Don't let the vacuous vocabulary of the Patriots this week fool you. Playing the Jets is not just another game. That's like claiming the Berlin Wall was just another wall or Alcatraz was just another prison.
That's why the hot air generated yesterday by Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Co., could fill your promotional dirigible of choice and pump Robert Luongo's tires.
Outside of the yearly pursuit of a Super Bowl, there are very few football challenges left for the divine coupling of Brady and Belichick. Jets coach/inveterate braggart Rex Ryan is one of them. He has gotten the best of both of them. In five meetings with Vociferous Rex's Jets the Patriots are 2-3 and lost the most important game of the five, a shocking 28-21 home playoff loss in January that left Brady in tears and that TB12 subsequently proclaimed he would never get over.
So while it is the Jets (2-2) who are losers of two straight, coming off a mistake-riddled rout by the Ravens, and have their offensive captains, quarterback Mark Sanchez and wide receiver Santonio Holmes, carping at each other, it is the 3-1 Patriots who need this game more. The J-E-T-S have thumbed their nose and run their mouths at the stodgy, stolid mien of Fort Foxborough since the minute Ryan arrived, and it's worked.
While the Patriots haven't experienced playoff victory since 2008, the Jets have reached back-to-back AFC title games. (Any mention of AFC East division titles meaning more would be hypocritical in light of the Red Sox' addiction to the wild card.)
The roles have reversed. The Patriots aren't the measuring stick for the Jets. It's the other way around. The playoff loss shook Patriot Place to its core and triggered some new thinking and some tinkering by Belichick.
This game will tell us whether the Patriots have addressed the issues that turned a salute-worthy 14-2 regular season into a somber playoff send-off and another Super Bowl-less season -- porous pass defense, an overreliance on Brady's brilliance, the absence of a true deep threat, a paucity of pass-catching options at wide receiver outside of Wes Welker and Deion Branch, and a congressional filibuster-paced rushing attack.
Four games into the season, the Patriots look like much the same team that authored that 14-2 season and then hit a green-and-white roadblock. On track for a third MVP, Brady is doing more passing than a road rage motorist in rush hour and the offense is like Michael Jordan, good for 30-plus a game.
But the high-profile acquisitions of wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, designed to address flaws directly exposed by the Jets, have not yet paid dividends. Ochocinco has more letters in his adopted nom de plume (nine) than catches as a Patriot (seven), and is being spoon-fed the offense in Gerber-sized portions. Haynesworth hasn't acted up, but his back has, forcing him to miss the last two games.
Also, the Patriots still don't have a reliable deep threat as a supercharged Welker and sophomore tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who outruns cornerbacks (just ask Miami), have served as the vertical threats. Rookie running back Stevan Ridley has added an explosive element to the ground game, averaging 8.2 yards per carry, but needs more touches.
He would have come in handy on the infamous Drive to Nowhere.
New England's offense remains it's best defense. The Patriots rank last in the NFL in total defense. The pass defense is last in the league (368.8 yards per game), allowing a league-high 30 pass plays of 20-yards or greater. Cornerback Devin McCourty has done the wrong kind of backpedaling after a Pro Bowl debut; according to Pro Football Focus, he has been the most targeted corner in the league (42 passes) and has allowed the most completions (28) and yards (398).
Holmes took time out from taking digs at his own QB and offensive line to lob one at the Patriots' new-and-not-so-improved defense.
"I think the numbers speak for themselves on how well those guys are not playing on their defense," said Holmes, yesterday.
There are no perfect teams in the AFC. The conference is as wide open as Welker usually is, which makes this matchup all the more intriguing. The Patriots have been able to hide their blemishes for the most part in the first four games, but the Jets under Ryan have had a way of portraying the Patriots, Belichick and Brady in an unflattering light.
Ryan can talk a good game and game-plan one as well.
The Jets don't live in paralyzing fear of Brady, like most teams. Ryan has gone right at him, both verbally with jabs and schematically with disguise and simulated pressure. In the playoff loss, he had Brady looking unsure and uncertain with the football. He felt pressure when there wasn't. He missed receivers who were open and threw to ones who were not.
"It's real challenging," said left guard Logan Mankins of preparing for the Jets. "You got to get everyone on the same page. Everyone has got to see the defense through the same eyes and be going in the same direction. If you have one guy going the wrong way and not knowing what to do it breaks down."
Judging by how brusque Brady was in his press conference yesterday, this has become personal for him -- a personal challenge, like being a sixth-round pick or being labeled a system-quarterback or returning from torn ligaments in his knee.
His steely-eyed focus said what his measured words did not -- bring it on, Rex.
"That was a long time ago," Brady said of drawing motivation from the playoff loss. "So that game doesn’t have much bearing on this week. We’re a different team."
The first part is patently false. We're about to find out if that last part is true.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.