Once the game starts this Sunday, all that will matter between the Patriots and Jets is the scoreboard. One team will win, the other will lose. The pregame hype and inflammatory quotes fade to dust, forgotten immediately upon opening kickoff. That’s the weight of the playoffs. Pregame antics can overshadow a regular season contest before it occurs. But they become, rightfully, a curious sideshow in the face of these stakes.
A whole roster of players, who dedicate their lives and bodies in the pursuit of success on the field, will either advance or taste uncompromising, irredeemable defeat. The coaches will either train their bleary eyes toward a new horizon, or be forced to acknowledge another fruitless chapter. Scouting staffs, coordinators, fans, writers, everyone is affected, by the outcome presented by sixty minutes. Because these hard facts would become repetitive if constantly hammered home by the media, [Most coaches try, bless them] intangibles are enthusiastically measured before kickoff. The effect of trash talking tabulated. States of mind considered. The past reviewed.
The Jets are riding into this game as perceived villains, and they have earned the designation. They wear the black hat like a crown. Instead of reconsidering the bravado, after being humiliated by New England in the team’s last matchup, a pivotal, very playoff like Monday Night tilt; the Jets organization has seemingly been emboldened by their underdog status. The Head Coach, Rex Ryan, set the tone, with enough flammable comments early in the week that he may have well been wearing an apron and chef’s hat. Ryan stoked the flames enthusiastically, though the grander plan appeared mysterious. What was the Jets approach, here? Were they prepared to go down swinging, or do they legitimately believe that Monday Night a fluke, not a byproduct of inescapable, easily exploitable defensive matchups?
So the Jets are fascinating, whether respected or reviled, with their ceaseless machismo, and Antonio Cromartie’s blunt soliloquy on Tom Brady. The Green and White formed an easy narrative: the underdog with enough self-confidence to risk absolute embarrassment. The Jets probably don’t give a damn, but they are hauling a bit of baggage into this contest, entirely through their braggadocio. Should they lose, convincingly, Rex Ryan would have used up some of his currency, as it concerns the credibility of his outlandish statements. A win though, would be legendary. Give the Jets this much: They don’t hedge.
Lost in all this Jet-related mania, though, are the ghosts following New England. When one considers New England in their mind’s eye, images of success doubtless pour forth. Super Bowl trophies being brandished on oversized stages; talented Colts teams floundering amid snowflakes, Ty Law nabbing an interception, Vinatieri kicking a field goal, another perfectly timed screen to avoid the Eagles blitz… the shine of championships is everlasting. However, it can also obscure. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will not acknowledge it publicly. Even proud Patriots fans would be hard pressed to admit it. But New England has something to prove, this Sunday. They play a role slightly more complicated than the superior, classier outfit forced to knock down a particularly meddlesome henchman; en route to a predictable victory. The Patriots’ postseason history, since denying Donovan McNabb a title in his finest season, has been quite checkered. There have been a few specific, wrenching losses, two of which could have been described as potential franchise cursers, for a less successful operation. The players who suited up for those Patriots teams? Most are gone. Yet, if the Jets are going to be held accountable for reasons basically hypothetical [What if the Patriots get really angry, etc. etc.] the same measures should at least be considered on New England’s side. Namely, can the Patriots overcome a recently painful postseason history?
Consider: In 2006, the Patriots sought to avenge a disappointing campaign one year prior. Sure, going 10-6 and reaching the playoffs is a great accomplishment for many franchises, but in New England, the expectations are sky high, especially at this particular time. The Patriots, after all, were in the midst of a legitimate NFL dynasty. In a league supposedly driven by parity, they had taken home the ultimate prize in 2001-2002, 2003-2004, and 2004-2005. Their ’05 regular season was not the dominant affair Patriots fans had grown accustomed to, and despite an impressive win over Jacksonville in the Wild Card round, New England fell to Denver in the divisional playoffs.
The Patriots returned to being a force, immediately, chalking up twelve wins in 2006, only missing prime seeding due to a few surprising regular season setbacks. [Week three to an inferior Denver team, week 10 at home to the overachieving Jets, week fourteen, at the Dolphins] The Pats silenced their doubters in the postseason, demolishing an upset minded Jets team, before shocking the loaded, homesteading San Diego Chargers to earn a berth in the Conference Championship. How huge was that win? Its ripples are still being felt, courtesy of Cromartie, who just may hate the Patriots due to their boisterous celebration on the Chargers’ home turf, after the matter was decided. LaDainian Tomlinson was furious after the game, too, but why would New England care? They were the underdog defying skeptics once more, with a receiving core totally devoid of any brand names. Beating the favored Chargers represented an emotional win of the highest order. They rode it into Indianapolis against another favored offensive juggernaut, the Colts. The Patriots owned the Colts in the postseason. But this time Peyton Manning and company had home-field advantage. Even still, the Patriots raced out to a 21-3 lead. After a one year interruption to their glory days, the Patriots had apparently reclaimed their elite status. They would play Chicago in the Super Bowl, and most likely win easily. Shockingly, however, considering his hopeless past against the machinations of Belichick, maligned pressure performer Peyton Manning rallied the Colts to a 38-34 comeback win, in a second half featuring a mind bending amount of twists and turns. Ultimately, the Colts prevailed, and the Patriots were defeated, in the kind of grisly manner which can haunt a team for a few years, as if a cloud of negative karma were constantly hovering.
The Patriots would not let that kind of letdown happen to them, however. Instead, they revamped their weak receiving core with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, attaining their services through trades, which, in retrospect; appear laughably one-sided. Cue the fireworks. In 2007, Tom Brady threw fifty touchdowns. Randy Moss caught 23 touchdowns, complimenting the countless times Wes Welker corralled a short pass over the middle. Did the Patriots improve upon 2006? Well, they went undefeated. 16-0. Sure, they should have had a loss to the Ravens mixed in there, but were bailed out by an ill-conceived timeout, delivered by none other than the man coordinating Baltimore’s defense, Rex Ryan. History was suddenly at stake, and if New England wasn’t totally unstoppable, they were definitely doing a hell of an impression. Tom Brady had two incompletions against the Jaguars in the divisional round. San Diego was clock controlled into submission, falling in the Conference Championship game. The Patriots were a great team, one of the best ever. They drew the Giants in the Super Bowl, a defense with a phenomenal pass rush, and a team on a magic carpet ride. A Patriots loss was unfathomable. Surely they would fall to the 10-6 Giants, who had to win three road games just to gain entry into the big dance. Surprise! The Patriots would lose, and not in any customary manner. No, for a team attempting to go undefeated, they lost in appropriately epic fashion, all the pain inflicted on other teams returned in one spare moment, when a special teamer named David Tyree caught a fourth quarter pass against his helmet, flung by a Quarterback previously in the grip of about three different defensive lineman. And that quarterback: the little brother of the guy who beat them the previous season. This defeat rendered the AFC Championship collapse a mere prelude.
The pain continued in 2008. New England regressed to eleven wins, playing without superstar quarterback Tom Brady, who injured his knee week one. At 11-5, they missed the playoffs, a rare occurrence. Even more galling, they lost out on a shot to avenge the agony of 18-1, because the Miami Dolphins, a one win squad in 2007, won the division. As for 2009, it was pretty nondescript. A forgettable regular season, by, again, those ridiculously high Patriots standards, capped off by a Ravens beat-down in the Wild Card round.
To recap: After winning their last Super Bowl, the Patriots blew an eighteen point lead to their most hated rival in a Conference Championship game, saw an undefeated season crumble because David Tyree made the greatest catch of all time, and saw their quarterback get wiped out in the opening moments of the sequel.
The Patriots…? Cursed? Ridiculous, right…? But a win by a big talking crew who got annihilated in their last matchup against the very team they are disrespecting… a team that is definitely the best football has to offer…. that’d be equally ridiculous, wouldn’t it?
With the game a mere two days away [hurry up, once you’ve heard from Reggie Jackson, the gauntlet’s been run] Rex Ryan had his presser.
On the availability of Drew Coleman: “He will be listed as questionable, as well James Ihedigbo with his knee and ankle, and Brad Smith with his groin.”
Importance of the Divisional Playoff: “It’s the second biggest game in the history of the franchise.”
Chances of Isaiah Trufant being a factor in this game: “He may very well be active… he probably doesn’t know the defense as well as some other players… I’m not saying he won’t be active.”
On the team being ready: “We’re going to show up. I guarantee you that.”
On Wes Welker’s foot reference filled press conference: “I think with Wes Welker, this is a huge rivalry type guy. Anything goes, and I can take it… anything goes this week. That’s the way it is.”
On Reggie Jackson’s comments: “You know what, we’re always going to be who we are…. You know what, we could use Reggie’s bat this week.”
On the coin toss: “We’re going to defer, like we always do.”
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