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TURNAROUND HAS INFLATED JETS' EGOS

Six weeks ago, it appeared the New York Jets were on life support, ready for last rites.

But just when the Jets were flat lining, someone found the shock paddles and resuscitated their season.

The Jets (5-5) are now alive and well, riding a three-game winning streak heading into Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills in Giants Stadium.

After a 1-4 start, the Jets are in a three-way tie for second place in the AFC East, one game behind first-place Miami.

For a team that fancied itself a Super Bowl contender at the start of the season, a .500 record never looked so good.

"When you win you feel better about everything," Jets coach Herman Edwards said. "The meal tastes a little bit better. Your wife all of a sudden becomes better looking. You pet the dog rather than trying to kick the dog. All those things come with winning, and these guys haven't tasted that in a while."

After the season-opening 37-31 overtime win in Buffalo, the Jets plummeted like Enron stock. A humiliating 44-7 loss to New England the next week was followed by three more crushing defeats.

The Jets didn't just find themselves in a hole at 1-4. It was more like the Grand Canyon.

But the Jets have fought their way back and are feeling good about themselves again.

"I think we've gotten a little confident in the way we're playing," Edwards told the Western New York media this week. "I think our players are playing much better. I think our coaches have done a great job, especially after the bye, of adjusting what we do on both sides of the ball and being more defined in what we were doing."

The Jets' resurgence began when Edwards made third-year quarterback Chad Pennington the permanent starter over an ineffective Vinny Testaverde.

Pennington has completed an astounding 75.3 percent of his throws for 1,394 yards, 10 touchdowns and only three interceptions in six starts. His 107.5 passer rating leads the league over that span. His 99.8 rating in nine overall appearances is tops in the AFC.

Not bad for a guy who sat through 36 regular-season games before earning his first start, the longest wait of any National Football League quarterback drafted in the first round over the last 20 years.

"I knew that he would eventually have to be the starter," Edwards said. "When that time frame was going to come forth, I really didn't know. But with the way we were playing earlier we needed some sort of spark, and I felt that he would bring us a spark. We are real fortunate that he did that. The guys have really rallied around him."

Since Pennington took over, the Jets' offense has run much more smoothly with fewer penalties and turnovers. They are averaging 25.6 points per game, compared to 11 points in Testaverde's four starts.

Pennington is averaging 239.1 passing yards with 25 completions of 20 yards or more. Testaverde threw for an average of just 121.5 yards with only four 20-yard completions.

"I think our success and my success is a tribute to the coaches working hard to get me prepared and my teammates are making plays for me," said Pennington, a former Rhodes Scholarship finalist and Heisman Trophy finalist at Marshall. "We're building trust, and that chemistry and unity progresses from game to game."

Meanwhile, the Jets' once struggling running game has come to life. Curtis Martin, hobbled by a sprained ankle since the opener, ran for 112 yards and the Jets finished with a season-high 189 last Sunday in Detroit.

The offensive line is playing more physically in the run game and giving Pennington time to find open receivers.

"Chad's doing a very good job executing that offense," Bills coach Gregg Williams said. "It's the same system, they're just executing it better at this particular time of the year."

The Jets are still shaky on defense, but they're tackling better, making fewer mistakes and allowing fewer big plays.

The Jets' run defense has made a dramatic improvement, giving up just 81.2 yards the last five games after yielding 190.8 through the first five outings.

Several Jets defenders are playing well, but none better than former Bills linebacker Sam Cowart. Now recovered from his Achilles injury and adjusted to playing outside, he is performing at an all-star level again. He also has bounced back from an early season knee injury to lead the Jets in tackles with 81 (68 solo).

"He looks like he's getting back to the Sam of old," Williams said.

The defense also has benefited from not being on the field. The offense's average time of possession has risen to 32:50 the past five games, seven minutes more than before the bye.

Edwards' calming influence can't be overlooked. While Jets fans were ready to run him out of town early this season, he never wavered in his belief in the coaching staff, players or the system.

"I think our coaches did a great job of making the players understand the importance of what we were trying to do," Edwards said. "Our players never lost sight of that. We hung together. We had some (tough) times. It was not always pretty. But for the most part we believed in each other, and at this point we're playing a lot better for it."

Despite their turnaround, the Jets have a difficult road ahead. Based on the winning percentages of their final six opponents (.550), the Jets have the toughest remaining schedule in the AFC East.

The Jets face only one team (Chicago) with a losing record, and four of their final five opponents have a combined record of 26-14 (.650).

"I'm not going to say the ship is smooth sailing right now," Martin said. "We've been patching up a few holes. And we've still got some holes to patch up so we can keep going."
Bills linebacker London Fletcher practiced at full speed Friday and is ready to play Sunday. Williams said newly signed linebacker Greg Favors likely would play on special teams but could get defensive snaps in some packages.

TURNING ON THE JETS
First Last
5 games5 games
Record1-44-1
Rush Yds/Game77.6121.6
Rush Yds Allowed/Game190.881.2
Avg. Offensive Plays50.659.2
Avg. Defensive Plays65.456.4
Avg. Time of Poss.25:0932:50
Offensive Turnovers124
Defensive Takeaways610

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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