FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — It is a measure of just how important Sunday’s game against the Patriots is that the two players who might have the biggest impact on the outcome — at least for the Jets — consider this the game of their lives.
“Yes, absolutely,” wide receiver Brandon Marshall said when asked if this was his most important game ever. “The next couple will be the biggest of my career.”
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has never been this close to the playoffs in his previous 10 NFL seasons, called this one “everything for us this week, trying to get a win in this game.”
It’s essentially a win-or-else situation for the 9-5 Jets, who are in the thick of the AFC wild-card race but still have to beat out either Pittsburgh or Kansas City to secure their first playoff berth since Rex Ryan’s second season in 2010. That they face the Patriots at home is the perfect backdrop; New England has owned its division since Tom Brady first became a starter in 2001. The Patriots (12-2) are in position to earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC, so there’s plenty on the line for them, as well.
Welcome to Rivalry Week in the AFC East.
“This is a huge one for me, and I’m excited,” said Fitzpatrick, 33, who is having a renaissance season with the Jets after bouncing around among five teams before being traded from the Texans in the offseason. “I mean, this is why everybody in here plays the game, to play football games like this in December, having a shot to play longer. So we’re pretty excited about it.”
Biggest one ever for Fitzpatrick?
“You’re forgetting about the 2004 Harvard-Yale game, 10-0 season on the line,” Fitzpatrick said, breaking into a smile when looking back on his senior year at Harvard. “A lot of alumni at that game. Really set you up for the future if you win that one.”
Fitzpatrick led the Crimson to a resounding 35-3 win to finish off a 10-0 season, although he didn’t have much use for any connections to set him up in a lucrative career in the business world. Playing in the NFL was always his dream, and Fitzpatrick broke into the league as a seventh-round pick for St. Louis in 2005. One decade and five stops later, he is enjoying the best season of his career and now has a chance to reach the playoffs for the first time.
But getting there almost certainly will require a win over the Patriots, who were in the midst of a 10-0 run when they beat the Jets, 30-23, in Foxborough on Oct. 25. The Jets played the Patriots as well as any other team to that point, but couldn’t close the deal late in the fourth quarter. Nearly two months later, though, the Jets have hit their stride and come into Sunday’s game with a head of steam built up from a four-game winning streak. It still may not be good enough to get the win, but with the Patriots still dealing with key injuries on both sides of the ball, there is certainly an opening here.
“I think we’ve improved [since the last Patriots game],” Fitzpatrick said, who is 1-7 lifetime against New England. “Offensively, we’ve got a better understanding of who we are and how to get things accomplished. We have a better feel for each other. That being said, we’ve got to go out there and do it. We’ve got to go out there and make sure the chemistry we’ve built up is showing on Sunday.”
But Fitzpatrick said it’s important, especially on offense, not to be too amped up once the game starts.
“We have to play with composure,” he said. “We have to be able to think our way through the game. It’s not necessarily about the raw emotion like it sometimes is on defense. Offensively, we’ll have to come out with some composure, and I think we have the right guys to do that.”
Marshall, who is having one of his best seasons with 93 catches (tied with Al Toon for the franchise high), 1,261 yards and 11 touchdown receptions, is especially anxious for a big game. He’s still smarting over a dropped touchdown catch against the Patriots.
“You never want to disappoint your teammates,” he said. “You come over to the sidelines, you had a play where you could potentially energize your teammates. You never want to see that.”
The Jets’ defense has also shown improvement since the last Patriots game, and the confidence level is high.
“I think the guys have gotten to know each other more, good team chemistry,” safety Calvin Pryor said. “Playing them last time, we felt like we could play with them, but we didn’t feel like we could dominate them. I’m thinking this is a different mind-set for this game.
“It’s an intense rivalry, with a chance to go to the playoffs,” Pryor said. “It’s going to be crazy, but we’re ready for it.”
Jets-Patriots with everything on the line. It gets no better than this.