Commentary

Don't count Jets out against Patriots

Patriots will play Sunday's game against Jets to the fullest thanks to years of hatred

Updated: September 18, 2010, 7:28 PM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Has one football team ever had a more rugged week than the New York Jets?

They imploded on Monday Night Football in their season opener by accruing the most penalty yards in 22 years, then discovered one of their key defensive players, Kris Jenkins, was out for the season with a knee injury after less than one half of football.

Quarterback Mark Sanchez proved to be so inept that former New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, now an ESPN analyst, dismissed him as a "frontrunner" who "tanks'' when adversity hits.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesJets quarterback Mark Sanchez spoke out, and then got called out.

Ouch.

A week ago, the Jets were bawdy, racy HBO media darlings. Now, suddenly, it's a Hard Knock life for Sanchez, his bombastic coach Rex Ryan and the sophomoric New York players whose antics in demeaning a female reporter have landed them as targets of a league investigation.

And we haven't even discussed cornerback Darrelle Revis' tight hamstring yet.

Who knew the 0-1 Jets would be looking at a "must win" game just two weeks into the regular season? The coach, the quarterback and the cornerback have all put their reputations on the line in recent days, and the pressure to live up to their bluster is mounting.

As recently as Sunday, New York was a trendy pick to win the division. Now, suddenly, the Jets are being gleefully dismissed as undisciplined, unprepared, immature and overrated.

And that is exactly why the Patriots should treat their excursion to the Meadowlands on Sunday like a playoff game.

If there's one thing we've learned about sports, it's this: When you pit two bitter rivals opposite each other, you can forget about the won-loss records, depth charts and injury reports. Chortle at the Jets' misfortunes if you like, but remember that Ryan, Sanchez and Revis were within two quarters of advancing to the Super Bowl last season -- without Kris Jenkins. Ryan might be arrogant, profane and obnoxious (picture an R-rated Uncle Buck), but he's also a defensive savant with innovative ideas about how to make Tom Brady's life miserable.

This game is fraught with danger for New England on many levels. The minute you introduce emotion, rancor and, as Brady announced, even "hate'' into the equation, all bets are off. Anything can -- and often does -- happen.

That's what builds rivalries, and the Patriots and Jets have evolved into one of the most volatile and intriguing matchups in the NFL. Although players from both locker rooms have been conditioned to sell Sunday's meeting as just another game, we all know better.

Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo compared it to when his beloved Tennessee lined up against rival Alabama.

"It was always different the week we played Bama,'' Mayo said. "The coaches, the players did a little more, practiced a little longer. "Same with this game. Everyone is going a little harder.''

Mayo hasn't been around long enough (yet) to despise the Jets, but, in mingling with his veteran teammates this week, he revealed, "I can feel the competitive hate.''

The seeds were planted when Bill Belichick scribbled his resignation as "HC of the NYJ'' on a piece of loose leaf paper in 1999, less than 48 hours after he accepted the job. In a classic twist to an already bizarre sequence of events, he soon ended up as HC of the NEP.

When former New England assistant Eric Mangini became HC of the NYJ and his franchise implicated his former Patriots team in Spy Gate, the acrimony was ratcheted another notch.

Ryan added to the intrigue when, upon his arrival in New York, declared he was not there to "kiss Bill Belichick's, you know, rings.''

That talk appeared cheap until the Jets stunned the Patriots 16-9 last September, holding Brady and his charges to zero offensive touchdowns with an array of blitzes. Revis later coined receiver Randy Moss "a slouch'' after the receiver caught just four passes for 24 yards.

New England countered with a 31-14 win last November in which Sanchez threw four interceptions and Wes Welker, who was injured in the first outing, caught 15 balls for 192 yards.

In a recent interview, the normally diplomatic Brady vented, "I hate the Jets.''

No wonder the anticipation for this game is palpable.

Explained rookie Aaron Hernandez, "Everyone is a little more amped up. You can tell the intensity level is different this week.''

The trick is to channel those emotions appropriately. Belichick has cornered the market on "even keel'' and has encouraged his players to follow suit.

[+] EnlargeNew England Patriots vs. New York Jets
David Butler II/US PresswireThe Patriots-Jets rivalry got heated among the coaches beginning in 1999.

"I learned that from wrestling,'' said Patriots offensive lineman Stephen Neal. "There were a few times I got myself all riled up and didn't do very well.

"It can go either way. Sometimes emotion helps guys, other times it hurts them. I've found it's best to stay a little detached.''

It is a tall order when rivalries are involved, whether it's Harvard-Yale, Celtics-Lakers or Canadiens-Bruins. Neal understands. As a kid growing up in San Diego, it was the Padres against the Dodgers that made his blood boil.

"We just hated L.A.,'' he said. "The Chargers and the Raiders were another one. Of course, I could care less who wins now.''

For Gerard Warren, it was Jordan's Chicago Bulls versus Isiah Thomas' Detroit Pistons that got his heart pounding. For rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski, it was his high school team, Williamsville (N.Y.) North against cross-town rival Williamsville East.

"But when you are talking the pros, it was the Yankees and the Red Sox,'' Gronkowski reported. "They definitely have 'juice.' I love watching them go at it.''

The Patriots and the Jets will draw its own share of observers. They have Moss versus Revis, Belichick versus Ryan, Sanchez versus the world.

Just another game? Not this week. There's too many scores to settle, too many reputations hanging in the balance.

Too much juice.

Jackie MacMullan, who spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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