If the New York Jets expect it to be easy Sunday, if they think they're going to strut into Ralph Wilson Stadium and intimidate the winless Buffalo Bills, they need to relax for a moment and listen to this story:
The story of the ham sandwich.
In December 2006, when then-coach Eric Mangini was building his short-lived "Man-genius" reputation, the Jets faced the struggling Bills in what was supposed to be a walkover. But the Jets played horribly in a 31-13 loss, a game best remembered for Willis McGahee's 57-yard touchdown run in the first quarter -- specifically, the fallout.
Playing with an upset stomach, not to mention three cracked ribs, McGahee threw up when he returned to the Bills' bench. In an attempt to settle his stomach, he received a ham-and-cheese sandwich from someone. (Maybe it was the same mystery vendor who supplied Mark Sanchez with a hot dog last year in Oakland.) McGahee removed the cheese -- didn't want to mess with a dairy product -- and devoured the ham and bread.
That play -- that moment -- symbolizes the recent Jets-Bills rivalry. Even when the Bills are hurt and under the weather, which pretty much describes their past decade, they seem to find a way to beat the Jets. They have mastered the upset, and no, we're not just talking about stomachs.
"I guess it's a rivalry thing," said Jets guard Brandon Moore, trying to explain the phenomenon.
If Jets fans are feeling a bit queasy about Sunday, they may not want to read the following:
Since 2001, the Jets are 10-8 against the Bills, but seven of the losses came when the Bills were at least two games under .500. The most crushing defeats came in 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2009 -- all playoff seasons for the Jets. In those upsets, the Bills entered with records of 2-12, 2-5, 5-7 and 1-4, respectively.
Get the picture?
This is the definition of a trap game. After back-to-back emotional wins over the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins, the Jets (2-1) are looking to complete the divisional hat trick by beating the worst team (on paper) in the AFC East. Rex Ryan said it would be a "huge accomplishment" if they reach the quarter pole with a three-game winning streak.
Be careful, though. With Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings looming next Monday night, the Jets have to fight the natural tendency to let down. This will test the team's maturity. A championship team must be able to handle prosperity. The Jets, who absolutely believe they're a championship-caliber team, are loving life after overcoming off-field distractions.
But they're not going to succumb to the letdown factor. So they say.
"This is a division game," linebacker Bart Scott said. "It's not like we're going out to Oakland or playing Randallstown High School (in Baltimore). If you beat Miami and beat New England and lose to Buffalo, you're taking two steps back."
For his Saturday night speech to the team, Ryan should show video clips of last Oct. 18 at the Meadowlands. The Bills entered the game on a three-game losing streak, having scored only 20 points in those games. No way the Jets were going to lose.
They lost, thanks to five interceptions by Sanchez.
Or maybe Ryan should dust off the DVD from 2007, when the Jets went to Orchard Park after a big win over the Dolphins. The Bills were 0-3, same as now. No way the Jets were going to lose.
They lost. After the game, an angry Jets fan somehow got into the stadium offices and berated owner Woody Johnson and GM Mike Tannenbaum as they waited solemnly for an elevator to the Jets' locker room.
"Come on, boys," the fan screamed. "I came all the way from White Plains for this?"
The Bills have a way of bringing out the worst in the Jets. It's one of the mysteries of the AFC East, right up there with Bill Belichick's infatuation with former Jets.
Let's be blunt: The Bills aren't a good team. Look at their roster, and you will find only five or six players that could start for the Jets.
What the Bills do have is a sense of desperation. They haven't won a game for their new coach, Chan Gailey, who shook up the team Monday by releasing former starting quarterback Trent Edwards. When a quarterback goes from starter to unemployed in a week, it has a profound impact in the locker room. There's a new sheriff in town, and he means business.
"It was definitely a shock to everybody," said Ryan Fitzpatrick, who replaced Edwards last week and energized the offense, albeit in a loss to the Patriots.
Ryan is banging the drums, trying to convince his team this is one of the four biggest games left on the schedule -- a reference to their remaining divisional games. At a time like this, it might pay to remember the ham sandwich.