Rex Ryan still in pursuit of Bill Belichick

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, left, congratulates Jets

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, left, congratulates Jets counterpart Rex Ryan in the 2011 playoffs game. (Jan. 16, 2011) (Credit: AP)

FLORHAM PARK, N.J.

There is only one coach Rex Ryan has competed against more passionately than Bill Belichick, but he only counts at family get-togethers.

"Yeah, my brother," Ryan cracked when I asked if there's anyone besides the Patriots' coach he wants to beat more badly. But the rewards of beating Rob Ryan, the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, are far less meaningful for twin brother Rex, whose victories come mostly in the stat column when they compare defenses. Winning or losing against Belichick is far more visceral -- the victories more rewarding and the losses more excruciating -- than any sibling rivalry.

"I think it's a pretty good matchup, and I think it's a little closer than maybe the general public realizes," Ryan said. "I've always felt that, 'OK, I want another shot at them.' Well, that's what this week is all about. We'll find out who the better team is on this particular day."

Ryan-Belichick resumes on Sunday in Foxboro, where the Jets face the Patriots with the teams part of a four-way tie in the division. Just the way Ryan likes it: Going after the coach who continues to stand in his way.

Ryan's obsession with Belichick began immediately upon his arrival in New York in 2009, when the Jets' coach pointed to Belichick as his primary target and devoted so much of his energy to beating football's most decorated active coach.

"I never came here to kiss Bill Belichick's rings," Ryan said in a radio interview before he'd even coached a game for the Jets. More than a year later, Ryan shared his feelings in more emphatic and more colorful language. Before a late-season game against the Patriots in 2010, he told me, "As much as I respect and admire Bill Belichick, I came here to kick his [butt], and that's the truth. That's just the way it is."

These days, Ryan is far more respectful of his divisional counterpart, and was downright deferential Wednesday.

"When I look at him, I see him as the best coach in the league," Ryan said. "I've said that from the day I took the job."

Belichick has become Ryan's personal white whale, the enemy he continues to stalk, yet the one who invariably finds a way to escape and come back to conquer the Jets' coach. Ryan delivered a harpoon into his prey in a shocking playoff upset after the 2010 season, beating a Patriots team that had decimated the Jets 45-3 in a regular-season game only weeks before.

Still, Ryan concedes that Belichick rules the division until the Jets -- or another team -- are able to change that. Ryan will continue to keep swinging, even if he acknowledges he probably won't ever produce the body of work equal to his rival.

"He's going to get my best," Ryan said. "If it was just between Belichick and me, he's going to win that battle. I recognize that. It's not going to be by a lack of effort on my part. He's going to get everything I've got. Maybe he struggles one day, then something happens and he's sick or, I don't know, maybe I'll get him. Maybe I'm crazy, but I have dreams about what I want to achieve. I want to compete against the very best. That's eventually where I want to get one day.''

There's no way Ryan equals Belichick's accomplishments, which include five Super Bowl appearances and three NFL titles. But that won't stop Ryan's dogged pursuit of his hooded rival.

"I don't think I'm the best head coach in the league right now. I think he is," Ryan said. "I'm confident in my abilities, but let's face it. We know he has all the rings and the records. I just think when it's all said and done, when you look at what he's accomplished in his coaching career as a head coach, there probably won't be anybody close to him."

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