Jets out for blood, but will it matter?
Tunnel-vision Pats not swayed by smack talk, but they'll need to match N.Y.'s thirst
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Jets insults have been hurled so fast, furiously and emphatically this week, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have needed a secretary skilled in shorthand to keep pace.
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Let's see. Rex Ryan wants a piece of Belichick because it's "personal." The Jets want a piece of the Patriots because last time they ran up the score and pointed derisively to the sidelines. That 45-3 drubbing was, according to New York guard Matt Slauson, "a fluke."
Tom Brady, it appears, doesn't study enough and attends cultured New York events in impeccably tailored suits with his stunning wife on his arm instead of watching the Jets play football. (Hey Rex, ever heard of TiVo?) New England's quarterback and MVP favorite is, according to Antonio Cromartie, an "ass----" (rhymes with crass mole). Even Brady's teammate Deion Branch couldn't resist piling on with a good-natured swipe at Brady's diligent preparation. "He's kind of a dork that way," Branch said, grinning.
The "dork" hasn't taken the bait. His hair is still growing, along with his interception-free streak (355 consecutive passes and counting) and his reputation as the most unflappable quarterback in the game.
So the Jets and the Patriots will do it all over again Sunday afternoon, this time with the right to advance to the AFC Championship Game on the line, with New York's rhetoric clearly designed either to spur its opponent into an emotional war of words, or at least to distract them temporarily from preparing for what really matters: the actual football plays that will decide the game.
Wrong tactic against the wrong team, wrong coach and wrong superstar.
Here's what the Patriots have heard this week: "Blah blah blah blah blah." Picture Charlie Brown, Linus and the rest of the Peanuts gang as their nameless, faceless teacher stands at the blackboard droning on about nonsense.
Talking smack has never been particularly effective against Bill Belichick's teams. He hammers them into a robotic trance, forbidding them to express any hint of human emotion that might alter the single-minded focus required to be a card-carrying member of Patriot Nation. As Wes Welker explained recently, "It's all about what's going on in our locker room. Nothing else matters. Nothing else better matter."
So while Rex Ryan buried the ball from that embarrassing 45-3 Jets loss Dec. 6, Belichick buried the game tape. He keeps replaying Week 2 -- when his Patriots were outplayed by the Jets 28-14 -- instead.
New England's efficiency has improved notably since then. In the 11 weeks since Brady threw his most recent interception, his defensive teammates have picked off 18 passes. BenJarvus Green-Ellishas not fumbled the ball -- ever.
Whenever he affords himself the opportunity, Brady will look back on the 2010 regular season with a considerable measure of satisfaction. He submitted perhaps his finest body of work in the absence of -- for the first eight weeks -- his best offensive lineman (Logan Mankins), without his good friend and only true deep threat (Randy Moss) after Week 4, and with his most redoubtable receiver (Welker) coming off major knee surgery. His top two tight ends were rookies, his running back (Green-Ellis) unproven and his offensive coordinator was now who is his offensive coordinator again? Not a bad showing for a "crass mole."
For a team that literally retooled on the fly and placed a pile of young players in significant roles, including four rookies (Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Spikes), the Patriots appear uncommonly poised.
Yet the playoffs truly are the "second season," and anything can happen -- like, for instance, the defending Super Bowl champions losing to a team with a 7-9 record.
Of all the impressive statistics that favor New England, here's a sobering one that should give them pause: Since their most recent Super Bowl win, the Patriots have gone 2-4 in the postseason against repeat opponents.
The two that come quickly to mind are last season's Baltimore Ravens team, which lost 27-21 to the Patriots in Foxborough in October, then handily eliminated them from postseason contention in the first round of the playoffs, and the New York Giants, who won Super Bowl XLII with David Tyree's helmet catch five weeks after narrowly dropping a game to the Patriots in the season finale.
It's hard to beat good teams two consecutive times, and you have to surmise that New York learned something from that 45-3 humiliation. For one thing, does anyone expect Mark Sanchez to try to beat New England with a shotgun no-huddle offense again? Unlikely.
Remember, too, that the Jets learned just days before that Dec. 6 massacre that Jim Leonhard, the quarterback of their secondary, was lost for the season with a broken leg. Think about the Boston Celtics and the news that they'd lost Kevin Garnett, their most critical defensive cog. Remember the look on the faces of Boston's "gang green" when KG limped off against Detroit a few weeks ago? At the time, no one knew it was merely a calf strain. It looked serious, and the devastated Celtics imploded against the lowly Pistons.
Leonhard isn't coming back, but the Jets have adjusted both emotionally and physically. They want blood -- Super Bowl blood. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady blood.
Even with Belichick's orders to adhere to the mundane, the Patriots are human. They are programmed to be focused with tunnel vision, but can they match the thirst for revenge and redemption their division rivals are harping on as this game approaches?
Ryan might be blustery and his cornerback might be classless, but the Jets did upend Peyton Manning and the Colts on the road. The HC of the NYJ is already the winningest coach in his franchise's postseason history.
And if you think he's satisfied with that, you haven't been paying attention.
The insults are hollow, the rhetoric meaningless. But if the New York Jets win Sunday, all that changes in a hurry.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.