Sideshow typifies Jets-Pats rivalry

BY Alex Marvez • October 7, 2011

The New York Jets haven’t yet arrived for Sunday’s game, but Rex Ryan already is inside New England’s head.

The Jets head coach has squeezed every ounce of his blubbery frame squarely between the franchise’s ears with his needling and freewheeling media approach. And try as they might, the Patriots can’t drive him out.

New England will deny this. Publicly, the Patriots have tried to act like this week is the same as every other.

Head coach Bill Belichick said playing the Jets is a “big game” before adding “all the division games are.”

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady tried to downplay the motivational aspect of last season’s playoff choke against the Jets by claiming that 28-21 loss was “a long time ago. That game doesn’t have much bearing on this week.”

If Brady tried to spin that type of b.s. in a television commercial, Uggs would be driven into bankruptcy.

The Patriots may not even realize it, but a team that preaches consistency as its cornerstone behaves differently when preparing to play Ryan’s Jets.

Hoping that Patriots players wouldn’t comment on anything the Jets spew or other soap-opera aspects of this colorful rivalry, Brady and Belichick set the tempo Wednesday by offering even less substantive feedback than usual during surly news conferences. One Patriots media member remarked how Friday’s locker-room access period had a less relaxed vibe than in recent weeks.

It wasn’t business-as-usual in Foxborough.

How this will manifest itself on Sunday is anyone’s guess. New York (2-2) provides better sound bites, but New England (3-1) is almost a double-digit favorite. The Patriots should win.

If they do, the Patriots Way of pregame preparation will be validated again for another week. If they don’t, Belichick should take a long look at whether there is something that can be culled from Ryan’s permissive methodology.

Belichick and Ryan have this in common: Both want robot-like precision on the field. But expecting robotic emotions from players, especially in today’s world, with social media and relentless media coverage, may be asking too much.

I’m not saying Patriots players should say the first thing that pops into their heads, proclaim themselves the Dream Team (look how well that’s working out in Philadelphia) or acknowledge every Jets taunt that comes their way. I’m also well aware the Patriots still are considered the gold standard of NFL success during Belichick’s long reign.

Outspokenness is frowned upon by Belichick. That approach is not in his coaching DNA.

But maybe it isn’t just talent that has kept New England from winning a playoff game since 2007. Maybe players are getting tight in such situations because that’s the pressure-cooker Belichick has created year-round.

Maybe the Patriots could use more fire in a milquetoast locker room. Maybe if players weren’t so concerned about saying the wrong thing, more leaders would emerge on a team that has not replaced what Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi brought to the table.

Not that Ryan is complaining. He loves the way Belichick’s brigade is wound. They’re an easy target that won’t verbally fire back, which helps to fuel New York’s pregame confidence. And while talk has never won games, Ryan’s history of braggadocio did spur uncharacteristic Patriots behavior that gave the Jets a boost in last season’s playoff victory.

Take the subconscious effect Ryan had on wide receiver Wes Welker, a player well-schooled in New England’s Sgt. Schultz-inspired “I know nothing!” ways.

Other than animosity that had privately simmered, there is no reason Welker would poke fun at the foot-fetish controversy that involved Ryan and his wife.

Belichick responded by benching Welker for the first series, one that ended in a Brady interception and gave New York a key early boost.

Such a move didn’t make New England a better team. It was straight out of the “cut off your nose to spite your face” approach Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown is taking with embattled quarterback Carson Palmer. Belichick set an example for future players who step out of line, but did so at the expense of a Super Bowl-caliber team that ultimately fell short.

Welker wouldn’t talk about the situation Friday, but it’s clear that Ryan’s constant potshots about New England affected his psyche as much as New York’s exotic defensive looks did.

No matter how they might try to hide it, other players have similar hard feelings about the Jets. Even the tight-lipped Brady has slipped and let them be known. Asked in the 2010 preseason why he wasn’t watching HBO’s Hard Knocks, Brady responded, “I hate the Jets, so I refuse to support that show.”

In his guarded Brady-speak, that’s as nasty as it gets.

Ryan previously has tried to bait Brady by claiming his study habits aren’t as good as Peyton Manning’s. Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie did the trolling this week. Cromartie reiterated his prior claim that Brady was an “a**hole” for mocking the Jets while on the sideline during last December’s 45-3 blowout.

Brady wouldn’t bite Wednesday — “I don’t care what he says about me,” the quarterback responded — but did display a tight sphincter when abruptly ending his news conference after being asked a third Cromartie question.

While playing under Ryan with the Jets, Patriots defensive lineman Shaun Ellis could say whatever he wanted without fear of reproach. But this week, Ellis wouldn’t mutter anything substantive about facing New York, a team he previously claimed delivered a “slap in the face” when not offering a contract extension last season.

Even Pats wide receiver Chad Ochocinco has gone Marcel Marceau. The NFL’s most prolific player on Twitter, Ochocinco also hasn’t texted for weeks after losing an undisclosed bet.

STFU, indeed.

Mind you, Ochocinco could type one character for each of his 118 receiving yards through four games and still have space left for a message. But some of his struggles might be the result of a player long known for marching to the beat of his own drum feeling out of sync in a far more restrictive culture than in Cincinnati.

The verbal abuse he received from Harrison and Bruschi in the media following an innocuous early-season Tweet could very well have damaged his confidence.

Ochocinco has plenty of time to rebound. Because the bar is set so high in New England, the 2011 Patriots won’t be judged by anything except playoff performance.

That’s when we’ll see if New England can truly back its lack of words, especially if Ryan and the Jets are lying in wait once again.

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