As is their custom, the New York Jets have been doing plenty of talking leading up to Sunday's divisional playoff game against the New England Patriots.
When these AFC East clubs renewed their rivalry last month, New England's play on the field spoke volumes.
The Jets seek to back up their words Sunday and pull off a second consecutive road upset of a perennial AFC power -- a task that won't be easy against a top-seeded Patriots team that's run roughshod over the league the past two months and coming off a bye.
The 51-year-old rivalry between these two original AFL franchises could not be any closer -- including two playoff wins for New England, the Patriots and Jets have each defeated the other 51 times with one tie.
Especially since Rex Ryan took over as New York's coach prior to last season and returned the Jets to title contention, it's also hard to imagine the rivalry being any more entertaining.
"This is about (Patriots coach) Bill Belichick vs. Rex Ryan," Ryan said Monday. "There's no question. It's personal. It's about him against myself, and that's what it's going to come down to."
While Ryan never seems to shy away from a microphone before a big game, Belichick rarely offers the opposition any bulletin-board material.
"Rex does a great job with his team. I'm just trying to coach mine," Belichick said. "I'm not really worried about what anybody else is doing."
The home team has won all four meetings since the Jets hired Ryan. New York defeated New England 28-14 in Week 2 this season, but the Patriots routed the Jets 45-3 in Foxborough on Dec. 6 to claim the AFC East lead for good. Ryan said he would make his players watch film from that defeat "every day" this week as a reminder of what they're facing.
"We have to play fast and physical," Ryan said. "That doesn't mean we're going to dummy it up. If you dummy it up against them, you'll get crushed."
The Patriots (14-2) have been crushing all comers lately. Since a 34-14 loss at Cleveland on Nov. 7, New England has won eight straight by an average of more than three touchdowns. The winning streak hasn't come against soft competition, either, as four of the remaining eight teams in the playoffs -- Pittsburgh, Chicago, Green Bay and the Jets -- have been among those beaten.
The Patriots have forced 24 turnovers during the streak while committing only one as Tom Brady plays possibly the best football of his career. The future Hall of Famer finished the season with 36 touchdown passes and four interceptions -- the last coming against Baltimore in Week 6. Since then, he's thrown an NFL-record 335 consecutive passes without getting picked off.
Those gaudy numbers didn't stop Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie from needling Brady, calling him an expletive Tuesday in a published interview. Cromartie stood by the comment Wednesday.
"Why should I regret it? That's how I feel," he said. "As long as I'm in the NFL and he's in the NFL, there's going to be a hatred."
Brady brushed off the comments.
"I've been called worse," he said. "I'm sure there's a long list of people who feel that way."
One of Brady's four interceptions went to Cromartie in Week 2.
"He's a good player," Brady said. "(Jets cornerback Darrelle) Revis is a great player. They have a great secondary and they are one of the best defenses we face. We're going to spend a lot of time preparing for them. ... The way they shut down the Colts offense is pretty impressive because we know how good that offense is."
Brady was referring to last Saturday, when the wild-card Jets (12-5) upset defending AFC champion Indianapolis 17-16, holding the Colts to their lowest point total in six games. More surprising than the stout defense was the poise shown by second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez, who struggled down the stretch in the regular season but engineered a clutch, game-winning drive in the playoff opener.
After Adam Vinatieri's 50-yard field goal gave the Colts a two-point lead with 53 seconds remaining, Sanchez coolly completed all three of his passes to drive the Jets downfield and set up Nick Folk's game-winning 32-yard field goal as time expired.
"I just think he's really coming on," Ryan said of Sanchez. "You expect young players to improve each year and I think he's probably improved as much as anybody that I can remember."
Sanchez has been bothered by a sore right shoulder since falling awkwardly during a victory over the Steelers on Dec. 19, but he continues to improve.
"Honestly, it feels the best it's felt in three, four weeks," he said Wednesday. "I was full practice today for the first time in a while, and that was huge. We know it's getting better and that's the most important thing, is week by week it's getting better, so I'll be ready to go."
To pull off a second straight upset, Sanchez will need to perform much better than in his previous two trips to Gillette Stadium, where he has one touchdown, seven interceptions and a 30.4 passer rating.
"I think it's bigger than just me," he said. "I think it's about our entire team. The last game, obviously, I didn't play well, but in all phases, we didn't play well, so that led to the ultimate outcome and we're going to have to play well -- offense, defense, special teams -- and it starts with the quarterback. It's going to be a good matchup for us. We're excited."
Winning in New England will be tough. Brady has won 28 consecutive regular-season home starts since a loss to the Jets in 2006, and had been 8-0 at home in his postseason career prior to last season, when he and the Patriots lost 33-14 in a wild-card matchup against the Ravens.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press