Jets join Bears and Broncos in NFL cockpit at halfway mark

Let's see now, Jets rhymes with Mets, and who knows, maybe this is the year for excellence by association. Certainly many New Yorkers would like to think so. They will notice that the Jets, who've played in the New Jersey Meadowlands for three years, once shared the same Shea Stadium turf with the new champions of baseball. And there's a history connection, too. The Mets won their first title in 1969, the same year Joe Namath led the Jets to a shocking Super Bowl III upset of Baltimore at the conclusion of the '68 season.

These parallels wouldn't mean a thing, though, if the Jets weren't playing well. But they are, maybe as well as any team in the National Football League. Their 7-1 record is matched only by the Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos.

The men in the green helmets have won six in a row, made amends for their only loss by beating defending conference champion New England on the road, and taken a two-game divisional lead over the Patriots midway through the season.

Ironically, the Jets led the league last Sunday in no-shows, with 32,645 ticket holders electing not to brave the elements. Even in a persistent rain, however, the passing game was singin' thanks to a guy named Toon. Al Toon, the league's leading receiver, hauled in three touchdown passes from Ken O'Brien in a 28-23 victory over the New Orleans Saints.

Despite this peculiar no-show situation, attendance is actually up a tad (346 per game) around the league. Even so, the current season doesn't seem to have the same excitement or personality as last year's, at least not yet. Maybe it's because the baseball playoffs and World Series have distracted us, or maybe it's just unfair to expect that any team, including the Bears, can infuse a season with as much fun and fascination as they did in 1985.

Oh, Jim McMahon keeps trying. Now he's into wearing Johnny Unitas-style black high tops and a bicep band carrying the number 82, a tribute to receiver Ken Margerum, who was cut to make room for a fourth quarterback, Doug Flutie. But the Fridge craze that surrounds defensive lineman William (the Refrigerator) Perry, has subsided somewhat, and the 4-6 defense, while still awfully stingy, isn't necessarily the talk of pro football anymore, either.

What is, strangely enough, is the new system for using television replays to help officials. It hasn't always worked smoothly, sometimes being inconclusive or causing delays, and occasionally breaking down altogether. A somewhat comical case in point occurred in the Kansas City-Los Angeles Raiders game, when the replay official's ruling of ``pass incomplete'' was misinterpreted as ``pass is complete,'' giving L.A. a touchdown that contributed to its victory.

As the league attempts to work out the replay bugs, it must also begin to consider its strategy for the drug testing of players. An arbitrator just overturned commissioner Pete Rozelle's plans to conduct unscheduled testing, ruling them in conflict with the current collective-bargaining agreement, which expires next August.

The NFL, of course, wants the public focus on the field, where a number of developments bear watching.

On an individual level, interest in Eric Dickerson's rushing exploits could grow considerably during the next eight weeks. The drive train of the Los Angeles Rams' offense already has 1,030 yards, which puts him 105 yards ahead of where he was in 1984, when he set an NFL record with 2,105 yards.

The Rams just moved into first place in the highly competitive Western Division of the National Conference, but they find themselves playing without injured starting quarterback Steve Bartkowski. Dickerson and an excellent defense, which has scored as many points as the Ram offense the last two weeks, may have to carry the club from here.

A half game behind are the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons. Jeff Kemp has proved an adequate replacement for the injured Joe Montana with the 49ers, but they face a wicked end-of-season schedule against a handful of the league's best teams. Atlanta just lost its rematch with the Rams, 14-7, and now faces the Patriots.

The tightest race of all exists in the NFC Eastern, where Washington, Dallas, and the New York Giants are deadlocked in first place with 6-2 marks. The Cowboys have already established something of a mental edge by beating both rivals, but the Giants seek to erase it when the teams meet in the Meadowlands this Sunday. If the Giants can knock off Dallas while their stadium neighbors, the Jets, beat Seattle, visions of a ``Subway Super Bowl'' (albeit in Pasadena) are sure to dance in New York heads.

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