To understand what Sunday's victory in New England meant to Shaun Ellis, you have to go back to Sept. 14, 2008.
That day, the New York Jets lost another tough game to the Patriots -- their 11th defeat in 12 games against their bitter rivals -- and Ellis was so disgusted that he flung his helmet to the ground in the waning seconds of their first loss that season.
Ellis' blowup made an impression on then-quarterback Brett Favre. It wasn't until that moment, Favre remarked a few days later, that he truly understood the franchise's deep-rooted frustration toward the Patriots -- the frustration in general. You might say it was Favre's welcome-to-the-Jets moment.
On Sunday, the longest-tenured Jet played with the fury of an angry man, unleashing 11 years of get-back on the Patriots. Ellis sacked Tom Brady twice in the span of four minutes in the first quarter, nearly half his regular-season production (4.5), to send a loud, early message to the Patriots.
Considering the stakes, it might have been the best game of Ellis' 11-year career. Teammate Trevor Pryce, a 14-year veteran, called it "the best game I've ever seen a defensive lineman play, period." Ellis finished with five tackles, lining up in various spots along the line -- nose tackle, tackle and end. He applied pressure on Brady without the help of blitzers as the Jets relied on conventional, four-man rushes.
"The 'Big Kat' comes out when we go to Foxborough," nose tackle Sione Pouha said, alluding to Ellis' nickname. "For some reason, he has a special thing for the Patriots. He has some personal issues, historically, when it comes to playing the Patriots."
Yeah, like the 45-3 loss last month. That was a personal issue.
"He's always hated the Patriots," said nose tackle Kris Jenkins, on injured reserve since Week 1. "He's on the back end of his career, and to lose 45-3, I think he had the worst taste in his mouth out of anybody because he's been through the matchups year in, year out. He's been through everything."
Ellis, 33, recorded just 4.5 sacks during the regular season, his lowest total since 2005. His contract expires after the season, and there's no telling whether he'll be back. If this is his last run with the Jets, the team that drafted him in the first round in 2000, he seems hell-bent on making it last.
He figures to be a key player in Sunday's AFC Championship Game. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who allowed six sacks Saturday to the Baltimore Ravens, aren't a good pass-protecting team. Their tackles, Jonathan Scott and Flozell Adams, are shaky at best. If Ellis & Co. can pressure Ben Roethlisberger with four-man rushes, it will allow Rex Ryan to be more creative with his coverage schemes.
It will be Ellis' 12th postseason game, the most of any player in Jets history. He will try to crank it up one more time, looking to duplicate his performance in Foxborough.
"To see what he did, it motivated me," Jenkins said. "I was at my house, cheering for him. I was proud of him. He just showed everybody, 'I still got it.'"
Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, writing for ESPNBoston.com, recalled Ellis' helmet-slamming from 2008. He was there.
"I've kept that image in my mind when thinking about the frustrations that the Jets have had in recent years," Bruschi wrote. "On Sunday, however, Ellis erased it. He manhandled every member of the Patriots' interior offensive line. ... This was a case when a player and a team were breaking through; I had never seen Ellis have a game like that on a stage that big. It was his time, just as it was LaDainian Tomlinson's time and Jason Taylor's time. As tough as it is to say, it looks as if they have come together and it might possibly be time for the Jets to get their world championship."