They have been so careful all week. For five days, coach Rex Ryan and his Jets have bobbed and wove and danced around the subject of the New England Patriots.

Trash-talking has been kept to a minimum. In fact, Ryan and his players have gone out of their way to say good things about their archrivals. Bill Belichick has been called a great coach. Tom Brady has been called the best quarterback in the game.

So what gives? Why are the swagger-filled Jets playing the role of Denny Deferential as they head into Sunday night's game at MetLife Stadium?

On Friday, Ryan revealed what might be behind his team's keep-your-mouth-zipped strategy. In a classic rope-a-dope move, he leaned against the podium during his post-practice news conference and used a boxing analogy to explain the intensity of the rivalry between the teams.

"It ought to be a great game," Ryan said. "It's almost like Ali-Frazier, one of those type of things."

Thrilla in MetLife Stadium? OK, it doesn't have the same poetic ring as the title of the third classic fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in Manila. Still, Ryan believes that the teams' rivalry has the same kind of intensity that the rivalry between the two great heavyweights did.

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"Those were great fights," Ryan said. "I remember that growing up and things, so hopefully this can be the same kind of game and hopefully we end up on top. Whether we're Ali or Frazier, I don't know."

The two fought three times in the 1970s, with Frazier winning the first fight and Ali winning the final two.

Ryan believes many of the Jets-Patriots games also have been "great fights." Lately, the Jets and Patriots have battled to a draw, with each winning three of the last six meetings.

"The only one that was horrible was that Monday night massacre where we got knocked out in the first round," he said, referring to the Patriots' 45-3 win in Week 13 of last year.

You can bet there's nothing the Jets would like to do more than deliver a knockout punch to the Patriots. While both teams are 5-3, there is some perception out there that these are two teams headed in opposite directions. The Jets have won three straight; the Patriots have lost back-to-back contests to the Steelers and Giants.

This is a very important game to the Jets, and so they have been as careful as possible. No one has said anything bad about Belichick. No one has said he hates Brady, as the Jets' Antonio Cromartie did before last year's playoff game.

Yet one gets the feeling that as soon as the final second ticks off the clock Sunday, the winning team isn't going to be all that quiet. In fact, there were some small signs Friday that it was getting harder and harder for the Jets to say only nice things.

Linebacker Calvin Pace slipped up toward the end of the locker-room media session and once again referred to the Patriots as the evil empire.

When asked if he agrees with that assessment, Ryan shrugged before breaking into a what-the-heck smile and saying, "Well, that's been in a bunch of papers and all that stuff with Belichick and Darth Vader. So yeah, why not?"

Notes & quotes: WR Plaxico Burress practiced fully and confirmed that he will play Sunday. "I'm fine," said Burress, who missed practice Wednesday and Thursday because of lower back pain. He is listed as probable . . . Kick returner Joe McKnight (sprained toe) also is listed as probable after a full day of practice. McKnight leads the NFL with a return average of 40.2 yards . . . DT Mike DeVito said his knee is back to 100 percent. He is listed as probable . . . TE Shawn Nelson (illness) and S Brodney Pool (knee) did not practice and are the only two players listed as questionable . . . Friday was quarterback Mark Sanchez's 25th birthday.