Characters, plot are all in place for high drama
J-Day: T-minus four.
That would, of course, be “J’’ as in “Jets’’ day, or night as the case may be. This is the most eagerly anticipated regular-season Patriots games since, oh, I don’t know, the Colts game, which was all of two weeks ago.
It has been a rivalry of sorts for 50 years, since the Jets were the Titans and played in the Polo Grounds. It had some resonance in the Joe Namath era, and it took a major turn upward when Bill Parcells left the Patriots in favor of the Jets at the end of the 1996 season (in the direct aftermath of a Super Bowl appearance, no less) to take a job with the hated Jets, thus sparking a circumstance he jokingly referred to as “The Border Wars.’’
There was a twist when Bill Belichick, a Parcells assistant with both the Giants and Jets, decided he did not wish to become the “HC of the NYJ,’’ doing a 180 on the coaching offer in such a bizarre manner that many people wondered aloud whether Belichick was in need of some mental health counseling. Next thing you know, he’s coaching the Patriots.
I guess we all know how that worked out.
Which brings us to the present head coach of the NYJ, a man affectionately known in my house as “Cousin Rex.’’
Rex Ryan is that rarest of sports figures: a lovable villain. A villainous figure is great to have in any ongoing sports rivalry (Wilt Chamberlain being Exhibit A). But a villainous figure with an irrepressible, bubbly personality, a villainous figure with a superb sense of humor . . . well, that’s not something we encounter very often. And when it’s contrasted with the somber nature of your own coach, the result is an extra spicing of the plot that separates this rivalry from all others in the contemporary NFL.
Rex introduced himself to this rivalry on June 3, 2009, when he informed a New York radio audience, “I never came here to kiss Bill Belichick’s, you know, rings.’’ He followed that up by saying, “I came here to win. Let’s just put it that way: I’m not intimidated by New England, or anybody else.’’
What fan doesn’t love that kind of talk, especially if your team hasn’t been to the Super Bowl since 1969?
That was the opening volley, and he has never let up. He predicted before the season that his team was going to win the Super Bowl, and, of course, he is predicting now that his team will win Monday night. Coach Bill confirms only that he is aware the Jets are coming to town in the near future.
The Jets are 9-2, and there are two ways to look at that. They are either phenomenally lucky, and thus due for a colossal fall, or they are eminently resourceful and thus every bit as good as their record says they are.
See for yourself.
Week 1: Baltimore 10, Jets 9.
Week 2: Jets 28, Patriots 14. Patriots lead at half, but Jets outscore them, 18-0, after intermission.
Week 3: Jets 31, at Miami 23. Drew Coleman end zone interception seals it with 23 seconds left.
Week 4: Jets 38, Buffalo 14.
Week 5: Jets 29, Minnesota 20. Dwight Lowery 26-yard interception return clinches it with 1:30 left.
Week 6: Jets 24, at Denver 20. LaDainian Tomlinson TD wins it with 1:13 left after pass interference call keeps drive alive on fourth-and-6 incompletion.
Week 7: Bye.
Week 8: Green Bay 9, Jets 0.
Week 9: Jets 23, at Detroit 20. TD with 2:46 left ties it in regulation. Nick Folk 36-yard field goal wins in OT.
Week 10: Jets 26, at Cleveland 20. Mark Sanchez to Santonio Holmes 37-yard TD pass with 16 seconds left in OT wins it.
Week 11 Jets 30, Houston 27. Sanchez 6-yard TD pass to Braylon Edwards with 10 seconds left wins it. Key play a 42-yard pass to Edwards on which he is knocked out of bounds by Eugene Wilson to stop the clock.
Says Sanchez: “We’re cutting it pretty close. I don’t think anybody has any fingernails left if they’re a Jets fan.’’
Says Cousin Rex: “If I have to apologize for it every week from here on, I will, all the way to the Super Bowl.’’
Week 12: Jets 26, Cincinnati 10. Jets trail, 7-3, at half. Two second-half TDs (53-yard run, 89-yard kickoff return) by the ever-dangerous Brad Smith change the game.
That’s a lot of living on the edge. You’ll note that the only team they have beaten that currently has a winning record is your beloved Patriots. They can say they hung in there with both the Ravens and Packers, but a naysayer can say they were at home in both cases, so they get no props for that.
On paper, the Jets do appear to have more players of stature than the Patriots, especially on defense. They claim to have a better 53-man roster, and so be it. But for all their bragging, they do have something to prove.
The Patriots still have Tom Brady and they still have Coach Bill, and their iffy defense does seem to have the capacity to make the big play. The Patriots may not always look pretty, but they have beaten the Ravens, Chargers, Steelers, and Colts, all the while keeping their mouths shut.
You could not have two more contrasting coaching approaches. Cousin Rex could (and I’m sure someday will) host “Saturday Night Live.’’ Coach Bill could tutor the North Koreans in public relations. We’re not always going to be this fortunate. As far as this rivalry is concerned, be aware that these are indeed the good old days.