It seems like forever — but this is only Year 4 — that, once all the themes of the first meeting of the season between the Jets and the Patriots have been explored during the week, it comes down to Rex Ryan and Bill Belichick saying nice things about each other.
Some suspect the two really don't like each other and each other's outfit and suspect further that this perceived dislike will continue through this afternoon's tussel for the top spot at Gillette Stadium.
Yet during the past week both coaches gave every indication that, as Belichick said, "It's nothing personal. It's just competition."
"I'm confident in my abilities and all that stuff," Ryan said, "but let's face it, we know he has all the rings and everything else and the records. I just think when it's all said and done, when you look at what he's accomplished in his coaching career as a head coach, there probably won't be anybody close to him. I just think that, obviously, I'm not there and neither is anybody else in this league. So I just put him, respectfully put him there."
"I have a lot of respect for Rex," Belichick riposted from Foxboro, Mass. "I think we have a good relationship. I see him from time to time at the owners' meetings and Indy combine and stuff like that. We had his brother on our staff here. I've known his dad for a long time. I think there is good mutual respect there."
Here are more observations about today's matchup between two of the four teams in the AFC East tied for first place — and last — at 3-3 heading into this weekend's action, interspersed with a number of factoids about the challenge posed by the Patriots, along with a few that hint at the competition the Jets will bring to the table late this afternoon.
The last time the Patriots were under .500 after six games was 2000. They've now gone 12 years with a record of 3-3 or better after six games, easily the longest current streak in the NFL.
That's an impressive streak, and 3-3 doesn't sound so bad for a lot of teams trying to build their foundation for a second-half run toward the postseason. But for New England, which from 2006-11 was respectively 5-1, 6-0, 4-2, 4-2, 5-1 and 5-1 after six games, 3-3 would seem to be a bit of a comedown. Fans of the Flying Elvises are whispering to themselves, and others around the NFL are wondering out loud, "Are the Patriots a different team this year? Are they ... vulnerable?"
"You look at the numbers, the statistics, you watch them on tape, it's the same team," Ryan said. "They're explosive on offense. They're doing what they do on defense. They create turnovers. Obviously, they've lost three games, and since I've been here it's probably the most they've lost in a season, I'm not sure. It seems like they don't lose very often. They're not used to being 3-3, I understand that.
"Actually, I really don't care. We know they're a great football team and we have to be at our very best to have an opportunity to beat them.
The Patriots offense is on pace for a 7,125-yard season of total offense. The only teams in NFL history to have reached 7,000 yards in a season are the 2011 Saints (7,474) and the 2000 Rams (7,075). The Pats are also on pace for to run 1,261 offensive plays this season. That would break the NFL record set by the 1994 Patriots (1,199).
Coordinator Mike Pettine's defense is playing strong pass defense even without Darrelle Revis (fifth in net yards allowed/game) and finally got their run defense cranked up in holding the Colts to no running plays of longer than 5 yards — the first time a Jets defense had ever accomplished that in franchise history — and tying the franchise mark by allowing no rushing first downs in a game.
But Pettine also knows there's a big issue that remains to be addressed: the Patriots' incredibly up-tempo offense triggered as always by QB Tom Brady that is second in the NFL in third-down conversion rate, going up against the Jets' defense that continues to lag in the league with the No. 30 third-down conversion rate allowed.
Among Brady's impressive numbers this season, he's second among all QBs with at least 30 possessions in plays/drive (6.25), yards/drive (37.5) and TD drive rate (27.8%) and first in three-and-out drive rate (6.9%).
"We've gone against [Randy] Moss in the past, [Julian] Edelman, the other guys that they've had and Brady has always been a guy that goes where the read takes him," Pettine said. "They've always had guys that were a challenge. [Brandon] Lloyd is an accomplished NFL receiver, so again, he gives them a little bit more of a deep threat than they've had. It's the first one since Moss.
"They're running their offense. That's the one thing that I think has gotten them to the point where they're No. 1 in almost every category. There's so much more balance that you can't load up against the pass because they're running the ball so well."
The Patriots' home record, including playoff games, since 2001 is 84-18, an .824 winning percentage that is the best home record in the NFL over that span.
"They have a great crowd and they're efficient at home," said QB Mark Sanchez. "They play some of their best football at home. It's really one of the best teams at home, on the road, one of the best franchises in the NFL. They're always tough to play. They always bring their best. They find ways to win. So it's on us to take care of the football, hopefully keep on running the ball like we did last week and we'll see how things turn out."
But LB Bart Scott said the Patriots make Gillette Stadium as much as the stadium makes the team.
"It's a fairly loud stadium, but it's no different from going to Pittsburgh or Baltimore," Scott said. "There's a lot of great fans in the NFL and you can put the Patriots' fans in that category, but it's nothing more special or more intimidating than going anywhere else on the road."
That shows in the Jets' record over the Belichick/Brady era of New England football, since ...
Of those 18 home losses in the last 12 seasons, five have been administered by the Jets, in '01, '02, '06, '08 and in the '10 playoffs. Next most opponent victories at New England is two, shared by Denver, Indianapolis and Miami.
"They swept us last year. I know we've played them seven times since I've been here. They've won four, we've won three," Ryan said. "I think it's a pretty good matchup, it's a little closer than maybe the general public realizes. The fact we got slaughtered, 45-3 [in 2010], probably tilted that a little bit. I think we've played a little closer games than maybe what it looks like on the scoreboard at the end of the game.
"And really, that's all that matters, but I've always felt that, OK, I want another shot at them. Well, that's what this week's all about. We get that opportunity and we'll find out who the better team is on this particular day."
New England's pass defense is ranked 28th in net yards allowed per game, 27th in opponents' passer rating and 32nd in number of 25-yards-plus plays given up. If their current levels hold for the entire season, it will be the Patriots' worst pass defense in terms of opponents' accuracy (64.4%), yards/attempt (8.10), touchdowns rate (6.8%) and rating (100.9)
Ryan said it's not necessarily true that the Jets, who finally got Shonn Greene and their running game grinding and pounding last week over Indianapolis, will abandon the run because there appears to be a great opportunity to strike the Patriots through the air.
"There are probably a lot of passing attempts against this group because they've been ahead so much," the Jets coach said. "We feel good about being able to run the football, we feel good about being able to throw it, we think we have a good plan.
"But we also know the kind of challenge we face. Last year, I don't know how many sacks they had but it was about eight the last time we played them. It starts up front. We have to do a great job in protection. If you want to throw the ball down the field, you have to be able to block them. I think that's where it starts, and obviously being able to run the football so they're not just teeing off on you."
The Jets have been a full game or more ahead of the Patriots in the AFC East standings after at least seven weeks of the season for only four weeks since 2002 — after the final week of the '02 season, when they won the AFC East title, and from Weeks 11 through 13 in 2008. A win Sunday will give raise their record to 4-3 and drop the Patriots to 3-4.
Is the deck stacked against the Jets, both in terms of today's opponent at home and in the bad injury situation they find themselves in thus far? Many would say so. But the Jets have no choice but to play the hand they've been dealt and will attempt to play it the best way possible. Ryan and Belichick expect nothing less from each other and from each other's teams.
"I know on Sunday Rex will be doing the best job he can for his team and I'll be doing the best job I can for my team," the Patriots boss said. "We'll see what happens."
"I expect great effort from us and we know we're going to get a great effort from them. We'll see what happens," Ryan said, reading from the same hymnal. "We're going down there confident. And as I said from the first day, we're going to take our swings."
Nothing personal. Just competition.