- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Back in the day, on the rare occasions when their conflicting schedules allowed it, Wellington Mara and Leon Hess would gather in Hess' Giants Stadium suite and prepare to watch the New York Jets find yet another unfathomable way to lose a football game.
And usually right before kickoff, the patriarch of the New York Giants once said, "Leon would turn to me and say, 'I just hope we don't get embarrassed today.' I always hoped for more than that."
Times, owners and ambitions have changed. The Jets no longer strive to avoid embarrassment, but to impose it on the other team. They've talked and played their way into a position of temporary superiority in the marketplace, establishing something of an evil-empire identity without the championship rings often required for evil-empire status.
"I think Rex Ryan did a great job of putting his team on the national map," was the way Justin Tuck put it.
So here comes the biggest heavyweight fight the Jets and Giants have ever staged. On that final, fateful day of the 1988 season, only the Giants were in danger of losing a spot in the playoffs, and lose that spot they did.
This time around? Both teams are fighting for their postseason lives, and it sure appears both teams are facing a loser-goes-home proposition. We know the Yankees and Mets met in the 2000 World Series, and we know the local basketball and hockey teams have met in the playoffs.
But this is not the postseason, nor is it a late spring/early summer Subway Series played before the divisional and wild-card races take shape. Giants-Jets on Christmas Eve is better likened to the Giants-Dodgers knockout game of 1951, the extended regular-season game decided by Bobby Thomson's shot, maybe the greatest New York, New York, sports moment of them all.
If the records involved (Jets at 8-6, Giants at 7-7) and this past Sunday's dreadful losses threatened to temper the hype, the Rex-inspired back-and-forth has pumped renewed life into the event. So has the fact that the game appears to be a toss-up.
"They like to run the ball and play-action pass," Giants GM Jerry Reese said of the Jets, "and we like to run the ball and play-action pass. So with respect to that, I think we are pretty evenly matched teams."
Pretty evenly matched teams with pretty evenly matched stakes. The Giants and Jets are on an Olympic schedule, playing this game once every four years, meaning there are no do-overs coming any time soon. They have to get it right inside MetLife Stadium or deal with the devastating consequences of defeat.
A whole lot of Giants and Jets have a whole lot to lose. Here are the figures who stand to lose the most:
Rex Ryan: The Jets' coach has put himself way out on a long and lonely limb, giving the Giants the kind of treatment he usually reserves for the New England Patriots. Ryan understood that once he started firing away at the Giants, ripping them all the way back to 2009, he was painting a target on his back the size of Central Park.
"If we lose," Ryan conceded, "it's coming right down on me."
Ryan promised a Super Bowl title, again, and if he can't even win the championship of East Rutherford and reach the playoffs, he'll officially become the coach who cried wolf. If he wants to be taken even the least bit seriously next year, it would be a pretty good idea to win this game.
Tom Coughlin: His employer, John Mara, doesn't look for reasons to fire people; he looks for reasons to keep them. But after nearly sacking Coughlin in 2006 and after thinking about it some last season, Mara could decide a loss to the Jets and a third straight season out of the playoffs finally constitute grounds for dismissal.
On the other hand, Coughlin could score a ton of long-term points with ownership if he sends the Jets' coach and his chief enabler, Woody Johnson, reeling into the night. Don't think for a second the Maras and the co-owning Tisches have dismissed Ryan's verbal barrage as just another round of Rex-being-Rex fun. The Giants elders want this one badly.
Brian Schottenheimer: Fair or unfair, contract extension or no contract extension, the offensive coordinator will be the Jets' answer to a human sacrifice if they miss the playoffs.
Ryan isn't going to go, and neither is Mike Pettine or Mike Westhoff. But someone will have to pay, meaning Schottenheimer needs a big day against a Giants defense all too willing to give them up.
Perry Fewell: He goes if Coughlin goes, anyway, but if the head coach survives a Saturday loss, the Giants could start looking sideways at their defensive coordinator.
Fewell remains an upgrade on his predecessor, Bill Sheridan, and a series of major injuries betrayed his cause. But the defense is ranked 28th in the league (as Ryan rushed to point out), and Steve Spagnuolo, the pre-Sheridan molder of the 2007 unit, could be on the market. This side of the ball is too steeped in the franchise ethos for the Giants to let it slide.
Mark Sanchez: Just as Eli Manning needed to prove he belonged in Tom Brady's league, Sanchez needs to prove he belongs in Manning's. No matter how deftly the Jets spin his play and his stats, Sanchez can't run from the fact that he's been this year's most conspicuous disappointment.
He was supposed to flower into a star, and it didn't happen. If Sanchez loses to the Giants and costs his team a playoff berth, the Jets will need to bring in a Vince Young type next summer as a clear and present danger to his first-string job.
Two years ago, Revis was so enraged by Chad Ochocinco's jabs that it elevated his already-otherworldly play. "Yeah," the cornerback said, "it lit a fire in my heart, just to try to dominate him." Nicks will line up opposite Revis. This could be a first-round TKO.
Plaxico Burress: He said he's planning on a career day against his former team, a full day spent in the end zone, and that overmatched Giants secondary inspires his faith.
But Burress has been quiet of late. His play Saturday will determine whether Coughlin and Reese made the right free-agent call in surrendering Plax to Rex or whether that was the worst $3 million the Giants never spent.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.
There is a lot at stake for members of the Jets and Giants on Saturday.