In just four days, Chad Pennington will start the fifth playoff game of his career when the Jets visit the Patriots. The seventh-year passer owns a 2-2 record in the postseason, which ties him with Hall of Famer QB Joe Namath for most postseason wins in club annals. In typical Pennington fashion, he is taking a methodical approach to Sunday's contest.
"I feel the same; I feel like this is what we play this game for – to have a chance at a championship and to play for a championship," Pennington said Wednesday when asked about his emotions. "My feelings are the same. We are going into a Wild Card game. We have to make sure we are prepared and focused."
After winning just four games in 2005, the Jets registered 10 regular season victories in 2006. For playing in a media market as large as New York, the Green & White went largely unnoticed for much of the season. But lifted by a second half run, Pennington and the Jets find themselves in the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
"For the core veterans that have been here, we have always had expectations for ourselves," Pennington said. "We have always viewed ourselves as championship-type players, and we've had success. We have experienced playoffs. We have won Wild Card games. Our success this year was not a surprise, and the reason it wasn't a surprise is we believe in our hard work and we believe in our preparation."
This week marks the third time Pennington has prepared as a starter for a Wild Card game. In his debut back in the 2001 season, the 6'3", 225-pound Pennington was fantastic against the Colts in a 41-0 home rout. He completed 19 of 25 for 222 yards and three touchdowns. Two years later, Pennington authored a gutsy effort against the Chargers in a 20-17 overtime thriller at Qualcomm Stadium. Despite playing with a rotator cuff injury, the Marshall alum completed 23 of 33 passes for 279 yards and two scores. He has yet to throw an interception in Wild Card action.
The Patriots, perhaps the quietest 12-4 team in recent memory, stand in Pennington's way. During the regular season, the AFC East rivals split their two meetings. Pennington completed 63% of his passes while throwing for 474 yards. He also tossed three touchdowns against two interceptions. Pennington knows minimizing mistakes will be critical against a Patriots team who surrendered just 14.8 points per game and totaled 35 takeaways.
"They capitalize on their opponent's mistakes," he said. "They are probably the best in the league at making their opponents pay for mistakes. They don't let those mistakes slip by and give you a second chance."
The Jets and the Patriots know each other very, very well. Sometimes that can result in less than aesthetic football. Pennington stresses the importance of battling through because there will be 60 minutes of action and a lot of plays to be made.
"Anytime you get to the playoffs, you have 16 games of film that your opponent gets to watch. On top of that, you are playing a division rival that you play twice a year," he said. "With this being the third time this season, the mental aspect is very important. There may be some plays that look a little ugly because the teams know each other really well. What you have to do is understand is it's a four-quarter game."
Pennington's counterpart – Tom Brady – is one of the most decorated playoff performers in pro football history. Just 29 years young, Brady is the only quarterback in NFL history to start and win three Super Bowls before his 28th birthday. He is 10-1 as a playoff starter and the two-time Super Bowl MVP is 5-0 at Gillette Stadium in the playoffs. Jets head coach Eric Mangini, a Patriots assistant coach the previous six seasons, believes Pennington and Brady share a number of intangibles.
"I think the parallels between Chad and Tom - in terms of their work ethic, their approach, their understanding of their opponent, and their understanding of their own system - are very strong," Mangini said. "Even as people they are very strong."
The hype surrounding this contest is building as the week progresses. But Pennington is not at all concerned with all the hoopla; his focus remains on the contest within the "white lines."
"It is a game between two division rivals, so that's important," Pennington said. "It's a big game because it's the next game. It's a one-game season now. Lose you go home, win you stay in. That's why it's big; that's why it's important."
Perhaps after the playoffs, Pennington will crack open a cold beverage and reflect on his personal accomplishments. After undergoing two rotator cuff surgeries in one calendar year, he returned in the spring and then won a training camp open battle at his position. He guided his team to 10 victories and completed his first 16-game regular season as a starting quarterback. His statistics weren't gaudy, but his effort was awe-inspiring.
But the beverage will have to wait because Pennington has his playbook cracked open. The new season has begun. Chad Pennington is grateful for the opportunity, and he wants to stick around for a little while.
"Some professional players go through this league, play 10, 11, 12 years and never reach the playoffs," Pennington said. "When you have a chance to be in the playoffs and when you have a chance to be in tournament, you want to take advantage of it. You don't want to be one and done. You want to be able to advance and go forth and really experience what it's all about."