CORTLAND, N.Y. -- A lot of Rex Ryan is gone, about 105 pounds, but he hasn't lost his obsession with the New England Patriots.
Mention the Patriots to him, and you'll almost always get a rise. When a reporter prefaced a question Saturday by suggesting the New York Jets could be playing for second place in the AFC East, Ryan nearly recoiled.
"Do I respect New England and the fact that New England has won our division a zillion times?" the coach asked rhetorically. "The three years I've been here, they've won it all three years -- and I don't think it's been close.
"But ... I will never back down and concede to anything. When you talk about conceding the division ... yeah, right. Not me. There's no chance here. Not with the Jets."
The Jets finished one, three and five games behind the Patriots from 2009 to 2011. In other words, they're going in the wrong direction.
Every summer, Ryan talks about overtaking the Patriots. Herm Edwards and Eric Mangini did it before him. It's part of the job description when you become coach of the Jets.
What makes this time different is that, for a change, the Jets aren't perceived nationally as a strong contender. They're almost -- dare we say it? -- an underdog, duly noted by Ryan in his first team meeting. Motivational fodder, anyone?
In the previous two seasons, the Jets built a following based on their roster -- i.e., talent. The team still has talent, but the lineup is pocked with question marks. To overtake the Patriots, it will take a great head-coaching job by the man who proclaimed himself as "the best defensive coach in football."
Ryan faces plenty of challenges. He has the most unusual quarterback dynamic in the league. He has a new offensive system that needs to be implemented. He has a wide receiver who constantly creates brush fires. He has questions in the backfield. He has a scary situation at right tackle.
He has age at linebacker. He has safeties that struggle in coverage. He has depth issues in a few places.
Ryan, recharged and refocused after last season's bitter disappointment, might need to out-Belichick Bill Belichick to win the Jets' first division title since 2002. He did it once before, in the 2010 playoffs. That was one game; he needs a season of that.
"You've got to knock New England off," Ryan said. "They've been clearly dominating this division for years and years and years. So you have to beat them. It always goes through them."