Pats vs. Jets hits a whole new level

A game between the New England Patriots and New York Jets is a biggie almost any time it's played. The rivalry is that intense.

But when both teams are a league-best 9-2 and the matchup comes on a Monday night in Week 13 of the season?

That takes it to a whole new level.

The excitement began to percolate a bit more Monday, with both teams returning to work after taking the weekend off. Jets players were preparaing to go through a light practice while Patriots players reported to Gillette Stadium to meet with coaches, but weren't planning to be on the field for a formal practice.

"The Jets are really an impressive team to watch," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "It's easy to see why they have the best record in the league. In the games where they've had to make plays at the end, whatever they've had to do, they've done it. They really did a good job in clutch situations, playing good situational football."

That is also the Patriots' modus operandi, which only adds to the intrigue for the Dec. 6 matchup at Gillette Stadium on "Tedy Bruschi Night."

The Jets' last three victories have all been nail-biters -- going to overtime on the road at Detroit (23-20) and Cleveland (26-20), and then coming back late at home against Houston (30-27).

The Patriots have countered with an impressive three-wins-in-12-days stretch of their own, beating the Steelers on the road (39-26), the Colts at home (31-28) and then the Lions on the road (45-24).

After the Thanksgiving win over the Lions, Belichick noted that the Patriots "have a good opportunity ahead of us," which ties into his mantra that the season doesn't truly begin until after Thanksgiving.

"It's just obvious, there are fewer games and a lot of teams are packed closely together, whether it's division records or overall record, so each game becomes that much more important, more critical, and has more influence in the final standings," Belichick said Monday.

"You have to go into it with that kind of emphasis. You want to go into it in a position where you're still in contention, which obviously both of these teams are for Monday night, and go from there."

Because the first playoff tie-breaker is head-to-head competition, the Patriots need a victory over the Jets to maintain a realistic chance at a No. 1 seed, a bye week, and home-field advantage. The Jets are currently in a better position because of their 28-14 win over the visiting Patriots on Sept. 19.

Much has changed for both teams since that time.

That was a game in which quarterback Tom Brady looked to be forcing the ball to receiver Randy Moss, throwing in his direction 10 times and completing just two passes. The Patriots traded Moss three weeks later and brought back receiver Deion Branch. The Patriots also didn't have former Jets running back Danny Woodhead, who has become a key contributor, or starting left guard Logan Mankins, who had
stayed away in a contract dispute.

Meanwhile, the Jets now have more firepower at receiver with Santonio Holmes, who missed the Week 2 matchup while serving a four-game suspension.

"That has certainly added to their offensive weaponry. He's been a productive player," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said, adding that quarterback Mark Sanchez has been effective in distributing the football to various targets. "They present a lot of problems offensively."

Defensively, a more minor change for the Jets since that Week 2 matchup is the addition of defensive end Trevor Pryce, formerly of the Ravens.

Overall, Belichick called the Jets a "very solid team" -- focusing first on their special-teams success -- while also crediting second-year coach Rex Ryan, who was hired by general manager Mike Tannenbaum.

"Rex has done a really good job of putting that team together," Belichick said. "They're obviously well-coached, solid in every phase of the game. It's a big challenge for us. We have a lot of work to do, but [we're] always looking forward to the matchup with the Jets."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.