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AFC East Balance of Power at Stake Tonight

Same as it ever was.

Can anyone remember a time when Jets-Patriots wasn't a blistering street fight and a hot ticket? Sometime in the early Nineties, probably, before Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, Leon Hess and Woody Johnson and Bob Kraft, Curtis Martin and Tom Brady, Eric Mangini and Rex Ryan. But that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It's a series that's been raw, edgy and immensely entertaining, and all that will continue tonight when the AFC East rivals get it on in Sunday primetime at MetLife Stadium.

But of course the rivalry has meant different things to the two teams and their fan bases. The Patriots have been dealing from strength, it seems, forever, under Belichick and Brady. Three Super Bowl wins, four appearances, the undefeated season of '07, 10 straight winning campaigns, eight in a row with double-digit wins.

And so the Jets, as proud and occasionally exceptional as they've been, have had to take a back seat to the Pats in the standings. And even though the Green & White have beaten the Red, White & Blue more than any other NFL team in the Belichick era, every game the script seems to be a Hollywood mutation — Groundhog Day Meets Night of the Living Dead. No matter what happened last meeting, the Jets must try to drive a stake into the heart of the Patriots one more time.

Tonight is a special meeting between these warhorses, compared by Ryan this week to two great boxing rivals, one of whom just passed away.

Heavyweight Slugfest

"We're relaxed, focused, loose, but we know what's at stake," the Jets head coach said Friday. "We know how big this game is and we're excited about it. We're ready for it, and we know they're going to be ready for it. So it ought to be a great game. It's almost like Ali-Frazier, it's one of those type of things."

The 5-3 Jets toppling 5-3 New England would be sweet in and of itself. Consider that the Jets from Week 10 on in every season since 2003 have been in undisputed possession of a better record than the Patriots for only three weeks, Weeks 11-13 in 2008 before the wheels fell off the Brett Favre bus. Add 2002 into the mix and you can add one more week when the Jets were ahead — after the final week of the 2002 season when both had 9-7 records but the Jets got the division title on tiebreakers.

But there's no trophy for winning this game. The first of the perks comes with winning the division title, which ensures a home playoff game — both achievements the Jets last enjoyed in '02. What a win for the Jets tonight does is give them a leg up on the Patriots (and perhaps Buffalo, too, if the Bills lose at Dallas) with a game lead in the AFC East and a 3-1 division record to the Pats' 2-2.

That isn't much, especially when factoring in that New England's final seven opponents' combined record at the moment is 19-38, a .333 strength of schedule that is the lowest in the AFC the rest of the way (the Jets' SOS is 25-31, .446). And if the Jets lose tonight, they fall a game behind again and their road gets even tougher.

"This one's about how much our team has improved," Ryan said. "If we don't win this game, we're in trouble for the division and we understand that. So this one is a big game, we don't deny it."

Groundhog Day indeed.

But there is definitely a different feel for this game on the green end of things from, say, the Jets' 30-21 loss at Foxboro, Mass., a month ago. The Jets are hot, on a new three-game winning streak. They're 4-0 at home and angling to go 5-0 for only the second time in their history, duplicating the 1985 home start. They're 2-0 against New England in the Meadowlands during Ryan's tenure.

And the Patriots are reeling. Or so some say up in New England.

When Has It Sounded Like This?

Coming off their first two-game losing streak, at Pittsburgh and at home against the Giants last week, since '09 and facing their first three-game skid since '02, the Patriots have got columnists, talk-show hosts and fans asking what's wrong with Brady and is this the end of the dynasty.

It's true that Brady and his offense have fallen off from their dynamic start to the season. Every week key measures of TB's dynamic play (TD drive percentage, plays per drive, yards per drive, plays per offensive point) slip a little more. Their overall defense and passing defense have each been ranked last in the league for the last seven weeks.

"I talked to my old man this week," said DT Mike DeVito, whose family of Jets fans have been located on Cape Cod in the heart of New England for many years. "He said the fans aren't talking as much on the radio as they have in the past. When has it ever sounded like that?"

The Jets aren't falling for it, though. Brady vulnerable? "That's ridiculous," said Ryan. Worst defense in the NFL? "I know, statistically, they are where they are," said OC Brian Schottenheimer, "but they're holding teams and they're not giving up a lot of points. Whenever these two teams play, we know we throw out the records."

Calling on the 12th Man

So the Jets have prepared to fight tooth and nail as always with their bitter rivals. That didn't work out perfectly at Gillette Stadium, but now the fight is on their turf.

"We're excited that it's in our building," Ryan said. "We're not banking on that being the difference, but it might very well be the difference."

Many think the 2009 game in the old Meadowlands venue was the loudest crowd at any Jets game ever. That was the 16-9 conquest of the Patriots, the last time they failed to score a touchdown in a game. The visitors' offense also committed four presnap penalties due to the noise generated by the fans that day. Only the Vikings with five presnap offensive flags last year have committed more in the last three years. Ryan presented the fans with a gameball in the days following that game.

As diplomatically positive as he always is about an upcoming opponent, Belichick noted the task ahead for the Patriots in tonight's decibel dungeon.

"It's a pretty intense atmosphere when these two teams play," the New England boss said. "I think if you played it in a parking lot out there by CBS [Scene, a Gillette Stadium restaurant], it would be pretty intense. It's a lot of energy here, a lot of energy down there. It's a good football game, two teams that know each other well. It's a good rivalry."

And the Jets will be trying to turn this rivalry and this division unmistakably in their direction under the lights and the NBC cameras.

"There's that old saying: 'To be the champ, you have to beat the champ,' " said Ryan, unflinching as he ever is. "And they're sitting right in front of us."

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