By Jim Rogash, Getty Images
Tom Brady and the 9-2 Patriots host the 9-2 Jets on Monday night.
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But it is the New York Jets vs. the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. The magnitude of the prime-time confrontation (ESPN, 8:30 ET) cannot be underestimated. The winner will boast the best record in the conference at 10-2 and seize the inside track at locking up the AFC East and possible home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Still, “This is not the Super Bowl,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady warned reporters.
It is something nearly as delicious: Rex Ryan vs. Bill Belichick.
The intriguing chess game-on-grass between the coaches is the most crucial slugfest between these division rivals since Ryan’s ample profile and outsized sense of humor burst forth in 2009. He declared football revolution on Belichick and his redoubtable Patriots, division kings six of the last seven seasons.
In his bid to dump the Patriots overboard, Ryan is 2-1 against Belichick, who said, “There’s no love lost out there between (the) two teams.”
The Jets have won three of the last four â€” including a 28-14 drubbing earlier this season â€” but “I don’t see anyone sweeping Tom Brady twice in the same season in my lifetime,” said Jon Gruden, the Super Bowl-winning coach and ESPN analyst.
A Patriots’ victory would give Brady a league-record 26th consecutive triumph at home, excluding the playoffs, and a comfort zone.
“You can’t expect to win the division and lose to the same team twice,” he said.
Since they played in September, the Jets and Patriots have continued to morph. During the last year, the Jets and Patriots have “recast their squads in the images of their head coaches,” said NBC analyst Tony Dungy.
“New England got younger (with) guys who are a little bit unknown, guys who play a role,” Dungy said. “The Jets brought in a cast of characters who are kind of like an All-Star team. It works great for both.”
The coaches appear polar-opposites, too: Belichick favors bland grey hoodies, Ryan loves black sweater vests. Belichick dourly plots with Kremlin-like secrecy, the effervescent Ryan all but uses a foghorn to shout from Gotham rooftops. Larry Izzo, who played for both, sees similarities as well.
“Rex is Rex and Bill is Bill, but both come from football families and grew up studying the game,” Izzo said. “Their approach is the same in terms of having tough, physical teams. (Belichick) is a smart guy. He is not afraid to make tough decisions â€” like the Randy Moss trade. He went younger on defense. Rex is a great guy with a passion for winning. The Jets made great moves (signing veteran castoffs). If you are a free agent, and he’s doing the selling, it is hard to say no.
“They are different in their daily approach. It is a lot more laid-back in New York. Rex is not as guarded as Bill â€” he speaks from the heart. He is not going to B.S. the media. If he says it, he believes it.”
Ryan, who turns 48 next week, obviously admires his counterpart who is 10 years older. Belichick has coached the Patriots to four Super Bowls, winning three, from 2001-2007.
“There are very few coaches I steal from â€” Belichick’s one of them,” Ryan told reporters last week. “(He’s) so creative (on defense), how he looks at things, puts traps out there. (The) guy’s an amazing coach. â€¦ the best in football. It’s not even close.”
Belichick called Ryan’s words “flattering.”
“The Jets are really an impressive team to watch,” he said. “Rex has done a good job of putting that team together.”
After Indianapolis rallied to beat the Jets 30-17 in last season’s AFC Championship Game, Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum looked to shore up their pass defense. They fortified the secondary by trading for cornerback Antonio Cromartie, and signed free agent linebacker Jason Taylor, a noted pass rusher. They made their offense more dynamic by obtaining running back LaDainian Tomlinson to replace free agent Thomas Jones and dealt for wide receiver Santonio Holmes. The two have combined for nine touchdowns.
Ryan’s bravado continued.
“You want to have a coach that you’re cool with, (one) that you can communicate with, but (also) demands respect. I think Ryan is that guy,” said NBC commentator Rodney Harrison, a former Patriot. “He (came) into that locker room and said, ‘Hey, we don’t care what has happened with the Patriots (in the past). We’re here to win a championship.’ “
The Jets’ unpredictable, blitzkrieg defense â€” ranked No. 1 last season â€” is not quite as dominant. It suffered a blow Friday when safety Jim Leonhard broke his right leg in practice, a critical setback because he calls defensive signals and returns punts. He is lost for the season. Ryan called it a “letdown.”
However, the Jets’ offense is more balanced. Mark Sanchez is managing games better and is not “on so much of an emotional roller coaster,” said the second-year quarterback. Still, the Jets have had too many close scares, with late wins against struggling teams such as the Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns, although Sanchez has “shown a lot of poise this year in big games,” Belichick said.
“They have the rings, Tom Brady â€” everything,” said Jets fullback Tony Richardson. “We need to show the world we can go into a tough environment and beat a well-coached team.”
‘Anything short of a Super Bowl for us is a failure’
That is the very definition of Belichick, who like Ryan, is the son of a coach. A keen evaluator of talent who shrewdly procures extra draft selections and scours the waiver wire for salvageable parts, Belichick is the only coach to win three Super Bowls in the post-1993 salary-cap era.
Case in point: After the Jets released Danny Woodhead in September, Belichick quickly scooped up the 5-8 running back. The former Division II star has produced 574 rushing-receiving yards and scored four touchdowns. Ryan said Friday he regretted cutting Woodhead.
After finishing the 2007 regular season with a 16-0 record, but being upset 17-14 by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots showed some slippage. Belichick focused on getting younger, particularly on defense. The offense evolved this season after the team shipped Moss, its mercurial receiver, to Minnesota in early October.
The Patriots quickly reacquired receiver Deion Branch, the team’s MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, who has re-developed his rapport with Brady, the two-time Super Bowl MVP and five-time Pro Bowl signal-caller.
Defensively, the Patriots rank 31st, but Belichick worries about points, not yardage surrendered. New England is 21st in points allowed (24.2).
Belichick’s coaching style leads him to delegate less than Ryan, Izzo says. And when it comes to personality, the former linebacker and Pro Bowl special teams star says Belichick is not as dull as his public persona.
“Bill has a very dry sense of humor,” Izzo said. “I have laughed in (Patriots) team meetings as hard as I ever laughed.”
Last week, Belichick temporarily dropped his taciturn visage when asked about what his coaching staff did the prior day.
“Oh, we played golf â€” golf, bowling, a little badminton tournament, ate some watermelon, played cards,” replied the Patriots’ boss, who couldn’t resist another zinger when asked if the Patriots prepared for the Jets.
Yes, he said â€” “other than the pony rides and canoeing.”
But Belichick “really doesn’t care if he’s entertaining,” Izzo said. “He is focused on winning.”
Yes, this Jets-Patriots stuff can get quite serious. Earlier this season, the typically prudent Brady said he harbored “hate” for the Jets. In the days leading to Monday’s game, he bit his mouthpiece.
“Do I still hate them?” Brady repeated to reporters. “Well, I promised coach Belichick that I wouldn’t say anything derogatory, so I have no comment.”
Such circumspection has held the Patriots in good stead.
The Jets? “Sexy Rexy” vociferously has vowed to rectify the franchise’s often-lousy history. But unlike the Patriots, the Jets have not played in a Super Bowl since 1968, which they won after Joe Namath’s famous guarantee.
Ryan has stopped short of such proclamations, but as Jets guard Brandon Moore said, “Everyone knows that anything short of a Super Bowl for us is a failure â€” a complete failure.”