
Lewis then treated the fans to his planned end zone celebration.
“I call it, ‘Face the Nation,’ ” Lewis said after doing a wiggle with arms raised in the air, followed by a mighty spike. “I planned that during practice. Everytime I get in the end zone, you’ll see, ‘Face the Nation.’ ”
It’s just too bad the Chargers couldn’t face the Jets a few more times this season.
* CHARGER REPORT
Coaches think they may have found a receiving threat to complement Anthony Miller--rookie Nate Lewis, who had two touchdowns. C19A
Charger Review, Report Card C19A