With three of the league’s unbeaten teams on bye weeks — no Peyton to tweak, no Dalton to critique, and no Rodgers to revere — the eyes of the football cognoscenti will be squarely on Foxboro on Sunday, when the Patriots (5-0) host the Jets (4-1).
Everyone expected the Pats to be here, undeterred, undefeated and indefatigable. Beyond the obvious incentive to defend their Super Bowl title — which many think Pete Carroll handed them by not handing the ball to Marshawn Lynch — there’s the cinder block on Tom Brady’s shoulder following Deflategate.
No doubt Brady carries with him all those summer flights from Boston to New York, pried from his friends, family and franchise, to appear before some kangaroo court, where a federal judge was adjudicating a matter best handled by the litigants.
None of that means he was innocent. Troy Aikman, who knows more about this than any of us, said if an NFL ball is doctored, the QB knows about it. But that’s not the point here. We’ve tried the case ad nauseum, and Brady won. In football parlance, he beat the NFL by five touchdowns.
But the great ones, from Jordan to Magic, from Montana to Brady, can always use an extra thumbtack on the bulletin board, a little chum in the blood. And there’s nothing that Brady likes more than to stick it to the Man, the System and the New York Jets.
Brady still hasn’t forgotten he was the 199th pick in the draft, the infamous Brady 6. He can still name the five quarterbacks picked before him — Tee Martin, anyone? — all of whom are NFL fossils now, barely entrants in the league’s archive.
Brady hasn’t forgotten all those blowhard guarantees from Rex Ryan. He hasn’t forgotten when the Jets stunned the Patriots in the playoffs, with Mark Sanchez, on their turf. Brady hasn’t forgotten 2008, when his juggernaut entered the dessert as double-digit favorites against another New York team (Giants) and lost the title, and their legacy as the best team in history. Nor did he forget the Super Bowl redux a few years later, again losing to a last-minute Eli Manning miracle.
Brady always hears the yearly regurgitation of how this is the moment the empire falls. And how it’s the Jets who will topple him and take his throne. He’s too old, stiff and stuffed with the luxury of legacy. Surely all the perks of his epic success would render him a little lethargic or complacent. Nope.
He hasn’t forgotten how so many of us said the Pats were part coaching, part quarterbacking and part poaching. They can’t win unless they skirt the rules, wander beyond the arm of Johnny Law. They can’t win unless they have the opponent’s playbook, go all John Ford on their walk-throughs, plant a cameraman on the outskirts of their practices.
I’m not in the envy business. I reserve my Haterade for more local endeavors (like the Knicks). And while some of us think Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in the NFL, we can’t question Brady’s dominance or eminence. If he wins one more Lombardi Trophy, his fifth, no one can dispute any claim that he’s the best ever to toss a pigskin.
The Patriots take no-names and make them household names. Like Malcolm Butler. Like Dion Lewis. Like a college QB named Julian Edelman. Their ability to recycle NFL talent would make Al Gore blush.
The two constants, of course, are the monoliths on the field since this run began 15 years ago. One wears a headset, the other a helmet with a green dot taped on top.
Brady and Bill Belichick have become Starr and Lombardi, Jordan and Jackson, Russell and Auerbach, Bradshaw and Noll. They’ve become physically and metaphysically conjoined. They may as well enter the HOF together, no matter when each one retires. Might as well get their mustard-colored jackets from he same cut of cloth — the perfect metaphor.
And this Sunday will be a nice test for a team always hunting for barometers. The Jets aren’t, well, the Jets. They actually have a rather solid squad — an unusually robust defense, two fine receivers in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker and a stampeding running back in Chris Ivory.
The Jets, like everyone else, will be QB-dependent as the weather turns ornery in November and beyond. That’s when their bearded wonder, the “Amish Rifle” Ryan Fitzpatrick, will truly prove his worth. The Harvard man has been a football vagabond, now on his sixth NFL team. Fitzpatrick has made so many stops on the football map, a Google search shows him in a Texans uniform.
But the marriage seems to be working. The QBs the Jets have faced, from Johnny Manziel to Kirk Cousins, have hardly been a Canton roll call. But the Jets can’t control who they play, and their defense should provide Brady his biggest challenge so far this season.
Maybe the Jets can steal some of that Mets mojo. No one expected the Big Apple’s little baseball brothers to reach the Fall Classic. Likewise, the Jets are 9-point underdogs to Brady and Belichick. If you’re a betting man, it’s hard to resist the points.
If you’re a football man, it’s hard to bet against Tom Brady.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.