FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan is preparing to face the New England Patriots for perhaps the last time. To date, he has earned the opportunity to run Woody Johnson's football team for another year, but he's about to begin a three-game stretch that could define the season. If the New York Jets don't spring at least one upset -- Sunday is the best chance -- it might cause Johnson to abstain from Rex at the end of the season.
This is by no means a make-or-break game for Ryan, but a loss would create a three-game gap between the New York Jets and Patriots -- and that would mean the likelihood of a fifth straight season without an AFC East title in the Ryan era. It's no fault of his that he landed in the division during one of the great coach-quarterback runs in history, but there comes a point where you have to man up and ambush the bully.
The Jets will never get a better shot at the Patriots, who have lost major pieces on both sides of the ball. These are not the Patriots of Bruschi and McGinest and Seymour. They're 5-1 because of two body parts: Bill Belichick's brain and Tom Brady's right arm. Can Ryan live with himself if he keeps getting beat by one brain and one arm?
Ryan has lost five straight to the Patriots, two shy of the Jets' longest losing streak in the series (2003-06). The euphoria of that incredible playoff upset in January 2011 faded away a long time ago. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Jets, but they're better than we thought and the Patriots are more vulnerable than anyone anticipated. There's no reason Ryan can't stick it to Belichick on Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
The five-game losing streak was brought up Wednesday on a conference call with the Boston media, and Ryan -- perhaps annoyed -- fired back when a questioner wondered if he's been "kissing Bill Belichick's rings a little lately."
"No, I haven't," Ryan said. "Maybe you have, but I haven't, and I never will. I came here to beat him and to win, and to win our own championship rings and all that type of stuff. Again, hey, the facts are we've lost five in a row to them and things like that. We'll see if it's six in a row."
Ryan is exuding confidence, especially behind the scenes, where players say he's been displaying the old Rex strut. He knows Brady, sans his usual cast of characters, isn't the same Brady. Maybe that's why rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson spoke out Wednesday, telling ESPN.com, "No one really treats him like [Superman] around here. I think he's the complete opposite of that."
The Jets held the Patriots to nine first downs in their Week 2 meeting, the only time in Brady's career -- 181 regular-season starts -- he was limited to single digits, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Many folks attributed Brady's struggles to a lack of chemistry with his new receivers, not the Jets' defense -- and Ryan took umbrage. You can bet he's been hammering that theme all week with his players.
In a way, he has a point. One play, one narrow outcome, can alter a perception. If New Orleans cornerback Jabari Greer lined up where he was supposed to, a yard deeper, he would've deflected Brady's touchdown pass last Sunday to Kenbrell Thompkins with five seconds left. Greer's pleading fingertips missed the ball by an inch or two.
It will be remembered as another great moment in Brady's legendary career, but the storyline easily could've been, "What's wrong with Tom?" Until the last drive, Brady was a mediocre quarterback, throwing an interception with two-and-change to play that resembled something out of the Geno Smith album of picks.
Brady can be had. Look at what's around him. He's throwing to the Dropsy Twins, Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, a pair of rookies who have combined for nine dropped passes. It looks like Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola won't play, meaning the Jets will have avoided them in both games. On defense, the Patriots' two heart-and-soul players, Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork, are done for the season. Cornerback Aqib Talib, arguably their best remaining defensive player, might not play this week.
For Ryan, there's more to gain than to lose on Sunday. A win over the Patriots would add another line of his résumé, which will be closely scrutinized by Johnson and general manager John Idzik. If Ryan loses, he's staring at the possibility of 3-6 at the bye week.
After New England, the Jets go on the road to play the first-place Cincinnati Bengals (4-2), who beat the Patriots, followed by the NFC-leading Saints (5-1) at home. It's a brutal stretch that could cripple the Jets' playoff hopes. If that 3-6 scenario unfolds, Ryan would be reduced to playing the arrow game -- hoping a strong finish with a rookie quarterback is enough to convince the bosses the arrow is pointed up for the Jets.
Ryan can do himself a huge solid by beating the Patriots at home, something he hasn't done since 2010. It won't guarantee his future, but it would be a huge step in the right direction.