Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Now it's a rivalry

Up until last Sunday, the Patriots-Jets rivalry didn't feel quite like a rivalry.

Sure, there was some history. There was Belichick resigning as "HC of NYJ" and Mangini leaving New England and starting spygate in '07. Tom Brady went as far as to say he hated the Jets and their coach Rex Ryan proclaimed that he wasn't going to "kiss Belichick's super bowl rings" and hasn't stopped talking since he took over in '09.

However, while there may have been some dislike over the last 10 years, it never truly felt like a rivalry to most fans. There wasn't the same intensity as Red Sox-Yankees or even of Indy-Pats.

Over the last 10 years the Jets have been in New England's shadow. Yet, for a long time the Jets and Patriots fans had a lot in common.

"There was a certain kinship with Patriots fans and Jets fans [until the Patriots] started winning super bowls," said ESPN's Boston sports guy Bill Simmons on his podcast, the BS Report. "Neither of us had really had any success. They had won the one super bowl [Super Bowl III], but other than that just two fan bases that always got kicked in the teeth."

Both franchises did have their fair share of heartbreaks. There was the Patriots' first round playoff loss to the Oakland Raiders in the 1976 season. A game in which a bogus roughing the passer call -- on which replay showed no evidence of illegal contact -- on Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton negated a game-changing third down sack. Then, of course, there were the two Super Bowl losses. One in 1985, which they lost to the Bears 46-10 and the other in 1996, falling to Brett Favre's Packers 35-21. Before pulling the greatest upset in NFL history in Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots had appeared in three championship games -- the two Super Bowls and the 1963 AFL championship -- and were outscored 132-41 in those games.

For the Jets, there was the 1982 AFC championship game which they lost 14-0 to the Miami Dolphins while throwing five interceptions. There was also their 1986 AFC divisional round loss to the Cleveland Browns when the team gave up a 10 point lead in five minutes. The Jets also endured eleven seasons without a winning record in the 1970s and had botched drafts like picking Ken O'Brien over Dan Marino.

"[The Jets were] always kind of our doppelganger," said Simmons.

So, when the Patriots started contending with the best in the league in 2001 and became an NFL dynasty with three super bowl wins in four years, the Jets fans naturally felt a little left behind. The fact that the Patriots were doing it with Bill Belichick -- who was supposed to be their coach in 2000 but resigned and joined New England -- made things a little more tense.

To the Patriots, however, the Jets weren't a rival. They were more like a little brother who never grew up and got his act together -- never had a real job, lived with his parents and wanted to go out clubbing every night at the age of 45.

Yet, the tension between the teams has never been more real than when coach Rex Ryan took the helm last season. Ryan's bombastic remarks to the press and abundance of confidence was surreal for Jet fans. He made it clear that he wasn't going to roll over for the NFL giant a few states north. Rex's trash talk in the media was the exact opposite of how the tight-lipped Bill Belichick ran things in New England. Suddenly, it wasn't a battle just between two franchises. It was a battle of two philosophies. Now, things were getting interesting.

Before last Sunday's game, Ryan's Jets were 2-2 against the Patriots. While it's a record that certainly indicates a close rivalry, it still never felt like one. The Jets' wins had come at home and early in the season while the Patriots took care of New York near the end of each year and in convincing fashion also, outscoring New York 76-17 in those meetings. That lasting memory of New England dominance failed to push the rivalry to the point of the intensity of Red Sox-Yankees. Same old Jets, same New England it seemed. The Pats' 45-3 thrashing of New York on December 6th this season looked like it could be the nail in the coffin.

However, when the Jets started their trash talk in the week leading up to last Sunday's game, the rivalry got heated. Rex Ryan said it was "personal" between him and Belichick while cornerback, Antonio Cromartie, called New England's franchise quarterback an a**hole. Fans in Boston were angry. They wanted to shut New York up and put them back in their place.

If the Patriots had done just that, the fans would have moved on and the rivalry would have subsided. As the Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett said last month about the New York Knicks, "You have to beat somebody to have a rivalry."

The Jets had some victories over the Pats in the regular season, but none of them were heart-wrenching.

Yet when New York abruptly ended the super bowl favorite Pats' season in a 28-21 upset at Gilette Stadium, they ripped out New England fans' hearts with Yankee-like precision.

"The Jets have had a lot of disappointment in the past, and sometimes you can look at a player and it sums up that disappointment," wrote former Patriot linebacker Tedy Bruschi on ESPNBoston.com. "To me, defensive lineman Shaun Ellis has been that player for the Jets...I vividly remember Ellis [when the Patriots beat the Jets in 2008 when Brady was injured] slamming his helmet to the ground...the Jets probably thought this was the time they had the Patriots, with Brady out, but we won the game. I've kept that image in my mind when thinking about the frustrations that the Jets have had in recent years.

"On Sunday, however, Ellis erased it. He manhandled every member of the Patriots' interior offensive line. Dan Connolly struggled to block him. The Patriots' best offensive lineman, Logan Mankins, was beaten by Ellis as he made a tackle for a loss in the third quarter. Ellis had two sacks. He caused another. This was a case when a player and a team were breaking through; I had never seen Ellis have a game like that on a stage that big. It was his time..."

The Jets have grown up and turned things around. With that victory last Sunday they got the attention of Patriots fans. Now, the Jets have beaten them. Now, the Pats have something to prove. Now, the fans want revenge. Now, it's a rivalry.

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