On Dec. 14, 1980, the winless New Orleans Saints traveled to Shea Stadium to take on the New York Jets. You know how this story ends, right?
While the New York Jets will be traveling to New Orleans on Sunday to take on the Saints, who at 9-4 are tied with Carolina for the NFC South lead, it’s fitting that this game takes place a week after New York’s embarrassing performance in Denver.
Entering Sunday, the Jets have lost five of their last seven meetings against New Orleans, including a pair of games in which they were shutout. But Gang Green won four of their first five meetings against the Saints. That one loss is what we’re looking at here.
Heading into the 1980 season, both the Jets and the Saints had high aspirations and were operating under similar circumstances.
After finishing under .500 in each of their previous 12 seasons, the Saints ended the 1979 season on a high note, winning eight of their last 11 games to finish .500 for the first time in franchise history. They also scored more points than they allowed for the first time, finishing plus-10 in score differential on the season.
After suffering through losing records for six of their first eight seasons in the 1970s, the Jets finished with a .500 record in both 1978 and 1979.
Both teams had quarterbacks that were in their prime. The Jets had Richard Todd, the Saints had Archie Manning. Both franchises expected big seasons from each.
However, the 1980 season was a disaster for both teams, who each began the year 0-5.
When the Saints ventured into Shea Stadium on Dec. 14, New Orleans’ losing streak had grown to 14 games, while the Jets entered with a record of 3-11.
For the Saints, the fact that they were winless entering that Sunday in Flushing, Queens wasn’t just an albatross around their neck because they wanted to avoid becoming the only team in NFL history to suffer through a winless season over a 16-game schedule. They had set an NFL record the previous week by blowing a 28-point halftime lead to a not-yet legendary Joe Montana and second-year head coach Bill Walsh and dropping the game to San Francisco, 38-35.
However, the Jets just can’t help being the Jets sometimes and, for longtime fans of this franchise, the Saints loss to the 49ers the previous week just perfectly set the stage for them to become New Orleans’ first victim.
The Saints struck first on that cold, snowy afternoon, taking a 7-0 lead on a touchdown pass from Manning to Jack Holmes, but the Jets countered with 13 unanswered second-quarter points to take a 13-7 halftime lead.
After the Saints took the lead back early in the fourth quarter on a Tony Galbreath one-yard run, Todd brought the Jets right back to take a 20-14 lead on a 31-yard TD scramble.
Needing a touchdown to take the lead, Manning led the Saints on a 74-yard drive that culminated with Galbreath again scoring from a yard out, just barely stretching the football over the goal line.
Even though the game was almost exactly 36 years ago to the day this year’s contest will be played, all Jets fans have come to experience the feeling of despair when you just know that this franchise is about to torture you with an inexplicable loss.
Despite having more than 4:30 left on the clock and needing just a field goal to take the lead, Todd was unable to rally the Jets, as he was sacked on third-and-18 to end their next drive. The Jets defense was able to stop the Saints when New Orleans had a chance to run out the clock. However, they had just 1:15 to take the lead after Bruce Harper misplayed a punt, forcing the Jets to start at their own 24-yard line.
Todd hit Harper to get inside the Saints’ 40, but with no timeouts remaining they were unable to stop the clock and time ran out. The Saints ran onto the field jubilant, as they avoided becoming the first winless NFL team in a 16-game season.
Todd, who led the NFL that season with 30 interceptions, was especially woeful against the Saints, finishing 10-of-27 for just 77 yards with no touchdowns and two picks.
The Saints would go on to become the first 15-loss NFL team the next week, but thanks to the Jets, they avoided their worst nightmare.
That wasn’t the last time the Jets did a winless team a late-season favor. In 1991, the Jets also saved the Indianapolis Colts from being the first winless team in a 16-game season when they lost to Jeff George and company 28-27 at the Meadowlands on a rain-soaked field.
In a week when their fans already feel the drain of the hopelessness this franchise can cause after their embarrassing effort against the Broncos, it seems fitting that the franchise they play this week brought those same feelings of despair 36 years ago.