The first arrow launched at the behemoth of the East that is the New England Patriots came three months ago from a rookie head coach who hadn’t even blown his first whistle of fall training camp. Or something like that.
When Rex Ryan, the talkative fresh face of the New York Jets, went on the New York radio station WFAN in June to answer some questions about the upcoming season, he was honest, sincere, and brash. He wanted the people of the Big Apple to know that his boys weren’t going to be simply served up as clam chowder to their AFC East rivals.
“I never came here to kiss Bill Belichick’s rings,” Ryan said on the air. “I came here to win. Let's just put it that way.... And when they come here that second week of the season, we’ll see.”
Ryan set the tone for his team on that early summer day, a tone that he hopes will carry over to this Sunday when the two teams meet in the Meadowlands for the first time in the 2009 season.
Ryan’s words are being magnified this week, naturally, in an attempt to create some bulletin board material for Belichick and the Patriots. Belichick is the master of using press clippings as motivation for his staff and his players—except that those tactics don’t apply here.
No vendetta needs to be pulled out of Ryan’s words in order to crank up the intensity for this weekend’s game. This meeting already looks too good for that. If we need to rely on verbal sparring to get excited about this one, then we are missing something.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady delivered the final line on Wednesday when he spoke to the media. “Talk is cheap,” Brady said with a wry smile.
See, Brady is too smart for these mind games. The man has three Super Bowls while the Jets are mostly known for the rambunctious hecklers that don green and white regalia and fill Radio City Music Hall on draft day.
The Patriots have been to February and walked away sipping champagne. Jets nose tackle Kris Jenkins said New York is going to play this game like it’s the Super Bowl, hoping that the elevated adrenaline will culminate in a Rex Ryan Gatorade bath come Sunday afternoon.
“They can treat it however they want to treat it,” said Brady. “We’re going to treat it like we treat every game, and we’re going to put everything we have into it. It’s not the Super Bowl...but it’s as important as they come, in terms of our division and what that means in our place in our division.”
You won’t see New England being more outspoken about this contest than they were for the Buffalo Bills in Monday night’s season opener because they know there is plenty to worry about on the field. There is plenty to enjoy on the field, and that is what has me giddy about this game.
We know the Pats can score with the best of them. Brady threw for 378 yards and two TDs in a 25-24 win over the Bills, with 141 of those yards finding the supple palms of Randy Moss. With Wes Welker in the slot and the versatile Benjamin Watson at tight end, Brady doesn’t lack targets.
But we also know there are some concerns. It took the Pats three-and-a-half quarters to break through against a Bills D that ranked 14th in the NFL last season in total defense. If it wasn’t for two lightning-quick Brady TDs to Watson in the final three minutes of the game against the Bills, New England would still be searching for its first win of the season.
Were those inefficiencies due to normal first-game inconsistencies? Were they due to the fact that Brady was playing his first regular season game since Bernard Pollard attacked his left knee like a barbecued rib in the first quarter of Week One last year? Probably both.
This week would be a fine time for the offense to get rolling early as they are facing a much tougher defense in the Jets. With Ryan coming over from Baltimore, New York will be a defensive-minded football team. Heck, they went into Houston last Sunday and completely shut down the dynamic duo that is Steve Slaton and Andre Johnson.
What should scare the Patriots is their defense, particularly against the run. New England ranked 15th in the league in run defense in ’08 before watching Fred Jackson rush for nearly four yards per carry in the season opener this year and soften up the D just enough for Trent Edwards to do enough to give the Bills a chance to win.
The Jets will feature Thomas Jones, a more physical runner who enjoyed two touchdowns to go along with 107 yards rushing against Houston. Was that game a fluke for Jones? He won’t play like that every week, but I don’t know if I would call it a fluke. We will find out right away as the Jets will probably look to pound the ball on the ground to take some pressure off Mark Sanchez.
Which brings us to the biggest question of all: How is the rookie passer going to fare in his first real "Welcome to the NFL" moment? Nobody thought Sanchez was going to lead the Jets to victory last week. Nobody. You just don’t bet the family farm on a QB making his first professional start on the road.
But Sanchez showed guts, guile, and confidence. His charisma that was so prevalent in his short time at the University of Southern California made the trip with him to Houston.
As tough as that task was, I am going to say that this week will be even tougher.
Sanchez will be playing his first home game in one of the world’s most energetic cities in front of a sold-out stadium of football fanatics. New Yorkers think Sanchez can stir up the ghost of Joe Namath.
There is going to be a lot of emotion in the building on Sunday, and I can only imagine Sanchez’s heart will want to burst through his jersey when he runs out of the tunnel at home for the first time. Thinking of that gives me chills.
But, oh, by the way...you are playing Tom Brady, one of the five to eight best quarterbacks ever. You are trying to get to where your rivals have already been. They’ve been there three times this decade. You aren’t lining up against physical therapy majors anymore. These are men paid to bring the Lombardi Trophy to a franchise that covets them.
See, my friends? Nothing needs to be made out of Ryan’s choice of words three months ago. There’s plenty to be excited about, and it all will be settled on Sunday.
You can reach Teddy Mitrosilis at email@example.com.