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To say the least, QB Pennington struggles

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Chad Pennington learned an important lesson yesterday in the wind and the cold at Giants Stadium. He learned that if you're going to give the Gettysburg Address, don't go out six days later and lead like Jefferson Davis.

Last Monday, Pennington stood in front of the New York media and turned combative, lecturing them about what a "privilege" it was for them to cover "elite athletes" like the Jets. Yesterday, those writers were feeling underprivileged after watching Pennington and his teammates be dismantled by an undermanned Patriot team.

Pennington's play has been anything but elite in the Jets' biggest games this season, and that apparently has left him with a short fuse when the issue comes up. That can happen to a young guy when he goes 0-3 against the Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, but it's not just been the losing that had Jet fans booing him off the field at halftime yesterday after falling behind, 13-0, on the way to a 23-7 defeat that threw the Jets' playoff future into turmoil. In those three games, the only ones the Jets have played against the league's elite teams, New York has been outscored, 53-20. The offense Pennington leads has produced only two touchdowns. He has thrown five interceptions in those games and only one touchdown, performances that led some in the local media to question his ability to perform in big games and his team's ability to win them.

That's what caused the normally affable Pennington to make a fool of himself with his two-day war with the media last week, so Sunday, after throwing two more interceptions, including one on the Jets' first drive, he seemed to know what was on people's minds when he sheepishly walked into the postgame news conference.

"It's just one of those things," Pennington said. "When it rains, it pours. I was excited and felt good about this week. Monday was Monday. It just happened this way. All I can do is smile about it. People will tell me, `I told you so' and that's fine. They did tell me so."

This was not a "Pedro Martinez under the mango tree" moment. It wasn't Pennington calling the Patriots his daddies. But after losing two games to New England by a combined 36-14 margin, he might at least be considering calling them his uncles. Or maybe just saying uncle.

Pennington, his teammates, and coach Herman Edwards all insisted Pennington's dustup with the media, which led to critical commentary from ex-New York quarterbacks turned national TV commentators Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason and a one-on-one interview with ex-49ers quarterback turned ESPN studio host Steve Young on the subject, had nothing to do with his dismal performance or his team's. Perhaps not, but in a game that was supposed to make a statement about where the Jets were headed, his performance accomplished that. It said one thing clearly. They may be headed to St. Louis next Sunday but they're not headed to the Super Bowl this year.

"I don't know what it means, but whatever it means it's not good," Jets running back Curtis Martin said after being held to 33 yards on only 13 attempts. "That was the worst we performed all year. Everyone came into this game thinking we'd send New England home miserable. They sent us home miserable. We were horrible."

No one more so than Pennington, whose 22-for-36 day for 252 yards was a marvel of meaningless statistics. After falling behind, 23-0, Pennington's arm produced 147 of those 252 yards in the game's final 12 minutes. In other words, once the game was over the speechmaker went to work.

By then it was too late for words or passing yardage to mean much. By then the Jets had played so poorly in a game that could have clinched them a playoff spot and spared them having to go on the road and win Sunday that nothing Pennington did made a difference.

It will now be his privilege, and that of his teammates, to travel to St. Louis and face the possibility that they can turn a 10-win season into a disaster of diminished expectations if they lose.

"We still have a chance to get to the playoffs this week," Jets guard Pete Kendall said. "If we think this one was disappointing, go out to St. Louis and lay an egg and it will be really disappointing."

When the day dawned frigid and gray, the Jets were feeling sunny. They believed this would be their coming-out party against the defending Super Bowl champions. After a season in which they were repeatedly accused of being a team that feasted off the league's lowest common denominators while losing to the big fish, this was to be their day.

Then Pennington threw the ball to Tedy Bruschi on the Jets' first drive and then played so inconsistently in the first half that he finished with a quarterback rating of 33.3 as his team fell behind, 13-0. In the second quarter Pennington had the ball in his hands for two minutes and 22 seconds while leading the offense to 9 yards.

That's 9 yards in 15 minutes, an average of barely a half a yard a minute that quarter. The same quarter in which the defending champions scored 13 points and held the ball for 12:38. What that told you is the Jets' loss was not simply the work of Pennington. He had plenty of help from a defense that couldn't stop New England from not only scoring but also from piling up first downs, and an offense that couldn't find any running room for Martin.

"We couldn't convert on anything," Edwards said. "They came down here and flat kicked our behinds. We tried to attack them a little bit because they were wounded in their secondary, but they took it up to another level and we didn't match it.

"Chad has had some better games. That's obvious. You can look at the tapes yourself. We turned the ball over. But it wasn't just Chad [two interceptions and a fumble]. We didn't play well on offense at all."

Not on this afternoon and not on any afternoon when facing the best teams in their conference. It's been no privilege to watch Pennington and the Jets on those days, to be sure, which perhaps explains why most of the crowd of 77,975 had left by midway through the fourth quarter.

The media was still there, though, because they didn't have the privilege of going home early. They had to stay to the end, just like the Jets. For them to avoid all going home for the winter by this time next week, Pennington has to play as well as he talked last week and his teammates have to do the same against a Rams team that probably will be fighting for its playoff life as well.

That's not the kind of scenario the Jets were hoping to create yesterday, but that's what they're left with after an afternoon when Chad Pennington learned that actions speak louder than words. Much louder, because if they don't, you can't hear their words over the boos of their own angry fans. 

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