The Jets and Patriots are playing on Monday night, and as far as backstory's concerned this is about as good as rivalry's get. Let's think about this. If you were trying to come up with an ideal rivalry in sports, what factors would you consider?
There are four requirements.
1a. You need two completely different cities. Two places with different values, different accents, different traditions--everything. For instance, the '80s Celtics and Lakers were the greatest rivalry in the history of sports, but it wasn't really about the games themselves. The games between those teams were great, but why do we remember them more than, say, the battles between Pistons and Bulls?
Because Los Angeles and Boston weren't just on opposite ends of the country, but they were (and still are) on opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. The same is true of Boston and New York City. Plus...
1b. Familiarity breeds contempt. The charm of any great rivalry is that fans can use the rivalry as an excuse to look down on the rival fans from another city. People from Boston don't like New Yorkers, and New Yorkers naturally don't respect people from Boston. Try living in a real city, New Yorkers say. Enjoy living in a disgusting, trash-filled zoo, Bostonians respond.
And the closer two cities are, the more likely the contempt is borne out by experience.
People from New York and Boston brush shoulders often, and it reinforces the stereotypes they carry. This is all childish and ridiculous, but the same could be said for any blanket generalization. That doesn't mean it's not fun and sometimes true. And regardless, sports makes it okay to hate each other. It sanctions our most basic instincts as humans. It may not be okay to stand up and say, "I hate people from New York City," but nobody's going to call you ignorant for saying, "God I hate Jets fans." This is why we love rivalries.
2. Opposing philosophies. This one's actually less important, but it makes the rivalry more meaningful when the teams themselves are studies in contrast. Think Magic and Bird. When two teams actually embody the differences between cities, it takes everything to a whole other level.
And the same way the Celtics and Lakers did that in the 1980s, the Jets and Patriots do now.
The Patriots draft well and mold their homegrown talent into champions. They value character and conformity over flash--it's a cliche, but they prove over and over again that it's also a very real strategy. With New England, substance matters more than style ever will, and it's what they believe sets them apart—this sentence could describe the Patriots or their hometown.
Meanwhile, the Jets have traded for flashy superstars like Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes, character risks be damned. They've spent big money on players like Bart Scott, and taken fliers on declining superstars like Jason Taylor and Ladanian Tomlinson. Even when New York drafts, they take flashy talents like Mark Sanchez and Vernon Gholston. Where New England taking Rob Gronkowski fits perfectly with their philosophy, so did New York taking Joe McKnight in the middle of the 2010 draft. New York likes big names and big risks, red flags be damned—again, you could say the same thing about the city, in general.
3. Two polarizing leaders. Nobody personifies the Patriots philosophy better than Bill Belichick, and the same is true for the Jets and Rex Ryan. With Belichick at the helm, the Patriots have won with uber-conservatism and guile. With Rex Ryan, the Jets have won by kicking ass and not being afraid to go after anyone--be it a big name receiver or an opponent.
Fans on the outside hate them both. Ryan's too cocky, and Belichick's too cold. But within the rivalry, you couldn't find two men who better contradict each other. Rex Ryan has never attended a press conference where he doesn't crack a joke, and Belichick hardly ever cracks a smile. Belichick keeps his strategy close to the vest, Rex openly talks of blitzing and kicking ass. Belichick takes it a game-at-a-time, Rex Ryan has been talking about the Super Bowl since July.
And yet, they're both effective. The Jets and Pats are sitting at the top of the NFL, and it's all thanks to the guidance of these two. New York's won a number of close games thanks in large part to a stubborn attitude. You can see that the Jets think they're better, and in the end, they all think they'll find a way to win. The Patriots, on the other hand, just keep dissecting defenses and shutting down offenses—they don't just find a way to win each week. With New England, it's usually more surgical.
When you have two polar opposites colliding, and they're both equally successful, that's a great game. Throw in rival cities and natural, shared contempt between the fans of each team, and you've got the potential for a great rivalry. There's only one more ingredient...
4. Great games. With New York and New England, that's the only thing we're waiting on at this point. Last year's Jets-Patriots games were ugly. New York took the first one, 16-9, and New England dominated the second, 31-14. Back in September it was New York's turn, as the Jets completely shut down New England in the second half, running away with a 28-14 win. But trading victories isn't enough.
The reason the Brady-Manning rivalry will go down in history is because every time they play, you just know it'll be a classic. This Monday, New York and New England have another shot at giving us a classic—the type of game these two teams were meant to play.
There are just too many factors in play for this NOT to become one of the best rivalries in sports. They play each other at least twice every season, and they both look like they'll be among the best teams in the NFL for the better part of the next five years. But context alone isn't enough to make a rivalry special. That last ingredient is what could put the Jets and Patriots over the top, giving us one of the best rivalries of the new millennium.
Will Monday night be the first step in that direction? Let's hope so.
Now, let's get to the rest of this week's games. This week we'll have an abridged version because I'm already way behind schedule. Apologies. In any case.... Here's what we're working with.
GIVE ME A HEAPING HELPING
Steelers at Ravens (-3) Want to know what a great rivalry looks like? It seems like these teams have been beating the crap out of each other for a solid decade. It lacks the glamour of New York and Boston, which is why that series has a much higher ceiling, but nevertheless. When Baltimore plays Pittsburgh, you pretty much know it'll be a battle well into the fourth quarter. And as much as everyone will talk about the playoff implications for New York and New England on Monday, the Sunday night game could be just as important.
Jaguars at Titans (-3) Neither one of these teams is making the playoffs, and there's a good chance that both Jack Del Rio and Jeff Fisher will be fired after this season. There's something a little depressing about watching two teams in the midst of dying a slow death, no?
Well, yes. But Gus Johnson could make a funeral sound exciting, and that means for the fifth straight week, his game is must-see TV. Remember last year's Jags-Titans game with Gus?
I'LL HAVE A SCOOP OF THAT, PLEASE
Chicago (-3.5) at Detroit. Okay, official mea culpa on the Chicago Bears. Two weeks ago, I wrote a headline asking, How Do The Bears Have A Shot At The Playoffs? To wit:
I still refuse to believe the Chicago Bears are 7-3 and playoff-bound.
Speaking of the Bears, here are the teams .500 or above that are actually quite awful: Miami Dolphins (5-5), Jacksonville Jaguars (5-4), either the Raiders (5-4) or the Chiefs (5-4), New York Giants (6-3), Seattle Seahawks (5-4), Chicago Bears (7-3), and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3).
In fairness, this came after an abysmal Thursday Night Football game where the Bears defense was called dominant after rendering Tyler Thigpen helpless. I was skeptical for two reasons.
A) "Tyler Thigpen helpess" is redundant.
B) The Bears only managed one offensive touchdown, themselves.
In other words, I figured people were overrating the Chicago defense and forgetting how awful their offense is. And two weeks and one dominating of Michael Vick later, I feel (a little) stupid. It's still hard to believe Chicago's a credible threat in the NFC, but as the season rounds out, it's looking more and more like the skeptics (me) are in the wrong here.
Atlanta (-3) at Tampa Bay. Last week I wrote:
The Bucs keep winning, and it's almost December, and... Well, at some point, we're going to have to start watching this team to see whether they're any good. This week against Baltimore seems like as good a time as any.
The verdict: Sorta good, maybe? After giving up 17 first-half points to the Ravens, they held Baltimore scoreless and lost by a respectable 7 points. In other words, they probably don't deserve to make the playoffs, but at home in a division game, you can't overlook them. Especially given the potential for a letdown after Atlanta's win vs. Green Bay last week.
Oakland at San Diego (-13). The Chargers look fantastic right now, but this is exactly the sort of game where the Raiders thrive. When people expect them to roll over, they show up. And when people expect San Diego to show up... Well, we'll see.
I'LL TASTE IT FIRST...
New Orleans (-7) at Cincinnati. LeBron James hugged Terrell Owens at halftime of the Heat-Cavs game last night? Sounds about right.
Buffalo at Minnesota (-5.5). Buffalo has nearly beaten a lot of good teams this year. They haven't won, obviously, but that should count for something, right? And against the Vikings--not a good team--shouldn't they pull off the upset? Brett Favre's had about as humiliating a year as anyone in sports, and I think "losing to the Bills" should get added to his 2010 resume.
Cleveland at Miami (-4.5). It's like Heat-Cavs all over again!!!
Except this time... BOTH teams are full of anonymous players that mostly just make you depressed.
I DON'T KNOW...SMELLS KINDA FUNNY...
Dallas at Indianapolis (-5.5). Jason Garrett definitely deserves credit for making the Kitna-helmed Cowboys competitive, but let's not forget he was the architect of the offense for the first eight weeks of the season. Okay? Jerry, if you're out there, please please please hire Jeff Fisher when he gets fired in Tennessee. I know Jason Garrett went to Princeton and once led the Cowboys to a victory on Thanksgiving, but he's NOT the answer in Dallas.
Washington at New York Giants (-7). Remember when people thought Donovan McNabb and Mike Shanahan were the answer in Washington?
Denver at Kansas City (-9). Josh McDaniels in Denver? Definitely not the answer.
NO THANKS, MY PLATE'S FULL
Carolina at Seattle (-6) ... St. Louis (-3.5) at Arizona.
That's right! The NFC West has its own category this week. As Fake Darnell Dockett says:
U ever farted on a elevator and gotten stuck there for 17 weeks? Thas what tha #NFCWest is like
Oh, and there's one more NFC West team...
San Francisco at Green Bay (-9.5). There was a time when San Francisco was deciding between Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers with the number one pick in the draft...
Yeah, that didn't work out so well... Until next week! Enjoy the games.