The time for bluster is over
Now (please!) let the game begin
Welcome to Red Sox vs. Yankees in shoulder pads. Winner gets showered in Haterade.
Unlike the other major sports, football is played once a week. If you are as good as the Patriots, who earned a bye in the first round of the playoffs with their 14-2 record, you have a two-week break between games. Given that New England’s supremacy rendered the final two contests of the regular season meaningless, one can make a case that the Patriots have not played a game of significance in almost a month.
So much talk, so little action. And it has been talk fit for Jerry Springer and Maury Povich.
Measured by hype, NFL playoff games sometimes resemble championship prizefights, and the noise advancing this joust sparks memories of the early days of Cassius Clay, before he took his Muslim name, Muhammad Ali.
The upstart Jets, NFL buffoons for most of the last four decades, are tugging on the capes of supermen Belichick and Brady, eager to recapture the glory days when a kid quarterback named Joe Namath predicted Super Bowl victory and backed it up with the greatest upset in the history of the Roman Numeral Game.
Fast-forward 42 years and we have the 2010 Jets, blown out in Foxborough, 45-3, just six weeks ago, taunting the much-decorated masters of the football universe.
The Patriots have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, who have won three Super Bowls. They have the highest-powered offense in the NFL. They outscored opponents, 212-47, over their last 5 1/2 games. They are prohibitive favorite to play in Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas, three weeks from today.
The Jets are talented, inexperienced blowhards who have spent the past five months telling everyone how good they are (see: HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’), while demonstrating flaws characteristic of wannabes. They walk and talk in the image of their bombastic coach, Rex Ryan, a tons-of-fun gridiron guru who says this game is “personal,’’ a steel cage match between himself and the Auerbachian Belichick.
In the minutes after the Patriots thrashed the Jets at Gillette Stadium Dec. 6, Ryan stood at the podium and said, “I’ll play them right now if they’ll go out and do it again.’’
Ryan’s Jets took trash-talking to a new level this past week. New York cornerback Antonio Cromartie called Brady an obscenity and said he hated him. Numerous Jets spoke of the Patriots running up the score in the December rout, and we all remember Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson saying Belichick had no class after the Patriots beat LT’s Chargers in 2007. Jets center Nick Mangold referenced “Spygate’’ in a Friday tweet. It’s all mildly reminiscent of Curt Schilling joining the championship-starved Red Sox in November of 2003 and announcing, “I guess I hate the Yankees now.’’
Nothing has been off limits, not even Coach Ryan’s purported infatuation with his wife’s feet. Mild-mannered Patriots receiver Wes Welker peppered his press conference with “foot’’ and “toe’’ references. When Jets linebacker Bart Scott responded with a threat aimed at Welker, and an NFL vice president asked all playoff participants to respect the game and knock off the trash talk.
The cacophony deflects attention from Mark Sanchez, New York’s 24-year-old sophomore quarterback who is unlikely to fill the white shoes of Broadway Joe. Just two years out of Southern Cal, Sanchez has won three road playoff games in two seasons, but has yet to prove he can win in Foxborough. A warm-weather guy since birth, Sanchez has been intercepted a whopping seven times in two losses at Gillette.
On the other sideline we have the redoubtable Brady, soon to be named MVP of the 2010 NFL regular season. Brady threw 50 touchdown passes in 2007 when he had Randy Moss as a target, but it’s quite possible Brady was even better this season. The longer his hair grew, the better Brady got. He finished the regular season with 36 touchdown passes and only four interceptions and he comes into this game with an NFL-record streak of 335 passes without a pick.
Brady has won 28 consecutive regular-season games at Gillette, but his Foxborough playoff perfection was punctured last year when the Baltimore Ravens came to town and routed the Patriots, 33-14. He is 14-4 lifetime in the playoffs, but since winning his last Super Bowl in January of 2005, Brady is a rather ordinary 5-4 in the playoffs. In his last eight playoff games, he has thrown 14 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
Only a fool worries about Brady’s ability to win at home in the playoffs. New England’s potential weak spot is a depleted defensive line. Overall, the Patriots feature a young defense, short on playoff experience. The Patriots defense has given up a lot of yards this year, but has been able to make big plays when necessary. Look for the Jets to attempt to establish a running game from the start. Look for trouble if the Jets succeed.
The New York Post billed today’s game as “The Roar vs. The Bore.’’ I prefer to think of it as the Belly vs. the Bully. Or perhaps the Footie vs. the Hoodie.
This much is certain: If the Jets beat the Patriots today, it qualifies as the franchise’s greatest moment since Joe Willie Namath beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III back in 1969. It would make this the best rivalry in the NFL and it would forever change the dynamic between the two franchises, much like the 2004 American League Championship Series changed the Red Sox and Yankees.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.