Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 13, 2011

The Jets Win The Bluster Bowl

One of the challenges facing NFL head coaches is making certain in the days leading up to a game that no player sounds off to the media in any way that might provide an unwanted incentive to the next weekend’s opponent. While there is no doubt plenty of trash talking on the field during play, by and large the quotes one reads in the days before are saccharin comments about how much the opposition is respected.

As they excel at so many other aspects of the game, so too do the New England Patriots generally lead the league in making nice about whatever team they are about to meet. Led by head coach Bill Belichick, who has mastered the art of saying nothing meaningful virtually all of the time, Patriots players rarely provide any incendiary comments that might motivate an opponent. During the recently concluded regular season, this reached the peak of absurdity in the run-up to New England’s next to last game. As the 12-2 Pats, on a six-game winning streak, prepared to travel to Buffalo to face the 4-10 Bills, whom the Patriots had defeated 14 consecutive times, quarterback Tom Brady would speak only of the difficult challenge ahead.

Brady foresaw a game “against a very tough team in a very tough environment. They fight their butt off. They’re playing certainly very well this time of year,” he said. “There are probably some teams that have thrown in the towel at this point because they’re not really in it, but you would never say that about the Bills, the way these guys play. We have to go out there and really play a great game.” Remarkably enough, he said all of that with a straight face. Of course, no one was surprised, probably least of all Brady, when the final score was New England 34, Buffalo 3.

Then there are the New York Jets. Paired with New England throughout their history, first in the old AFL and then in the AFC East, by one measure the Jets are the Patriots’ absolute equals. When the two teams meet Sunday in the divisional round playoff game in Foxborough, it will be their 104th meeting. Each has won 51 times, with one game ending in a tie. But while their head-to-head records may be identical, no two teams could be more different; and nowhere is that difference more apparent than in their demeanor towards each other.

With the Jets it starts at the top, with the bombastic Rex Ryan. On Monday New York’s head coach announced that this weekend’s contest was a personal grudge match between himself and Belichick. This followed the Jets victory over the Indianapolis Colts which Ryan saw as a personal triumph for himself over Peyton Manning.

In a brief but amusing rejoinder Belichick suggested that head-to-head, he probably had some speed on Ryan, but acknowledged that the New York coach had a size and strength advantage on him. He then went on to point out the obvious, that neither coach was going to block, tackle, run, pass, or hit on Sunday.

That same point was taken up by several commentators, including CBS analyst and former head coach Bill Cowher, who suggested that Ryan’s comments could wind up hurting the Jets. “I’ll say this about the New England Patriots. They’ll say all the right things and they’ll say he’s just talking but I can tell you on Saturday night when Bill Belichick is talking to his team, some of those quotes will come back,” Cowher predicted Tuesday.

Another view is that rather than feeding some narcissistic need to be the center of attention, Ryan’s comments were really an attempt to protect his players and take pressure off of them by making himself the focus. While that may well have been the intent, the problem is that players tend to look to their coaches for indications of what kind of behavior is appropriate. So it came as no surprise that Ryan’s comments on Monday were followed by those of Jets’ cornerback Antonio Cromartie on Wednesday.

In an interview with the New York Daily News Cromartie raised the invective to a new level, announcing his hatred of Brady in a profanity-laced tirade. Brady responded with a smile by saying that he’d been called worse; but the damage has most likely been done. While there was at least a chance that the Patriots might have shrugged off Ryan’s remarks as just a case of the voluble coach doing what he does, that’s not likely the case when the source is someone who’s actually going to strap on a helmet Sunday afternoon.

Ultimately of course the game will be decided on the field on Sunday, not in front of microphones early in the week. Should the Jets win, their talk this week will doubtless contribute to them being described as brash. It may even be cited as part of a history of successful trash talk by the men in green and white, the logical successor to Joe Namath’s guarantee of victory before Super Bowl III. And make no mistake, the Jets could win. In five of his last six playoff games Tom Brady has compiled just a 2-3 record while throwing more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (8), with a cumulative passer rating of 66.6.

But this season Brady is the likely NFL MVP. He’s thrown for 36 scores to date with just 4 picks. If he and the favored Patriots prevail on Sunday, the Jets and their coach will be left with a long off-season to contemplate the eternal problem with talking trash. If a team can’t back up its tough words with a corresponding level of play on the field, then it’s all just so much garbage.

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