December 30, 2004 -- YOU would think the shocking events of last autumn might alter the viewpoint Jets fans bring into these final hours of football's regular season. You would think watching the Red Sox celebrate on hallowed Yankee Stadium grounds would make Jets fans understand a few simple truths about sports:
1) Anything really is possible.

2) Championship droughts don't have to be life sentences.

3) The mystical forces that try to figure things out for the universe really don't have time to sit around and figure out how to best torture those select sports franchises - be they Red Sox, Clippers, Cubs or Jets - who some believe wander about the world with poxes placed on their homes.

You would think.

"I've seen this script way too many times before," a Jets fan from Huntington named Kevin Slattery was telling me the other day, inside a sporting goods store at Roosevelt Field mall, a squib kick down the Meadowbrook from Weeb Ewbank Hall. "The Jets specialize in this kind of [stuff], right? They get you believing, believing, believing, then . . . "

He slammed his workboot onto the ground and began twisting, as if snuffing a cigarette. Only in this case, instead of a butt of a Pall Mall, he was crushing his own imaginary football soul (thrown on the ground, no doubt, by Paul Hackett).

"I'm tired of this [stuff], dude," Slattery said. "I've had it."

It really is one of the fascinating recurring stories in all of New York, these self-loathing, self-fulfilling prophesies espoused by Jets fans whenever their team provides even the slightest glimmer of hope. Yankees fans have their haughtiness, Knicks fans their cosmopolitan wistfulness, Mets fans their feisty complexes, Rangers fans their affinity for bartenders who believe in buybacks.

Jets fans believe in the Worst Case Scenario.



"Think about it," said Angelo Vardi, sitting with his Chad Pennington jersey in the stands at the Garden the other night, trying to enjoy a Holiday Festival basketball game but fretting endlessly about his football team. "These are our options: Get some help from the Colts [against the Broncos], who have nothing to play for. Or get some help from the Steelers [against the Bills], who have nothing left to play for."

I gently remind Angelo that the Jets can make the playoffs simply by beating the Rams in St. Louis on Sunday, that they don't need help from anyone else. He looks at me as if I am speaking Sanskrit.

"Sure," he said. "Maybe if the Rams had nothing to play for. But they got to play the Eagles last week, and of course they had nothing to play for, either. It wears you out, being a Jets fan."

It really is an amazing truth about life with the Jets. For years, players have talked about the dark fog that hovers over their headquarters, the ceaseless negativity that lingers there (perpetuated, of course, by many of those same players losing games that still provide their fans with recurring bouts of agita).

All of this angst obscures one simple fact, of course: Two of the past three years, the Jets had to win the final game of a season to qualify for the playoffs. The first time, it was against a playoff-bound Raiders team that probably would have gone to the Super Bowl if not for the stupid "tuck" rule. The other was against a playoff-bound Packers team.

The Jets won both times, against opponents that were much better than the Rams team they play Sunday, and neither of those Jets teams were nearly as good as the one that will take the field at Edward James Dome. The Hapless Jets of memory haven't truly existed since Rich Kotite was fired hours after the 1996 season. That's almost a full decade ago.

The Jets do have issues, and they certainly do have to win this game, and they absolutely do have to make some playoff noise with this team. But their history, no matter how desultory, really should have nothing to do with any of it.

Right?

"At least if we lose," Kevin Slattery said, "maybe we'll fire Hackett."