FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- No matter what happens over the final two games, Ryan Fitzpatrick's season will be a success. He stabilized the quarterback position and earned the respect of the New York Jets' locker room, proving he deserves a new contract in the offseason.
It's a feel-good story, the Harvard-educated quarterback finding happiness on his sixth team. To make it a feel-great story, though, he has to beat the New England Patriots on Sunday. It's that simple.
Such is life in Tom Brady's division.
To make your bones as a quarterback in the AFC East, you have to beat Brady in a big game. The Patriots have owned the division for 15 years, setting the standard. If you can't topple the dynasty, you can at least own them for a day -- a day rife with playoff implications. Heck, even Mark Sanchez did that, beating the Patriots in the 2010 postseason.
Now it's Fitzpatrick's turn. He's having arguably the best season of any quarterback in the division since 2001 -- any quarterback not named Brady, that is -- but there will be a void if he can't get it done this weekend at MetLife Stadium. This is his chance to reverse two trends: He's 1-7 lifetime against the Patriots, and the Jets are 1-8 against them since that playoff win four years ago.
On Tuesday, Fitzpatrick smiled when asked if this is the biggest game of his career. This is his 11th season and he's never been this close to the playoffs, so the answer seems obvious.
"You might be forgetting about 2004 Harvard-Yale, undefeated season on the line," said Fitzpatrick, who led Harvard to a 35-3 victory that day to complete a 10-0 season. "(There were) a lot of alums at that game that could set you up for your future if you win that one."
The Game is legendary, but Jets-Patriots isn't too shabby. The Jets (9-5), winners of four straight, need this one badly. A loss would cripple their playoff hopes, perhaps eliminate them before Week 17. They don't want to lose to any team, least of all the hated Patriots.
"I don't know if I want to place a significance on it, where (it ranks) in my career, but this is huge for me," Fitzpatrick acknowledged. "I'm excited. This is why everybody in here plays the game, to play in a football games like this in December and have a shot at playing longer."
He doesn't want to be remembered as The Guy That Never Made The Postseason. Only one quarterback in NFL history has thrown more touchdown passes than Fitzpatrick (149) without making the playoffs -- the immortal Charley Johnson (170), who played from 1961 to 1975.
Fitzpatrick also is trying to conquer his New England demons. Reminded of his struggles against the Patriots, he said, "I think a lot of people have. They're a pretty good team." They're an outstanding team, but only one quarterback since 2001 has more losses against them than Fitzpatrick -- Peyton Manning (4-9).
This could be Fitzpatrick's time. Not only is he having one of the best passing seasons in Jets history, but he's doing it in Brady's division -- and that's rare. Consider: No AFC East quarterback other than Brady has thrown 28 touchdowns in a season since 2001 (he's done it nine times), but Fitzpatrick is right there with 26. Chad Pennington had a similar year in 2008, helping the Miami Dolphins steal the division from the Patriots.
It's too late for that, but Fitzpatrick can accomplish the next-best thing: Beat 'em in a big December game.
The Jets' version of The Game.