Recently, the New York Jets have been one of the NFL's holiday teams.
They have played five times on Christmas Eve, including last year's home game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium. Once they played on Christmas Night, that big win on a rainy evening in Miami in 2006.
New Year's Eve? At home against the Raiders in '06. New Year's Day? Last year at Miami.
And of course Thanksgiving. Tonight's affair with the New England Patriots is the Jets' eighth all-time, their third in the last six years, their second at home on Thanksgiving night in three years.
We could give you more numbers to give some idea of what might happen tonight between these AFC East rivals of long standing. How the Jets have done on this special November day (4-3, 3-0 at home), How the home teams have fared in this season of a Thursday night game every week (quite well at 7-3). How Rex Ryan teams have beaten Bill Belichick teams two of the last three in the Meadowlands and three out of seven since '09.
But the records mean little because, well, because they normally mean little. What does it matter for this game that the Jets have never lost at home on Thanksgiving night in 1960, 1961 and 2010?
And they mean less than ever because of the state of the teams.
Patriots Riding Their Offensive Wave
The Patriots are cresting, especially on offense, as they frequently have during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady collaboration — 2007 comes to mind.
Jets CB Antonio Cromartie said he relishes the opportunity to duel Brady one more time.
"Definitely, just going against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, if not the best quarterback in the NFL, is always a competitive edge," Cro said. "You always want to make sure that you go up against the best and do well against the best. That's something I'm always looking forward to."
But the defensive coach in Ryan lays out the difficulty of that challenge.
"Somebody was telling me before we played them [last month] that I think they were going for a record — maybe they got it against us — with over 350 yards or something as a team, for like 500 games in a row or something like that," Ryan recalled. "I don't know what it is, but it just seems like it. You look at the numbers and 'Hey, they're struggling in this, they're fourth in the league in this category, so that's something that we really take advantage of.'
"When you look at them offensively, Brady doesn't get sacked, they don't turn the ball over, they lead the league in points, rushing is in the top five. It's like, man, I don't know."
They haven't been perfect, with losses at home to Arizona (!) and on the road at Baltimore and Seattle. But they're in familiar territory — win or loss tonight, they will still be in sole possession of the division top spot for the 100th week in the last 10 seasons, or since dynasty really got rolling in 2003.
The Jets' Inner Game
And the Jets are still in grim must-win mode. Let safety LaRon Landry set the stage:
"What's understood doesn't have to be explained. Our record is our record. We need to win, basically we need to win out, to get where we envisioned us going since OTAs, know what I mean? ... It's not about our opponent anymore. It's about who we want to be as Jets, what our character is. What are we made of? Who are we representing? That's how I look at it."
The Green & White have had some, but only some, positive answers to those questions. One came in the Oct. 21 game at Gillette Stadium. If Mark Sanchez doesn't throw that interception, if Stephen Hill doesn't drop that pass, if the defense makes a quicker third-down stop on either of two last-minute field goal drives, if Sanchez doesn't lose the ball on the Rob Ninkovich overtime sack ... an upset in Foxboro was oh so close.
Then the efficient performance on most fronts at St. Louis displayed some of that character Landry and others are looking to see. Sanchez was 15-for-20 passing and QB'd only his third game as a Jet with at least a 70% completion rate and no giveaways. (The first was the '09 wild-card game at Cincinnati, the second the '10 home regular-season win over New England.)
And the defense, with DE Muhammad Wilkerson in the lead, harassed the upticking Rams back into a downward trend. Perhaps in the spirit of non-trash bonhomie this week, even Brady threw the Jets' D some bouquets.
"They played us in our game as well as any defense we've faced all year," the Pats QB said. "They limited us offensively in what we did. We didn't do much. They looked like the same Jet defense to me like they always have. They're very good, disruptive, physical, tough, smart. They play well together. They've really got a very good group."
Next Chapter in the '12 Storybook
Maybe the defense can coax another turnover or two out of the Brady offense, or the special teams will bring only the Jekyll part of their personality and not the Hyde side to the stadium. Perhaps the Jets' three-headed running back of Shonn Greene, Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight is ready to take off from its game by the Gateway Arch. Maybe the Jets' relative health compared to the Patriots missing not only TE Rob Gronkowski but also G Logan Mankins and DE Chandler Jones will come into play.
But that's asking an awful lot of stars to align. The one element the Jets control is their approach to this game, their demeanor, the narrative to their season.
"it's good to have a plan, but when it comes down to the comedown, the reality is you got to execute that plan," Landry said. "Some games we didn't execute that plan, we didn't finish, so now we're where we're at right now.
"It's all about how we fight and how we finish. We can't tell you ahead of time how we're going to finish, but we can tell you this: We're going to fight, we're going to play hard, we're going to give it all we've got. And we'll let the outcome be the outcome."
"This storybook is a 16-chapter story," said DT Sione Po'uha, "and the story's not done until it's done. We're starting to see the team turn around a little bit. The win we had last Sunday was in the right direction. We're continuing to work on it, just getting better and building from it."
Interesting that in that metaphor, tonight's game for the Jets is Chapter 11. If they want to keep building their story tonight, they can't show up bankrupt in the character department. They need to have a holiday game for the ages.