FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The last time the New York Jets faced the New England Patriots for first place in the AFC East, Rex Ryan hyped it as a potential breakthrough game for his franchise -- and lost so badly, 45-3, that he buried the ball a few days later.
Now, 11 months later, the Jets face a similar situation and, once again, Ryan sounds like a fight promoter. The bitter rivals have identical 5-3 records, and Ryan sees Sunday night's game at MetLife Stadium as a chance to take control of the division, symbolically and otherwise.
Ryan is all in.
"We know what this game represents and we're not afraid to talk about it," the Jets coach said Wednesday. "It's not one of these, 'Well, if we don't [win] there's still a lot of season left.' We're approaching it like we have to have this game.
"We want to win our division. We think it goes through New England. ... That old saying, 'To be the champ, you have to beat the champ' -- and they're sitting in front of us," Ryan continued. "We think we've improved as a football team, and we're going to find out on Sunday, because this is a measuring stick right here."
The Jets, winners of three straight, haven't won the division since 2002, seven years before Ryan arrived. The Patriots have won six of the past seven division titles -- the Miami Dolphins interrupted their dominance in '08 -- but they appear vulnerable, having lost two straight games. They haven't dropped three in a row since '02.
The Jets smell blood. They sense a great opportunity.
"It absolutely is," said Ryan, who is 3-3 against Bill Belichick, including a playoff win last January.
Whenever the Jets face the Patriots, the pregame talk usually focuses on the wonders of Tom Brady and how they plan to slow him down. Now there's a different twist. Brady has thrown 10 interceptions, third-most in the league, and the Patriots' vaunted offense has been held to less than 21 points in three straight games.
"He's mortal," linebacker David Harris said of Brady, smiling. "He's not an alien, after all."
Ryan refused to acknowledge Brady's so-called struggles, praising him, but he managed to slip in a backhanded compliment.
"Without Peyton [Manning] playing, I'd say he's the best quarterback in the league right now," said Ryan, taking his annual jab at the Patriots' star.
Ryan's defense has enjoyed some big moments against Brady, especially at home. In their past two home games against the Patriots, the Jets held Brady to 52 percent passing, with three interceptions and only two touchdown passes. The Patriots scored a total of 23 points, both losses.
And that was when the Jets were a mediocre home team, record-wise. This season, they're undefeated, trying to go 5-0 at home for only the second time in franchise history.
Ryan called on the fans to be loud, hoping a high decibel level will cause communication problems for the Patriots -- a team that relies heavily on verbal communication at the line of scrimmage.
"Let's make it miserable for them," Ryan said. "I wouldn't ask the fans to do this if I didn't think they can be the difference."
The contrast in coaching styles is striking. Belichick never puts added emphasis on a particular game; Ryan isn't bashful about placing extra meaning on a game.
This is that game. There are seven games on the other side, but Ryan has some of his players believing it's the divisional championship.
"I think so," nose tackle Sione Pouha said. "For the past three years, we've had some exciting scenarios with them, and this is just another one to add to the storybook."
Quarterback Mark Sanchez tried to keep it in perspective.
"I don't think it's the end-all and be-all," he said. "It's not the end of the world if we lose, but we don't want to think like that. This is a big division game. It would set us up nicely."
They thought that last year, too, but the Jets were embarrassed in a prime-time game. In a motivational ploy, Ryan conducted a ball-burying ceremony a few days later, surrounded by the entire team. That, they said, was the end of it, no residual effects.
And they went out and lost to the Dolphins.