Jets believe in Rex, and they have his back

Jets coach Rex Ryan talks with running back

Jets coach Rex Ryan talks with running back LaDainian Tomlinson as the team prepares to face the Colts. (Jan. 6, 2011) (Credit: Joe Epstein)

Say what you want about Rex Ryan talking smack all week - everything from his personal grudge match with Bill Belichick to tweaking Tom Brady for his on-field antics to saying that Sunday's game against the Patriots is the second-biggest in franchise history (behind only Super Bowl III).

But whatever you think about the coach's approach, you won't find a group of players more eager to take the field in what figures to be a knock-down, drag-out battle against a long-standing rival. Ryan has his players jacked up and ready to go.

So forget that Ryan's hyperbole about the historic importance of this game is a bit misguided. After all, it's tough to ascribe this kind of meaning to a second-round game, especially when you can point to three AFC Championship Games the Jets played after Joe Namath delivered the team's only Super Bowl title in January 1969.

The Mud Bowl of the 1982 playoffs, when the Jets lost in the slop to the Dolphins. The magical ride in '98, when Vinny Testaverde & Co. had John Elway's Broncos scurrying at Mile High, only to lose it in the second half. And last year's AFC title game in Indianapolis, when they had Peyton Manning on the ropes early, only to see a trip to the Super Bowl vanish late.

But you can't blame Ryan for doing whatever it takes to get his players ready. "We earned this right to come back here and play against the New England Patriots," Ryan said Friday. "We have plenty of respect for them, but we don't fear them. I can promise you that. We do not fear them. We respect them, and we're going to win the game."

Seriously, how do you not love this message if you're playing for the Jets? How do you not adore having a coach who believes in you so passionately that he's all but guaranteeing a win over a team that delivered one of the most crushing defeats in franchise history?

"We love what Rex is all about and the belief that he has in us," tight end Dustin Keller said. "I think when you play for a coach who has that kind of faith in you, it wants to make you play that much harder and that much better for him. I think that's the mind-set we have, and we hope to deliver for him."

For those who view Ryan from afar, who don't get to be in the same room with him and see him interact with his players, he can seem like a caricature of himself.

When you're a coach who speaks your mind so easily and so forcefully, one who doesn't give a hoot about what anyone thinks of you, that's the risk you run. But Ryan's optimism is contagious. His players adore him, blindly believe in him and will do whatever he asks.

After disposing of Manning, a player Ryan had not beaten until last week (not counting last year's regular-season win over the Colts in which Indianapolis pulled its starters in the second half), the Jets are all the more intent on helping the coach vanquish Belichick and Brady, no matter the cost.

"Rex has a way of getting his message right to his players, of saying just what you need to hear to get yourself ready to play," said defensive tackle Trevor Pryce, a former Raven who played for Ryan when he was Baltimore's defensive coordinator. "I think he's got this team ready to play, and we'll do whatever it takes."

Even so, the odds are against the Jets, who face a Pats team that finished 14-2 and features arguably the best quarterback and best coach in the NFL. But this is just the way Ryan likes it: us against the world.

"This one is huge because you have your rival, who is a team that has won three Super Bowls, in your own division, at their place and coming off the huge, embarrassing Monday night loss," Ryan said. "This without question will be the second-biggest game in the history of the franchise. That's my opinion."

His players aren't quibbling over the semantics. "Rex is the kind of coach where you want to have his back, because he believes in us so much," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said.

The Jets will do whatever it takes, and if it's not quite good enough, at least they'll go down swinging.

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