Chad Pennington quickly has reached a defining moment in his career.

He will either guide the Jets into the playoffs with a big game against a bad Rams team or, after presiding over their first 5-0 start, be held accountable for the biggest collapse/choke in team history.

"I'm like a volcano inside," Pennington said yesterday. "Sunday can't get here fast enough."

The tension was evident in the locker room on a day the Jets followed the handbook for teams in crisis and held an obligatory players-only meeting. They've been going at this non-stop since the end of July and now for the fourth time in the last five seasons, their playoff fate will be decided on the season's final day. After not losing until Oct. 24 then sitting in great shape at 9-3, a team meeting to fire each other up was not supposed to be on the agenda. Neither was a potential single-elimination season finale.

But these are the Jets. So nothing ever comes easy.

Pennington is only 2-2 since coming back from his shoulder injury. He played horribly in the December losses to Pittsburgh and New England with one touchdown and five interceptions as the Jets scored only 13 points. Suddenly it was appropriate to wonder if he will ever be an elite quarterback.

"I feel good," he said. "I'm not down on myself. I don't doubt myself at all."

This has been a difficult few weeks for the $64 million QB. He admits it's been the most "challenging" time of his career. Two years ago, he was Joe Montana coming down the stretch. This year he's been Joe Pisarcik.

"Every game is a defining moment," Pennington said. "I'm excited about it. But you know what? I can't talk about it. I just got to go do it."

Reputations are made or destroyed in season-deciding games. Pennington's career was set to take off after he carried the Jets into the playoffs two years ago. But he's since gone backwards. Now, so much is at stake for him in St. Louis.

"It's a hump game. Get over the hump," he said. "It's a hump game for me to play well in a big situation and perform well and win."

If the Jets win, they get to 11-5, tying the second-most regular-season victories in their 45 years. If they lose, they still get in the playoffs with a Bills or Broncos loss, but they're out if they lose and the Bills and Broncos win. They don't want to back in.

So, what happens Sunday? The Jets will beat the Rams and Pennington will play like he did against Seattle.

It's evident the Jets can't yet play with the big boys of the NFL. The Patriots are better than them. So are the Steelers. Probably the Colts, too. When the Jets step up in class, they can't handle it. But they are stepping down to play the JV again this week. The days of the Rams being "The Greatest Show On Turf" are long gone. St. Louis is the kind of team the Jets handle easily. The Rams struggled to beat the Eagles Monday night and Philly played it like a preseason game.

"The only guys who didn't play are the running back and the quarterback," Rams coach Mike Martz said yesterday from St. Louis.

Oh, is that all?

Martz sounded serious over the phone, so we can only assume he said it with a straight face. Actually, Donovan McNabb played the first series and took the Eagles down the field for a touchdown. That was it for Philly's offense. Brian Westbrook didn't dress. Defensive end Jevon Kearse didn't play.

St. Louis is only 27th against the rush, which means lots of Curtis Martin and LaMont Jordan and less of a reliance on Pennington. The Rams are 7-8 and only the forgiving NFC allows them to still be fighting for a playoff spot. "They got a lot on the line, too," Pennington said. "Like coach says, pressure busts pipes. So we'll see whose pipes are broken first."

Martin insists the Jets fully support Pennington. They have faith in him. They trust him. When the players stop believing in the quarterback, he's done. Instead of putting the focus on Pennington, Martin turned the heat up on the entire team. He was disgusted with how it played Sunday.

"We either put up or shut up. This is do or die for us," he said. "It decides our future. We know what we did last week was unacceptable. We played horribly. I think everyone's ego is hurt. The pride of the team was hurt after last week. We can't allow anything like that to ever happen again. I hope we never play a game like that for the rest of my time here."

But now they have to win in St. Louis. "I'm expecting to see the New York Jets play their best game of the season this Sunday coming up," Martin said.

Pennington knows there is "no easy way out" in the NFL. "Everything is tough and only the mentally tough survive," he said.

The Jets have put themselves in a tough spot. This is Pennington's defining moment.

Originally published on December 30, 2004