The year was 2007. The New England Patriots were at the peak of their powers, on their way to an undefeated regular season, filleting opponents with ease. Two brilliant acquisitions at receiver, enigmatic Randy Moss and overlooked Wes Walker, placed peerless quarterback Tom Brady in perfect position to operate an unstoppable offense. The New York Jets were expected to offer legitimate competition for New England, but there really was no contest. The Jets were weak at the point of attack on both sides of the ball, and didn’t have a dynamic passer to carry the team, not even close. And so, when the two teams met late in the season, the Jets were playing purely for the purposes of pride.
Kellen Clemens, deep in the process of disappointing as starter, was knocked out of the game early on a vicious sack, leaving the task to Chad Pennington, who performed admirably in relief, but couldn’t quite lead a stunning road upset. It was a familiar theme for everyone associated with the Jets, a hard fought effort producing an empty loss.
There are no moral victories in football. The abridged schedule could never allow it. The line separating entrenchment and displacement is so perilously thin the constant shifts begin to seem organic. All of the sudden Sproles is out there at crunch-time instead of Tomlinson, and it’s only natural. The riptide forces change, and the fantasy leaguers do all they can to keep up. For the players and coaches, there are no answers beyond what the scoreboard offers. No time for philosophy. And on that raw winter day, despite encouraging play from a rookie corner named Darrelle Revis, who stepped up to the challenge of covering Randy Moss, the Patriots won, and the Jets lost. The contest had spoken volumes about where both teams were, the harsh truth.
But the crystallizing moment may have occurred afterward, during a presser featuring Brady, who perhaps had reached the apex of his remarkable flight. “We swept the Jets,” he said suppressing a smile. Even though the opponent was already seemingly defeated, Brady seemed to relish finishing the task with brutal efficiency. If the fictional Commodus had that kind of killer instinct, Russell Crowe wouldn’t have stood a chance in “Gladiator”. It is the mark of a champion.
Anyone with eyes could see these two franchises shared a hatred extending far beyond the white lines. In 2007, it pulsated subtly, still there, but mere background noise. Much has changed. This Sunday offers something far more tangible, for all parties involved.
From a Jets perspective, 2007 represents the perfect prologue in a new narrative. This one fades to black following their unseating of New England as perennial AFC East power. Whether the Patriots comply with this script is a matter to be decided. But following that season’s truly dismal showing, New York was ultra aggressive in the open market. Those maneuvers set up Eric Mangini for a fall, connecting a chain of events forming a cast that could be different. Or not. The Patriots, despite their surprising struggle against the Bills, are still a formidable foe. One fact is absolutely certain… the Jets aren’t afraid. Just ask them.
“You go out from the first quarter on, from the first play on and try to embarrass them. Not just go out there and try to win, try to embarrass them. Try to make them feel bad when they leave here.” Kerry Rhodes is responsible for this quote. It’s the kind of line that defines a week of hype. Provides an unavoidable storyline. All of the sudden, one can’t discuss the game without mentioning Rhodes.
The revelation of base emotion always intrigues. In this age of supreme manipulation, with public relations strangling expression like never before, when LeBron James and his Nike cronies have a harmless video of him being dunked on by an average Joe banned from public consumption, [lame] it’s refreshing that the home opener against a divisional foe can still coerce the modern athlete to forego fine etiquette in favor of raw trash talk. Why not? Is this a chess match or a football game? Is there anything more tiresome than control freak coaches restricting their player’s free speech, treating them like Junior Varsity athletes prepping for their first interview?
According to the Daily News, Rhodes wasn’t finished. “We will hit him [Tom Brady] more than six times,” Rhodes predicted, expecting the game plan to feature heavy blitzing. Well, that would hardly be a shock. “Any quarterback can be rattled,” Rhodes explained.
Kerry Rhodes is at a critical point in his career. Lauded as one of the best safeties in football after a spectacular beginning to his career, he seemed suppressed as the defense collapsed in 2008. Forced to assist in coverage, the ball-hawk nicknamed “Hollywood” by his teammates began resembling a phantom as the Jets’ playoff aspirations vanished down the stretch. These sentiments may have revealed much about his mind-frame. With a new coach and coordinator in place, and a dominating defensive effort in the books for week one, Rhodes appears frothing to attack. Through his entire tenure, the Jets simply have not measured up to New England. In their last eight trips to the Meadowlands, the Patriots have waltzed off the field victorious. That kind of statistic beckons baseness in the defeated. And the frustration seems to be boiling over. Is Rhodes speaking only for himself? Doubtful.
And though the other Jets weren’t as controversial in their delivery, a resolutely confident tone has been established at Florham Park. “We believe in our preparation. We practice really hard,” reasoned Leon Washington. “We believe, going into the game that we have the best chance to win. We don’t believe in letting the other team dictate our outcome. If we go out there and do what we’ve been doing all year long, we’ll be fine. We’ll back it up. I’m a firm believer in that.”
Jim Leonhard was equally assured. “We feel like we have a great game plan going into this week. As a secondary, we feel like we can’t have any busts in coverage. We can’t have any miscommunication between us. If we play well in the back end, that front seven is going to play well.”
Rhodes’ candor seems to speak to another challenge facing Rex Ryan as he stalks the sidelines this Sunday afternoon. The Jets are pumped and primed, but will they be in control? With a frenzied home crowd and self-imposed high stakes both a factor [Kris Jenkins called it “Our Superbowl”] discipline may just fly out the window. And handing New England’s high-octane offense free penalty yardage is not in the Jets’ best interests. Ryan acknowledged Rhodes’ disgust. Did not chastise his safety’s honesty. “Our franchise has been embarrassed (with) eight straight losses at home. You’ll have to ask Kerry if that’s what he meant, but that’s probably where that tone was coming from.”
And so, past the headlines and bulletin board material, there is the game. The Jets most likely will attempt to establish their rushing duo early. The Patriots defensive line appeared a step slow last week. They seemed especially worn out late by the Buffalo’s no-huddle offense, making that Leodis McElvin fumble all the more heartbreaking. A big run by Leon Washington within the opening minutes would electrify the crowd and shift momentum toward the Jets.
Thomas Jones seemed to be heading for a nondescript week one, but he popped a few long runs late, prettying up his numbers. If the Jets get Jones in a groove, the play-action could open up. Dustin Keller will be a major factor… the Patriots couldn’t stop him at Foxboro last season, and it will be interesting to see if they adjust.
With the Jets so completely hyped for this contest, one wonders whether Bill Belichick and his staff will attempt using that emotion against them. The most obvious resource in this stratagem would be the screen pass. If the Jets are undisciplined, they could be burnt.
This is going to be a close one. The difference will be New England’s Achilles heel: a suspect ground attack. Kris Jenkins and company will force the Patriots to throw early, and that fortified secondary will be equal to the moment. The Jets will lead at halftime and hold the Patriots off, surviving a late scare.
Jets 24 – Patriots 20