The New York Jets, the Los Angeles Raiders, and the Cincinnati Bengals, all 5 -1 and looking good in the National Football League's American Conference, are where they are chiefly because they have been making the big plays on defense.
But the Jets also have the NFL's leading rusher in running back Freeman McNeil, who scored two touchdowns Sunday as New York defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 32-17. Yet just a year ago McNeil was beset by rookie mistakes; a tendency to fumble being one of his worst.
Give New York head coach Walt Michaels credit for riding out the storm with Freeman. Michaels was almost gone himself two years ago when the Jets' youth program didn't mature quite as fast as some of the brass in the front office thought it should. ''When you're building something brick by brick, it takes a lot longer than if you're putting together a prefab model,'' Michaels explained. ''But that's the only way you can be sure that all the good things will last.'' Said Jets' quarterback Richard Todd about his boss: ''Walt has never babied anybody on this team. If you do something wrong, he dosen't just tell you about it, he also shows you how to correct it. He has made us grow up. First you learn how to lose in this business, and then you learn how to win, and only then do you become a football team with fewer and fewer breakdowns.'' Rashad may retire
In the past six years no wide receiver in the NFL has caught more passes than Minnesota's Ahmad Rashad,who had brief shots with St. Louis and Buffalo before making it big with the Vikings. Now there's talk that Rashad (who came into the NFL in 1972 as Bobby Moore, an all-America running back from Oregon) may retire at the end of the present season.
''With me, it's mostly a case of wanting to leave while I still feel good about myself as a player,'' explained Ahmad, who has been a wide receiver since 1976. ''Two of my heroes gowing up were Jimmy Brown and Bernie Casey, and unlike Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath, they didn't try to stretch things out. Brown and Casey quit while they were still on top, which is what I'd like to do.''
Asked if his plans to retire had anything to do with how much double coverage he sees, Rashad replied: ''Well, it's frustrating when you're used to contributing a lot and suddenly the numbers aren't there. But there are also other ways to help - like using yourself as a decoy to run defenders out of the way so other receivers can get open.'' Short takes
Mark Moseley, the most famous alumnus of Stephen F. Austin State University, kicked four field goals for Washington Sunday as the Redskins boosted their record to 5-1 by beating St. Louis 12-7. Moseley kicked a field goal in each period, giving him 18-for-18 on the season, and leaving him just two shy of Garo Yepremian's NFL record of 20. . .After nine years with the New England Patriots, English-born, soccer-style kicker John Smith finally booted a game-winning field goal Sunday for the Patriots. Smith's victims were the Miami Dolphins and they were not happy when a tractor with a snow removal attachment in front came out and cleared the spot where John teed up the football before making his kick . . .. . .In the ''If You Can't Beat Them, Join Them Department,'' give high marks to Coach Marv Levy of the Kansas City Chiefs, who showed up after more than one loss in an ''excuse me'' T-shirt. Written across the front: ''Too many dropped passes; Ran the wrong way; Field too dry; Poor refereeing; Too many sacks.'' However, taped out across the bottom were the words: ''Fire the Coach!''