In the 40 seconds between plays, Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis leaves his spot on the edge of the field and stands directly over the ball, in front of the 300-pound linemen, as if he wants to audition at nosetackle. "What I'm doing is looking for the other team's Number 1 receiver," Revis says. "I want to let him know I'm waiting for him. I want to see if he's got the heart."
Last Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium, Revis peered into the Bengals' huddle, found receiver Chad Ochocinco and knew the Cincinnati wideout was finished. In the regular-season finale in the Meadowlands, Ochocinco was completely shut out, and in New York's 24--14 wild-card victory over the Bengals he didn't catch a pass until the fourth quarter. He finished with two receptions for just 28 yards and was for once rendered speechless. The Jets advanced to the second round against the Chargers largely thanks to a player who every week takes his opponent's heart.
In today's NFL there are left cornerbacks and right cornerbacks, and they share the responsibility for covering the opponent's No. 1 wideout. And then there is Revis, who according to Jets coach Rex Ryan is the only corner in the league who does not split duties on the star receiver. "Left side or right side, in the slot or out wide," Revis says, "I'll follow you everywhere you go."
The shutdown corner is an endangered species, threatened by spread offenses that require five and six defensive backs, and by rules changes designed to enhance the passing game. Revis stands alone. This season he has been matched against an unparalleled receiving line: Houston's Andre Johnson, Steve Smith of Carolina, Indy's Reggie Wayne, Marques Colston of New Orleans, and both Randy Moss of New England and Buffalo's Terrell Owens twice. None had more than five catches or 35 yards against Revis. Only one scored a touchdown. Ryan calls it the best year for a cornerback in the modern era, with the possible exception of Deion Sanders's 1994 Super Bowl season with San Francisco.
On the day Ryan was introduced as the Jets' coach last January, he told Revis, "I want to play a lot of man-to-man. Get ready to take the best guy." Because Ryan's defense features so many blitz packages, the Jets spend more than half the time in Cover 1 or Cover 0, meaning they have one or no safeties back. They need a corner they can trust.
In the second quarter on Saturday, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer saw Revis matched one-on-one with Ochocinco, with no other defensive backs on the right half of the field. Enticed, Palmer threw to Ochocinco's back shoulder, but Revis took inside position and came down with the interception. The next time the Bengals had the ball, Ryan sent safety Jim Leonhard on a blitz, knowing Revis could take care of his duties. Leonhard knifed through the line and sacked Palmer, forcing a fumble.
While rookie Mark Sanchez was the darling of New York in September and played mistake-free in his first postseason appearance, the Jets are the only playoff team with a cornerback who overshadows the quarterback. Most elite corners do not get thrown at, but because of the Jets' defensive schemes, Revis gets thrown at all the time. He likes to position himself as close to the line of scrimmage as possible without being offside—so close that in winter he can see his receiver's breath. He dominates at the snap, interrupting routes before they begin. The voice in his head belongs to his mother, Diana Gilbert, reminding him, "You take the other man's will." By the fourth quarter the receivers start to concede, mainly because they are so tired of seeing Revis's face and feeling his hands. As Atlanta's Roddy White put it, "He's like a gnat. He never gets away from you."
Only 24, Revis grew up in Aliquippa, Pa., a faded steel town of 11,000 that has produced a disproportionate number of sports legends—Mike Ditka, Pete Maravich, Tony Dorsett. Now, in his home in New Jersey, on the coffee table in the bedroom, right next to the alarm clock, Revis keeps a list of goals for the season: 50 tackles, eight interceptions, Pro Bowl, Super Bowl. Last Thursday night he flipped over the sheet of paper and scrawled his playoff goals on the other side: Make one interception per game. Be a leader. Win the Super Bowl.
Unlike a legion of NFL cornerbacks, who view arrogance as a prerequisite for the job, Revis sees the position as inherently humbling. He can spend an entire afternoon in another man's personal space without saying a word. His way of protesting calls is to mutter "bullcrap." He speaks reverentially of corners past such as Sanders, Darrell Green and Mel Blount. This season Jets coaches urged him to show more fire, for leadership purposes. When Revis scrapped with Owens during the Jets-Bills game in Toronto, shoving TO out-of-bounds on his backside after a whistle, New York safety Kerry Rhodes was aghast. "Damn," he said to Revis, "you're mad."
"I don't want to be one of those guys out there with all their swagger and trash-talking," Revis says. "One false move and you can get embarrassed." His uncle, former NFL defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, will call him on Sunday nights and leave the message: "Good game. You still stink."