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On This Date in Sports December 6, 1998: The Phantom Touchdown

Trailing 31-26, Vinny Testaverde is ruled to have scored a touchdown on a fourth down sneak with 27 seconds left, even though it was clear that his bare hand crossed the goal line while the ball was short. The Jets would win 32-31 to improve to 9-4 on the season. The play would be a catalyst for the NFL, bringing back instant replay for the 1999 season.

The NFL first introduced replay review in 1986. The system at the time had official monitoring from above and buzzing down to give a play a second look. The system was flawed and unpopular among game officials. After six seasons, the NFL eliminated replay and returned to allow the human element to decide games. At the same time, cameras and technology were improving, showing more clearly mistakes that changed games, leading to momentum for replay to return. However, owners could not develop a system that the rules committee could approve before the 1998 season.

Things were looking up for the New York Jets as they entered Week 14 against the Seattle Seahawks. Just two years removed from a 1-15 season, the Jets, under coach Bill Parcells, were in contention for a division title. Coming into the season, Parcells’ second with the team, the Jets were the only franchise, other than the recently added Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars, not to have won a division title since the 1970 merger. Following a 9-7 season in 1997, the Jets got off to a slow start with Glenn Foley at quarterback, losing their first two games. Making the switch to Vinny Testaverde in Week 3, the Jets began to turn their season around. After dropping to 2-3, the Jets hit their stride, winning six of seven games to climb to the top of the division at 8-4 as they prepared to host the Seattle Seahawks at Giants Stadium.

Things were more up and down for the Seahawks led by Dennis Erickson. Sitting at 6-6, the Seahawks coach was clearly on the hot seat sitting at 6-6. Seattle had not made the playoffs since 1987, and frustration had begun to set in as they were entering a new era with plans for a new stadium. It was widely reported that he was given an ultimatum that the Seahawks must make the playoffs, or a coaching change would be made.

The Jets started the game well, as they went 58 yards on six plays and scored a touchdown on their first possession, following a fumble by Seattle quarterback Jon Kitna as Keith Byars caught a three-yard touchdown pass from Vinny Testaverde. Seattle used the big play to turn things around, as Kitna connected with Joey Galloway on touchdown passes of 70 and 57 yards to build a 14-7 at the end of the first quarter. The Jets responded with a long drive that stretched into the second quarter. However, they settled for a 20-yard field goal by John Hall. The Seahawks tried for another home run bomb, but this time, Aaron Glenn intercepted Jon Kitna’s long pass to Galloway at the eight. However, just as the Jets' defense was stabilizing the game, Seattle was given another chance to score thanks to a fumble by Kyle Brady. Getting the ball at midfield, the Seahawks made it 21-10 on a 39-yard touchdown run by Ricky Watters. The Jets would get another chip from Hall before halftime, but they were still down 21-13.

Things got worse for New York after the half as Anthony Simmons had a pick-six that went 36 yards to make it 28-13, just over a minute into the third quarter. The Jets’ offense responded with another long drive. This time, they got in the end zone on a one-yard run by Curtis Martin as a two-point pass attempt to Fred Baxter failed. The Seahawks answered the Jets' score with a 50-yard field goal to make it 31-19 late in the third quarter. As the fourth quarter began, the Jets began to face desperation and again found the end zone as Testaverde connected with Keyshawn Johnson on a 16-yard pass. The Jets continued to trail 31-26 until they got one last chance to win as they got the ball at their own 36 with 3:15 left following Leon Johnson’s six-yard return of Jeff Feagles’ punt. The Jets had driven down to the Seahawks goal line but had trouble finishing the drive again. After short runs by Leon Johnson and Curtis Martin and an incomplete pass to Keyshawn Johnson, the Jets faced fourth and goal from the Seattle five, needing to score or the game was over. The unexpected play was a sneak by the at-times lumbering Testaverde, and the play failed as he was tackled short of the goal line. However, diving for the end zone, the officials saw Testaverde’s bare hand and helmet cross the goal line and called it a touchdown even though the ball in his left hand was nearly a yard short. The Seahawks were beside themselves, and replay showed just how egregious the call was, but with no replay review, the Jets lined up for two and failed but suddenly had a 32-31 lead with 27 seconds left. Adding insult to injury, Shawn Springs was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The Jets would finish the season with a record of 12-4, winning their first division title since 1969 before the full merger brought all AFL teams under the NFL umbrella. The Jets would play in the AFC Championship Game, losing to the Denver Broncos 23-10. Meanwhile, the Seahawks finished 8-8, as Dennis Erickson was fired after four seasons, with the Seahawks snatching Mike Holmgren away from Green Bay.

Controversy seemed to follow referee Phil Luckett’s crew that season as a week earlier, they were the same crew who botched a coin toss on Thanksgiving. The video of Testaverde’s non-touchdown was the last straw as the following off-season, the NFL developed a challenge system, allowing coaches to ask for two replay reviews every game, with replay receiving overwhelming support at 28-3.