Jets-Pats rivalry transcends games

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
Their history involves stealing players, reneging on contracts, tattling to the commissioner, suing their bosses and then playing some football. All of it happens in the sports crucible that is Boston-New York contempt.

Now that's a rivalry.

The New England Patriots and New York Jets have established their series as the NFL's most intense.

They'll meet Sunday at the Meadowlands in a game that could symbolize a shift in the AFC East. The Patriots don't have star quarterback Tom Brady anymore and are considered the underdogs. The Jets have another first-ballot Hall of Famer in Brett Favre.

"The New England Patriots are the standard bearers in the AFC East," said former Patriots and Jets running back Keith Byars. "But the Jets smell a little blood in the water."

Sunday's matchup is compelling, but it's merely another episode in a series that has been nothing short of fascinating for a generation.

Head coaches Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini, sharing professional lineage and mutual disdain, have worked for both teams and accused each other of various transgressions (see the Spygate chapter in your Rivalry Handbook). Several assistants and 51 players have jumped back and forth since Bill Parcells became Patriots coach in 1993 and Jets coach in 1997.

"When Joe Walton was coaching the Jets, we weren't taking Jets-Patriots calls," said legendary New York sports talker Chris "Mad Dog" Russo. "It wasn't Boston versus New York like Red Sox-Yankees, but when Parcells got in the mix, that's when the Jets-Patriots rivalry began in earnestness and spiraled out of control.

"It's all off-the-field stuff. It transcends the actual games."

While Byars contended the rivalry is fueled more by franchise or coaching animosity, Curtis Martin, who also ran for both teams, said "it was more like competing against your brother. When you're competing against people that you know, it just brings a little extra out of you."

Going into a Patriots-Jets game, the players are fully aware of the added importance. They're well-versed on the story lines. They look across the field and see so many familiar faces. They feel the added hostility swirling around the stadium like a nasty wind.

"It almost feels combustible," said Martin, who bolted the Patriots for the Jets to reunite with Parcells. "You almost expect fans to get into a fight in the stands. There's that type of tension.

"You know the history. You know where both coaches come from. You know what's going on. You don't necessarily feed into the media, but you understand and you're not oblivious to it."

The Patriots-Jets blood feud has been rehashed often enough, but here's the CliffsNotes version:

  • After 30-plus years of coexisting in relative harmony as AFL brothers, the Patriots hire lightning rod and former New York Giants head coach Parcells in 1993.

  • Parcells, upset over being overruled by Patriots owner Robert Kraft in the 1996 draft, defects to the Jets at the end of the season. Kraft demands draft compensation. The NFL orders the Jets to surrender four picks over the next three years.

  • Parcells signs Martin to a six-year, $36 million offer sheet in 1998, knowing the Patriots can't match. The Jets give up first- and third-round picks as compensation.

  • Parcells leaves the Jets sideline after 1999 and abdicates to Belichick. On his way to the podium for his introductory news conference, Belichick scrawls a resignation note on a napkin.

  • The Jets forbid Belichick from pursuing other jobs. Belichick responds by filing an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL.

  • Belichick becomes Patriots head coach in 2000 and goes on to win six AFC East titles, four AFC titles and three Super Bowls.

  • In September 2001, Jets LB Mo Lewis delivers the sideline hit that changed the Patriots franchise. Drew Bledsoe suffers internal bleeding, and virtual unknown Brady takes over.

  • Patriots defensive coordinator Mangini leaves to become Jets head coach in 2006. He tries to pick up his things the next day, but he's locked out of Gillette Stadium.

  • Patriots file tampering charges against the Jets regarding WR Deion Branch.

  • The Jets report Patriots videotaping violations to the NFL last year, and Spygate becomes an obsession well into the offseason.

The Patriots-Jets series, however, is more than good theater. These games have counted.
The Patriots have won six of the past seven AFC East titles. The Jets won the other one in 2002 in a three-way tiebreaker with the Patriots and Miami Dolphins.

They met in the playoffs two seasons ago. That year, they split in the regular season (the road teams won each time), and the Patriots beat the Jets 37-16 in the playoffs.

"It's always serious," Martin said. "One significance to this is that it seems the winner of these games usually wins the division. It's really taken serious. There's a lot at stake with these games."