Name the National Football League’s top six offensive teams:
Houston. Of course.
San Francisco . Right again.
The New York Jets, who feature well-worn Ken O’Brien at quarterback, and the Chargers, who are guided by a quarterback with 12 professional games of experience, rank a high-powered fifth and sixth, respectively.
They will collide today in a sold-out Giants Stadium.
The Jets (6-5) are averaging 21 points a game, rank second in time of possession and are convinced they have a firm grip on a playoff berth.
The Chargers (3-8) have won two consecutive games, are tied with league-leading Buffalo in averaging 4.8 yards a carry, and, for the first time in a month, they will have running back Rod Bernstine on the field.
“I was itching to go two weeks ago when I was still hurt and couldn’t play,” said Bernstine, who must test his injured back on artificial turf. “I don’t care if it was grass, dirt or concrete. As long as I’m healthy and hanging around, I should be playing.”
Bernstine remains one of the most intriguing players in the league. He wears the number of a tight end, has been most impressive as a running back and today will draw playing time on third down as a pass-catching H-back in place of an injured Chris Samuels.
“I’m in a position to catch more balls now,” Bernstine said. “It doesn’t mean they’ll throw them to me or I’ll catch them, but it’s something that should have been done a long time ago.”
The Chargers have been slow to understand Bernstine and to utilize his skills. Before Coach Dan Henning’s arrival, Bernstine was going to be the team’s replacement for a retiring Kellen Winslow.
Henning made a running back out of Bernstine last season, and, although Bernstine has been on the sideline with a fractured bone in his back the past four weeks, he remains the AFC’s fifth-leading rusher.
He ran for 114 yards on 27 carries in last season’s finale against the Raiders and started the team’s first eight games this year, rushing for 583 yards on 120 carries. He’s averaging 4.9 yards a carry this season.
When Henning put Bernstine in the backfield, however, he opted to remove him from the passing game. He said Bernstine was not a dependable blocker and had him standing on the sideline when the Chargers went to the air. Bernstine has caught six passes this season.
Henning has had a change of heart. He lost Samuels with a season-ending broken leg, so in addition to using Bernstine in relief of Marion Butts, he will have him in on third downs when the team shifts to three wide receivers.
“That’s fine,” Bernstine said, “as long as I’m back there and still getting the chance to carry the ball sometimes.”
The Chargers will continue to employ Butts as their starting running back, although Bernstine was the starter before being hurt. Bernstine said he will be the good soldier and support Butts, so long as he earns his share of playing time.
“I’m smiling,” Bernstine said. “But I’m not going to stand over on the sideline, not get a carry and still be smiling. I don’t want you to think that. As long as I’m worked in and get my carries, I’ll be fine.
“Absolutely, I expect to relieve Marion. I don’t think I have to be told; if I’m healthy, I’m supposed to play. It’s not a situation where I have to question it.”
He’s healthy, he said, and so is Butts, and won’t the Jets be thrilled? Last year Bernstine’s longest run of the season, a 40-yard touchdown romp over a platoon of dazed Jets, came in Giants Stadium.
Butts, meanwhile, was pounding out 280 yards on 52 carries with four touchdowns in a pair of emphatic victories over the Jets.
“I don’t remember that,” Butts said with a smile. “In a year’s time I’m sure they have improved greatly.”
The Chargers ran for 413 yards last season in defeating the Jets, 39-3 and 39-17. But this year the Jets rank first in the AFC in stopping the run, allowing an average of 75.5 yards a game. They rank 12th defensively overall in the league.
“I’ll most definitely be a marked man,” Butts said. “I’m sure it’s the defense’s plan: ‘Let’s stop that big guy.’ We’ll have to take them on as a team; I can’t go out individually and expect to produce.”
If the Chargers’ ground game stalls, they now have the luxury of turning over the ball to Friesz. Friesz directed the Chargers’ hurry-up offense to 10 fourth-quarter points against the Saints’ highly touted defense last week.
“I’m sure they will come at us with a great deal of enthusiasm to stop the run,” Charger guard David Richards said. “They got a grudge against us; we got them good twice last year.
“But we’re throwing the ball now for more yards since I’ve been here, and we’ve had good success in our two-minute hurry-up offense. We know that on third and three we don’t have to run the ball. We’ve got something else we can do now.”
The Jets, who have won three of their past four games, will look back in horror on a 28-27 defeat to Indianapolis two weeks ago if they fail to make the playoffs. They have an emotional rematch with Buffalo next week, and New York reporters have overlooked the Chargers and have already started writing about the backyard rivalry.
The Jets placed themselves in position to make a run for the playoffs by using the running of Blair Thomas earlier this season. Thomas has rushed 141 times for 543 yards but has not run for a touchdown this season. Fullback Brad Baxter is the team’s designated touchdown-maker with eight.
Thomas’ best output on the ground since week No. 4 when he gained 125 yards against the Bears, has been 67 yards against the Dolphins. Thomas is averaging only 3.1 yards a rush in the past six games.
The Jets’ recent streak of good play, however, has been keyed by the improved pass protection for O’Brien, who has completed 62% of his passes with nine touchdowns and five interceptions.
In the past seven weeks O’Brien has thrown for eight touchdowns with only two interceptions. He has not been intercepted in the past three games, while throwing for five touchdowns.
“It would be nice to play the role of spoiler,” Charger cornerback Gill Byrd said. “More importantly, it would be nice to leave New York with a win.”