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New York, New York: Both on top in Big Apple

Grabbing the attention of New York sports fans might be as difficult as getting a grip on a slippery ice cube: Even if you can keep it in your hand, it will melt with the heat of losses and inept play.

With nine major-sports franchises competing, a lack of winning can make you yesterday's news even if you're playing in one of the largest media markets.

"This is a city that drops losing teams in a hurry," said Mike Francesca, co-host of the popular afternoon radio sports-talk show Mike and the Mad Dog on New York's WFAN. "As soon as the Yankees were out of the playoffs we moved on to football. When the football teams start losing, we'll switch to the Knicks and the hockey teams and then back to baseball."

No one knows this better than New York's NFL teams. The Giants have been to the playoffs only once since 1990 and the Jets and expansion Jacksonville are the only teams that have not won a division crown since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Pro football has been a mere speed bump the past two seasons as fans moved from baseball to hockey and basketball. The Jets had the NFL's worst record the past two seasons at 4-28. The Giants scratched out 5-11 and 6-10 seasons and were more noted for the fractious relationship between former coach Dan Reeves and general manager George Young.

Now football fans are talking playoffs. The Jets (6-3) are alone in first place in the AFC East for the first time in 11 years, and the Giants (6-3) are a game ahead of Washington and two games ahead of preseason favorites Dallas and Philadelphia.

The Jets and Giants have captured the hearts of New Yorkers with all the elements that make a novel captivating: interesting lead characters, surprising plot twists, controversy, big-money stars, blue-collar heroes and young hopefuls like fourth-year Jets quarterback Glenn Foley and second-year Giants QB Dan Kanell.

"It's been really exciting for us," said Kanell, the former Florida State quarterback. "There is a buzz around the city. People are excited about the two teams and having people to cheer for. It's been a while since this has happened and it's a pleasant surprise for the city.

"I think it gives them a sense of pride and it gives them something to cheer about."

Will the cheers reverberate the Big Apple through the playoffs? Suspense is the biggest literary factor wrapped up in the tale of the Giants and Jets because no one knows whether the upstarts can reach the post-season. With seven games left, they can't even guarantee winning seasons.

"I think there's optimism," Francesca said, "but there's a pretty good reality there. Winning seasons would be seen as a positive and the playoffs would be really surprising. For the most part, they've kept their expectations in check."

The most optimistic fans thought they would rule their respective divisions . . . next year or maybe the year after. Rebuilding was the most commonly heard term when the Giants hired Jim Fassel, an offensive coordinator from Arizona, and the Jets got Bill Parcells from the New England Patriots in a controversial move that wasn't settled until the league forced the Jets to give the Pats four draft picks.

Good deal for Jets

Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson said for the Jets, the deal was "the steal of the century." Parcells has proved his mettle by leading the Giants to two Super Bowl titles and taking New England to the championship game last year. Those credentials and his no-nonsense attitude have helped him build a new confidence in the Jets.

"Now there is a different kind of pressure," Parcells said. "We're playing with the lead and everyone is after you. I don't know if they'll be able to handle that. It's a new experience for this team."

Having Foley as the starting QB also is a new experience for the Jets, but it's one Parcells believes will pay off. Parcells anointed the former Boston College standout the starter this week against Miami. The news conference was televised live in New York.

Fassel fuels G-men

Fassel also has tried to be consistent in his treatment of players. The results indicate he is on the right track since the team is winning with basically the same team it had last year.

In his first year as a head coach, the scholarly-looking Fassel lives in the shadow of Parcells. He doesn't mind, he wants to prove himself. The players believe he's getting the job done.

"We really believe in this guy," Giants DE Mike Strahan said.

Fassel's work with QB's John Elway, Boomer Esiason and Kent Graham prompted them to call him a QB guru. Kanell has joined that group.

"He's been a tremendous help to me in helping me make this transition," Kanell said. "Everyone had heard what a guru he was and how great he was with quarterbacks and so far he's lived up to all the expectations and everything we've heard about him."

This week, Fassel said Kanell would start for the rest of the season _ a move anticipated by followers since the Giants have won all four games Kanell has played in after Dave Brown went down with an injury.

Start spreading the news

Five of the Giants last seven games are against division opponents, but with Dallas and Philadelphia playing inconsistently and Arizona having won only twice, the glass is half-full. Their remaining opponents' combined record is 30-33.

The Jets have a mix of good and dreadful left on their schedule: Miami, Buffalo and Minnesota have winning records but Chicago, Indianapolis and Detroit are down. The Giants host the Bucs Nov. 30, then the Jets host Tampa Bay Dec. 14.

The debate about who has the better team will rage on.

What does Kanell think?

"I guess we'll find out if the Super Bowl rolls around and we're both in it," Kanell said.

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.