Pats know Rex's Jets always a threat
New York may be struggling, but New England expects typical dogfight
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Things were so much simpler before he came along.
The once-feverish Border War that existed between the Patriots and Jets had cooled to something more of a regional disagreement. Any tension caused by the coaches and players that swapped sides was generally overshadowed by the one-sided nature of the series ever since Mo Lewis trucked Drew Bledsoe in 2001. Postgame handshakes were the feature attraction after the Patriots took care of business during a 60-minute coming attraction.
Then Rex Ryan showed up with all his swagger and reminded everyone how it used to be, back when Tuna Bowls were the biggest game on the annual menu. In revitalizing the Jets, Ryan made the Patriots' 16-game schedule 12.5 percent more interesting each year (17.6 percent more intriguing when the two teams met three times last season).
"I hoped we would beat them more," Ryan said this week when asked if he had rekindled the rivalry as much as he had anticipated after taking over as the coach of the Jets, noting his lament of not being able to wrestle the AFC East title away from the Patriots more often. "But clearly this is a great football team. They've got the best coach in the league, arguably the best quarterback in the league, so it's a huge challenge.
"But to think that we're just going to accept that 'Well, we can't beat those guys' -- no way in heck. We're here to beat everybody. New England is the best team in the league, but, again, we want to be the best team in the league, so that hasn't changed one bit. We're not backing down to anybody."
And they haven't. Just look at Tom Brady's numbers as a starter vs. New York before and after Ryan's arrival. From 2001 to 2008, Brady boasted a 12-2 mark against the Jets, completing 64.3 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns and six interceptions. Ryan took over in 2009, and including playoff games, Brady is a mere 2-3, completing 61.1 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and four interceptions.
"They're good," Brady said this week. "They were good last year, they're good this year, and they were good two years ago. I think as long as Rex is coaching that team, they're going to have good defense."
Brady needs no reminder after being harassed by the Jets throughout last season's 28-21 AFC divisional playoff loss that spoiled New England's glossy 14-2 regular season. While the Patriots haven't won a postseason game since 2007, the Jets have been to the AFC championship game in each of the past two seasons.
That's motivation enough for the championship-or-bust Patriots.
It doesn't hurt that Ryan is the perfect foil to Patriots coach Bill Belichick. He's never met hype he hasn't liked and is fine with letting everyone know he doesn't plan to kiss Belichick's five rings. Ryan has been able to offer preseason Super Bowl proclamations because his team has backed him up with its play on the field.
Some of that bravado has been shelved this week, however. After back-to-back losses, including a particularly thorough stomping from a Baltimore Ravens defense he helped build, Ryan has toned it down a bit. After all, it's just early October. Might as well save the good stuff for January. Both teams figure they'll be playing then too.
This week's headlines have been dominated by the potential on-the-field matchups, most notably whether Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis will defend Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker. As part of New England's historic offensive start, Welker boasts NFL bests with 40 catches for 616 yards, catching five of Brady's 13 touchdown passes.
Even Welker seems to think the Jets would be crazy to put anyone but Revis on him.
"We've cut out about 600 snaps between last year and this year where he's actually been in the slot," Welker said of Revis. "I don't think it's anything different from what they do. He's very patient, physical, a smart player. He's definitely going to present some problems for us."
Health has been in the headlines as well. The Jets are hoping to get center Nick Mangold back from an ankle injury, and Vince Wilfork offered a big compliment when he said he hopes Mangold doesn't play. The Patriots are crossing their fingers on Albert Haynesworth (back), Aaron Hernandez (knee) and Mike Wright (concussion), and some additional health in the secondary would go a long way as well.
Like many of the recent Jets-Patriots battles, this one is likely to be dictated by the guys up front. During last season's playoff win, the Jets sacked Brady five times and hit him on what seemed like each of his 45 dropbacks. The Jets know that one of the few things that can throw off the Patriots' offense is pressure, and they're sure to bring it in heavy doses.
Meanwhile, the Patriots need to find a way to ramp up their own pressure. New England ranks 31st in sacks per dropback this season and hasn't tackled the opposing quarterback behind the line of scrimmage since the final minutes of a Week 2 win over the San Diego Chargers. The Ravens harassed Sanchez the entire game last week, and the Patriots could benefit from at least the threat of a rush.
Offensively, the Patriots have scored 30 or more points in each of their last 12 regular-season games and stand two games shy of matching the NFL record set by the Greatest Show on Turf Rams. Despite the Jets' recent struggles, they are the biggest threat to that streak.
Belichick has said that it takes around four weeks to know exactly what a team has at the start of the year. Game 5 ought to tell him an awful lot more about his squad, as this one will have a playoff feel -- even if the anticipated 80-degree weather will suggest something more of a preseason battle.
The Patriots have remained mum this week, not offering bulletin-board fodder for the Jets, even though it's impossible to believe them when they suggest they can't remember last season's playoff loss.
"I don't think we need to fuel anything," Logan Mankins said. "We know it's a big week. We don't need to look to that [playoff loss] for motivation."
No, just the sight of Ryan on the opposing sideline should be enough.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.