FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — As the question was asked, a hint of a smile played across Rex Ryan’s face. Why, exactly, does he seem to enjoy tweaking the Patriots so darn much?
“I want them to know and they know that I think we’re going to beat them,” the Jets coach said. “I don’t buy into all that other stuff. But I recognize they’re a great football team and [Bill] Belichick’s a great coach. I’ve never once said that he wasn’t. But again, we’re not going to back down or concede anything.
“They’re going to get our best shot. We know we’re going to get theirs. So it really doesn’t matter who says what, but we’re going to be ourselves. We’re coming up there to take our swing. We’ll see if we land that punch to win the game.”
Still, the respect for the Patriots is just as clear. He said the Jets tend to build their team with the Patriots in mind, knowing that team sets the tone in the AFC East every year.
“I’ve never stopped not thinking about the Patriots,” said Ryan in a double-negative, laughing, when asked when preparations for the Patriots — who host the Jets Sunday at Gillette Stadium — began.
“That’s the team you’ve got to beat to win our division,” he continued. “Obviously Buffalo and Miami are improved — not taking anything away from them — but the team that’s won our division since I’ve been the head coach here is always New England. So that’s the one you have to beat.
“You build your roster sometimes in trying to compete, trying to beat this team, so you’re always thinking about them.”
That was part of the reason that the Jets invested so heavily in their secondary, assembling a set of cornerbacks to rival any in the National Football League. Though that corps was hampered significantly by the ACL injury to Darrelle Revis, the Jets still boast Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson. They also added to their stable of safeties to counter Patriots tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
Ryan said part of taking Wilson with the 29th pick in the 2010 draft was “to match up with those guys.”
“We’re one of maybe the only teams in the league that can try to play them in man coverage, where most guys would back up and play zone after zone, down after down,” Ryan said. “So I think we maybe present different challenges.”
The Jets hope that they can present enough of a challenge Sunday to put themselves atop the division, one that has four teams at 3-3. As a chuckling Ryan put it, “It’s good news/bad news. Let’s face it. We’re tied for first in our division. That’s great. We’re also tied for last. It’s a little depressing.”
And while no one in the Jets locker room Monday would say the team believes the Patriots are weaker than usual, there is an opening.
“If you’re going to win this division, you’re going to have to do it through 16 games, so we’ll see,” Ryan said. “Are they more vulnerable? I don’t know. They’ve lost three games. That’s probably more than they normally lose in the season, but we need to worry about ourselves more than anybody else.”
“It’s still the Patriots,” tight end Dustin Keller said. “They do a good job of game planning, making adjustments at halftime, all those things. We definitely have to be ready for anything.”
As Ryan put it, “we always get their best, and they always get ours.”
To that end, safety Eric Smith said, the feeling during Patriots week has already started in the locker room. It’s a rivalry. It’s a chance for one team to take a step up in the AFC East.
“We’re in a really good position,” Keller said. “New England is right there with us, but if we win this game, it puts us outright first. We’re in a good spot right now.
“I am [surprised at their record]. They’re usually a lot better than that at this point in the year, but that can turn around at any moment.”