"If we're going to do anything in the division -- to have any chance to win the division -- we're going to have to beat the Jets."
-- Bill Belichick, Nov. 28, 2001
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The coach of the New England Patriots uttered those words a few days before his team ventured into Giants Stadium to face the New York Jets. The Patriots were 6-5 with a new quarterback, some kid named Tom Brady, and they were hoping to close the gap on the first-place Jets, a veteran team with a 7-3 record and a four-game winning streak.
Belichick was 0-3 against his previous team, and that annoyed the hell out of him because of all the bad blood that was spilled during his messy divorce in January, 2000. But on this day, Belichick -- in his pre-hoodie days -- gained the upper hand. The Patriots won, 17-16. No one knew it at the time, but their victory included plays that would become hallmarks of the Patriots' dynasty -- clutch plays on offense, defense and special teams.
Adam Vinatieri kicked the go-ahead field goal with 7:36 left in the fourth quarter. Terrell Buckley intercepted Vinny Testaverde on the subsequent possession, with the Jets on the edge of field-goal range. And Brady clinched it by converting on a third-down quarterback sneak.
History always points to the Mo Lewis/Drew Bledsoe game as the birth of the Patriots' dynasty, Sept. 23, 2001, the day Lewis unwittingly started the Brady era by putting Bledsoe in the hospital with a crushing hit. It was a momentous day, no doubt, but the Jets won the game and still owned the Patriots at that point.
The rivalry's tectonic plates started to shift in the rematch, Dec. 2, when Brady and Belichick beat the Jets for the first time. That game served as a preview of the next 16 years.
The Patriots eventually passed the Jets in the standings, won the division and surprised everyone by beating the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl. On Sunday night the Jets and the rest of the AFC watched as the Patriots advanced to their eighth Super Bowl in the Brady-Belichick era.
The AFC East world has turned upside down since that day in 2001, when Belichick articulated eight words that probably never again passed his lips: We're going to have to beat the Jets. It seems laughable now, doesn't it? Since then, every Jets coach -- Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini, Rex Ryan and Todd Bowles -- has expressed the same sentiment about the Patriots.
Sure, the Jets won the division in 2002, beating the Patriots in a tiebreaker, but that's just a footnote in the history books. The Patriots have dominated the division, the conference and the league like no team we've ever seen, and it won't stop until Brady is gone -- and that could be a few more years.
Sorry, folks, that's the reality. The Patriots have survived SpyGate and DeflateGate, and it sure looks like they're handling JimmyGate. We're talking about the controversial Jimmy Garoppolo trade, which created dissension at the top of the organization, according to an ESPN The Magazine story.
This has to be painful for Jets fans, seeing Brady & Co. reach the Super Bowl year after year after year. Just when you think the Evil Empire is about to crumble, they find a way. No Julian Edelman. No Rob Gronkowski. A 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter. A dozen stitches in Brady's right thumb.
No matter. They still figured out a way to steal the AFC championship from the Jacksonville Jaguars, who fought gamely, if not proficiently in crunch time.
Brady won three Super Bowls in four years at the start of his career, and now he has a chance to do it again. Asked if he ever imagined that when he arrived in 2000, he said after the game, "I could never imagine getting the kind of team achievements we've done and had. ... These are pretty amazing times for all of us."
If you're a Jets fan, it's okay to reach for a vomit bag.