Which Jets team shows up in the Massachusetts countryside this afternoon?
The one that won its first two games of the season at home? Or the one that lost its last two on the road?
The one that lost at the Patriots, 45-3, on Monday night in Week 13 last regular season? Or the one that put it to the Pats, 28-21, at that same Gillette Stadium six weeks later in the AFC playoffs?
And what personality will the Green & White be wearing to go head-to-head with their AFC East arch-nemeses? The hat-in-hand, we're-feeling-better-and-now-may-we-sack-you-Mr.-Brady? method, or the swagalicious, we're-back-and-we're-beating-you-guys-just-like-we-did-three-times-in-the-past-five-years approach?
These are the kinds of games that try fans' souls. They are the kinds of games that make football the great sport that it is.
The Jets surely need to topple the Patriots today in the final game of their three-game "road trip." Lose and they fall two games behind the Pats in the AFC East standings. Win and they're even at 3-2 with a road win over New England for a nifty tiebreaker. In fact, at least one player in green and white said this week, "This is a must-win game for us."
Must-win in Week 5? What would Bill Belichick say?
We know what Brady would say. He told a Boston radio station this week about this game, "This is one we gotta go get."
Much of this game will be about the quarterbacks and their offenses and how the other teams defenses hold up. Brady needs very little explanation. He's in the early stages of what could be a season like no other in NFL annals. No QB has thrown for more yards in a season than Dan Marino's 5,084 in 1984. Brady's on pace for 6,000. No one's thrown more TDs in a season than Brady's 50 in '07. He's on pace for 52 this year.
And when No. 12 stumbled with a rare four-interception game in the Week 3 loss at Buffalo, he calmly came back with an efficient two-TD, no-INT effort in the Pats' 31-19 triumph over the Raiders at Oakland. (That came one week after the Raiders beat the Jets in Oaktown, 34-24.)
"As Good As It Gets Right Now"
Rex Ryan, whose defense has had a hand in defeating Brady and the Patriots three times in five meetings since '09, including in Foxboro in January, explained how tripping Tom is a team deal.
"I know it looks like it's just defense, but it's your offense as well," Ryan said. "You want to put him in situations where maybe he's more careful with the football than he has to be or might normally be because we have a chance to control the game with our offense.
"If you just play standard coverage against him, you've got no chance — I mean zero. You better hope for a hurricane or something. Might be your only chance. Quite honestly, I've been on the sideline wishing there was a hurricane because he's that kind of guy. He's as good as it gets right now."
But the key part of that quote is "we have a chance to control the game with our offense." Do they? The Ravens stopped the Jets' running game (19 carries, 38 yards) and their passing game (Sanchez 11-for-35 for 119 yards, three giveaways returned for TDs, at least 10 hits on the QB, 30.5 passer rating).
The Jets feel they do. A lot of it has to do with Sanchez himself. For starters, there's that Ravens memory. Has it shaken his confidence?
"Not at all," Sanchez said during the week. "You get one day to think about it. And this team, the kind of players we have, we know we're better than that performance."
"Mark is good about moving on to the next one," said TE Dustin Keller. "Baltimore is in the past and we're on to the Patriots and this is a huge game for us. We get them twice a year, so we need to start out on the right foot and nobody better to lead us than Mark Sanchez."
If the Jets QB does have this bounceback ability that he and his team talk about, some numbers should back it up. And indeed there are some numbers that show a fine resilience. Sanchez has had seven games in his short career in which he's had a game rating below 50.0. In those games he completed 44.6 percent of his passes, threw two TDs to 21 INTs and had a composite 26.5 rating. All seven were losses, by an average score of about 21-7.
In the seven games following those seven debacles, Sanchez's accuracy improved to 55.3 percent. He threw only three TD passes but also only three INTs. His rating rose to 75.6. Nothing sensational but definitely a step up.
And the Jets as a team in those games? They went 5-2, winning by an average score of 23-14.
Nine Months Later, a New Game
The Green & White have a few more marks on their side of the board this time. One is conditional — they appear to be getting C Nick Mangold (high ankle sprain) back after a 2¾-game hiatus. "I think Nick's the best in the league," Ryan said, adding that getting him back would be "a huge plus for us."
There is the Patriots' 32nd-ranked overall and pass defense. With a step up by the offensive line in protecting Sanchez, that unit could be exploited.
There is the AFC Divisional Round Game fresh in the memory banks.
"Well, it's huge confidence-wise," Sanchez said. "But at the same time, those guys adjust. They're going to have a great game plan for us on defense, I know that. We need to respond really well. We need to run the ball well. We need to throw the ball well, complete the ball and just be sharp on offense altogether. It's nice to know that we can go up there in the playoffs and we won that game last year. But it's a whole new game so we have to be ready."
One more small plus for the Jets: They have a wideout who's new to this rivalry but not new to beating the Patriots in the biggest of games.
"It's just a part of me, it's a part of history," said WR Plaxico Burress of making the game-winning touchdown catch for the Giants over the previously unbeaten Pats in Super Bowl XLII. "To me it was the greatest Super Bowl ever played. Like I said, it was a moment that every kid dreams of having. To be able to do go out and execute it and do it in the fashion that we did it against the team we were playing against, it just says a lot."
Jets-Patriots is a little different every year. This year the Patriots bring new players into the equation, such as Chad Ochocinco, possibly Albert Haynesworth, and a fired-up Shaun Ellis playing his team for his first 11 years in the league. For the Jets, Burress, Derrick Mason and rookie Muhammad Wilkerson get to feel the heat.
LaDainian Tomlinson, who experienced the rivalry first-hand three times in the 2010 season, has an observation for all today about what can be expected.
"It's one of the best in football," LT said. "You hear about it when you're on the outside looking in about how passionate the rivalry is, but it's obviously a different perspective when you're a part of it. Yes, I would say this is as good as any in football."