Forgive the Patriots for thinking they had heard it all before.
Here came the New Yorkers again, with their brash talk and taunts, with their blowhard head coach insisting the game was a grudge match between him and the great Bill Belichick. To Belichick and his Super Bowl rings, the claim must have sounded bizarre.
Maybe that’s what Wes Welker thought when he hosted his now-infamous feet-filled press conference midweek, earning him a spot on the bench for the first series on Sunday. At some point—and Welker’s calculated outburst may have been that point—the Patriots players must have asked themselves: Who are these people?
After all, the Jets and their coach spewed plenty of bluster prior to last month’s Monday night showdown that ended in a 45-3 Patriots victory. Make that decimation. So humiliated were the Jets that evening that it was easy to wonder if Rex Ryan’s media shtick had already jumped the shark.
It takes a lot of gall to keep yapping after a whipping like that, as Ryan and the Jets did. Eventually brashness becomes arrogance, and arrogance turns to delusion. The only way out is to back it up.
So that’s what the Jets did.
Ryan’s genius has always been hidden in plain sight. Yes, his defensive gameplan was pitch-perfect. Forsaking his beloved blitzes, Ryan dropped seven and eight defenders into coverage schemes, confounding Tom Brady, who had ages to throw the ball and nowhere to throw it. Rarely has a quarterback with so much time in the pocket looked so uncomfortable.
After a shaky start, Mark Sanchez—he of the inexplicable 4-1 career playoff record—settled in to manage the game flawlessly with help from playoff veterans Santonio Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson, the latter wanting a piece of New England perhaps more than anyone.
Ryan and Sanchez arrived in New York together and their fates are undoubtedly tied. The coach has built up the quarterback, blithely maintaining that the Californian has “it,” even as nervous footwork and errant passes suggested otherwise. After winning what his coach termed the second-biggest game in franchise history, one can’t do anything but admire that brief but impressive playoff mark and concede that yes, the former GQ subject does indeed have “it.”
But it is something more that has sent Ryan skyrocketing toward the top of his profession and to near-mythical status among fans. It is the defiance with which he prepared his team for Sunday’s game, the shrug with which he pushed all his chips to the middle of the table. “Regardless of who we play, we think we're better than any team out there,” Ryan declared on the eve of the playoffs, despite 45 points worth of evidence to the contrary.
Welker was temporarily benched for his indiscretion before the microphones. Jets linebacker Bart Scott answered that Welker’s “days in a uniform are numbered” and received winking acceptance from his club. Antonio Cromartie employed a popular expletive to describe his feelings toward Tom Brady and then made one of the game’s defining plays, a daring scoop and return of a New England onside kick to set up the clinching touchdown.
By then it was obvious that the Jets’ talk had not been a cover or diversion. Ryan and his team had actually believed what they’d been saying all week —that they belonged on the same field with the Patriots no matter what happened in December; that they expected to win; that they should be expected to win. Look past the theatrics and consider: Ryan took a team that should have been shattered and made it think, act and play like favorites.
The Jets are heading to Pittsburgh in part because they refused to be bowed or even acknowledge their failures. Because their head coach was served humble pie and then pounded his fist on the dinner table. After the win, Ryan wasted no time setting the tone for the upcoming week. “We’re moving on, same old Jets going to the AFC championship game two years in a row. Only difference is, we plan on winning this one.”
The Steelers would be wise to take him at his word.