FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan's challenge to the rest of the league has been heeded, leaving the Jets in prime position to take control of the AFC East Sunday night.

Back in training camp, Ryan said he wanted a team besides the Jets to knock off New England, figuring that would give them a better shot at winning the division. The Bills, Steelers and Giants have done the job, and New England (5-3) is reeling a bit, having lost two straight for only the fourth time since 2003.

First place in the AFC East is there for the taking, and Ryan isn't downplaying the significance of the game at MetLife Stadium.

"The two years I've been here, New England has won the division both times," Ryan said Wednesday. "They've beat us already. So we know what this game represents. We're not afraid to talk about it. It's not one of those 'If we don't [win], there's still a lot of season left.' No, 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've got to beat the champ.' And they are sitting right in front of us."

Ryan called this game a good barometer to see if the "Jet football" they've been playing since a 30-21 loss to the Patriots Oct. 9 will lead to a third win in the last five tries against the Pats. The Jets' defense was ranked near the bottom of the league then but has climbed to eighth.

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Still, perhaps nothing has been as key to their resurgence as their rushing attack (ranked 31st a month ago) that's produced nearly 400 yards the last three games. Ryan admitted he got too caught up in trying to turn the Jets (5-3) into more of a passing team. He knows they're at their best when the running game is flourishing.

"I just think our team works this way," quarterback Mark Sanchez said. "Runs set up the passes, passes set up the runs, and things look similar. It helps our game plan when you have similar formations for runs and passes. That's huge.

"It's just kept defenses off balance. Earlier in the year, we were doing a lot of run action, and it just wasn't getting the sell that we wanted because we weren't running the ball as well. So once the running game becomes a huge factor like it is now, teams are trying to get another player in there to stop the run. And that's opened things up on the outside."

It's providing Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson with more room to run.

"They can't just focus on one aspect of our offense,'' Greene said. "They've got to be aware of the pass and the run, and then when we run the ball good, and get some play action mixed in, it's kind of tough to defend us."

That's why the Jets have a sense of confidence that wasn't there a month ago, which excites Ryan.

"We're playing more to our style, more runs and completions, and I think our defense is playing much better than the first time," he said.

"Again, I think we were ready to play that game against New England. The last time we played them, they were better than we were. That's why I'm saying, 'We'll see.' We'll see if we've improved enough to beat New England."

Notes & quotes: WR Plaxico Burress (back), RB/KR Joe McKnight (toe) and S Brodney Pool (knee) didn't practice. The only true question mark is Pool (sprained MCL), who sounded as if he's going to try to play Sunday.