THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Finally, let the game begin

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 6, 2010

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Bill Belichick and Tom Brady — the Red Auerbach and Bill Russell of our 21st century football renaissance — have done their best to remind us that this is just another game.

“Every game is a big game,’’ Belichick said Saturday.

“It’s a regular-season game against a division opponent that’s 9-2,’’ insisted Brady, a.k.a. Mr. Pluggs and UGGs of 2010. “This is not the Super Bowl.’’

He’s right, of course. This is not the Super Bowl.

It’s bigger. Tonight’s game is in our backyard, not some generic grid in yahoo Jacksonville. There’s no Roman numeral game that could support the hype and hysteria attached to this Jets-Patriots joust on “Monday Night Football.’’

This is Brady vs. Mark Sanchez. Brady Gaga vs. The Sanchise. Who’s got the better hair? Who wins the beefcake award?

It’s Belichick vs. Rex Ryan. The Bully vs. the Belly. The Hoodie vs. the Blowhard. The HC of the NEP vs. the HC of the NYJ. Mr. Play-It-Close-To-The-Vest vs. Mr. Fire-All-Your-Guns-At-Once.

It’s Patriot footie pajama fanboys vs. those Jets lifers who make you want to count the silver after they come over for dinner.

It’s the quarterback with 25 consecutive regular-season home victories vs. the team with eight consecutive regular-season road wins.

It’s New England vs. New York and everything that comes with that; Red Sox vs. Yankees with the New England football team assuming the role of the Evil Empire.

Patriots vs. Jets is more than a border war, more than football. It’s a referendum on a way of life.

It brings Mike Tirico, Jaws, Suzy Kolber, and Michele Tafoya to our town. Jon “This Guy’’ Gruden will be in the house, near the sacred sod where he lost the Tuck Game when it all started here on that snowy night back in 2002.

Just for good measure, the Patriots will honor Tedy Bruschi, who best symbolizes everything that was great about the Patriot dynasty in the first half of this decade.

It’s hard to pinpoint at what moment, precisely, this game became The Game of the Century, but certainly the hype for this one dwarfs every other game played in the NFL this season. It helps that the Patriots and Jets play in the same division and share the best record in the conference. New England’s inferiority complex toward all things New York is a contributing factor and the fact that both teams played on Thanksgiving means that there have been 10 full days of anticipation. Neither team played on either of the last two Sundays, which put the hyperbole at full throttle.

Big-game anticipation too often results in game-day disappointment, but tonight’s AFC East battle should sizzle just because of what’s at stake.

The Patriots can be fairly certain that losing tonight will take them out of Super Bowl contention. Not mathematically, of course, but practically speaking. If the Patriots lose this game they would have to win two more games than the Jets over the final four games in order to avert a No. 5 seed for the playoffs. In other words, a loss tonight means the Patriots are almost certain to be on the road for three playoff games before the Super Bowl.

If they win tonight, they have a shot at a first-round bye and a couple of home games before Dallas in February.

Bottom line: In order to get where you want to go, you must win this game. It’s not impossible if you lose, but it pretty much dooms your January prospects. Nobody will come out and say this now because the losers still want to have hope, but they all know what’s at stake tonight at the Razor. Who wants to be the No. 5 seed playing on the road in Round 1?

Ryan’s bluster inflates the matchup to Macy’s balloon dimension. The Jets boss has told the world he’s not here to kiss BB’s rings. He says he wants to kick Belichick’s ass. He says his Jets are Super Bowl bound. He openly mocks the Patriots’ paranoia (Damien Woody’s got a “lower-body injury’’). Making this more maddening, Ryan is 2-1 vs. Belichick in his one-plus seasons with the Jets. In that span, he also has two playoffs wins to Belichick’s zero.

The Patriots have not committed a turnover in their last three games. Brady has thrown 199 straight passes without an interception.

Back in the days when truth seeped from his mouth, Brady admitted he hates the Jets. It is a feeling shared by all those who pledge allegiance to the Patriots.

Don’t expect much work to get done in the Northeast corridor tomorrow morning. There’ll be lots of sleepy folks at their desks in schools and offices from Stockbridge to Boston to the Springsteen Swamps of Jersey.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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