It has been one of the most interesting, compelling, intriguing and enduring rivalries in pro sports, a twice-annual duel that pits two cities with centuries-old history and two football teams with decades-old tradition.
Jets-Patriots. Just the mere mention brings to mind so many indelible memories:
The Joe Namath-Babe Parilli showdowns in the old AFL days after the rivalry commenced in 1960.
The Richard Todd-Steve Grogan matchups of the ‘70s.
Ken O’Brien-Tony Eason years a decade later.
Then there was the drama of the Bill Parcells years in New England . . . and then in New York, when he breathed new life into the Jets franchise starting in 1997.
And Bill Belichick’s uniquely strange departure from the Jets to take the Patriots’ job in 2000, where he built a dynasty the likes of which we’ve never seen.
Belichick and Tom Brady inflicted untold emotional damage on Jets fans over two torturous decades, with the Patriots winning six Super Bowl titles and the Jets getting only as far as the AFC Championship Game twice in the Rex Ryan years.
The Butt Fumble, featuring Mark Sanchez.
And the "seeing ghosts" moment for Sam Darnold.
Just an incredible assortment of memorable games, inflamed passions and some incredible football.
Which brings us to the sad reality of 2020.
With the two franchises now in rebuilding mode, it may be a while before Jets-Patriots has the same kind of meaning for either or both teams. They came into Monday night’s matchup sitting at the bottom of the AFC East standings, with the 2-5 Patriots coming off their first four-game losing streak since 2002 and the 0-8 Jets in full catastrophe mode in Adam Gase’s second — and almost certainly — final season.
This time, the quarterback matchup was Cam Newton against Joe Flacco, a competition that might have inspired great anticipation several years ago, when both quarterbacks were Super Bowl-caliber. But Newton’s fall from grace in Carolina began with foot and shoulder injuries the previous two seasons, and Flacco hasn’t been the same since putting on a transcendent performance in the 2012 playoffs, culminating with an MVP performance in Super Bowl XLVII.
There is no telling whether either quarterback will even be here next season, when the Patriots and Jets will potentially be looking for long-term help at the position. Newton is working on a one-year deal, and Flacco is a placeholder for the injured Sam Darnold, who aggravated a shoulder injury in last week’s loss to the Chiefs.
Darnold still has a chance to stick with the Jets. But if they get a shot at taking Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence — or perhaps Justin Fields of Ohio State or Mac Jones of Alabama — then general manager Joe Douglas might clean house and start all over with a young quarterback on his rookie contract instead of re-upping Darnold’s deal after three seasons.
Even with all the Jets’ problems, Belichick did his usual pregame ritual of throwing bouquets at his opponent, regardless of their record. It’s hard to say anything nice about an 0-8 team, but Belichick found a way.
"I think they’ve played competitively," he said. "The offense has improved. Left tackle [Mekhi Becton] is good. He’s definitely a guy they can run and pass block behind. They’ve got some young receivers that have stepped up. Backs are running hard. Defense is aggressive. They pursue well. I think they get a little better each week."
Better, of course, is a relative term. They’ve been beaten every week, often badly, and despite incremental improvement in the first half of their last two games against Buffalo and Kansas City, the final results have been lopsided.
Gase spoke warmly last week of Belichick’s kindness in the days after his dismissal from the Dolphins following the 2018 season, and the two seem to have genuine respect for one another. Gase was particularly appreciative that Belichick took the time to offer some consolation after his ouster in Miami.
"He didn’t have to go out of his way to do that," Gase said. "I thought that was something that was great for me to hear from."
It’s anyone’s guess how much longer Gase has with the Jets. He’ll either get the rest of the season, or CEO Christopher Johnson will put a Band-Aid on his team with an interim coach, perhaps Gregg Williams or either of the team’s assistant head coaches, Frank Bush or Shawn Jefferson. None of them will become the full-time coach in 2021.
Jets-Patriots will be going out with a whimper this season, with Monday night’s game doing nothing to alter the divisional standings and the regular-season finale on Jan. 3 being a non-factor as well.
It will now take a while for this rivalry to be reconstituted and attract the kind of attention that had once made it among the NFL’s best.
For now, it ain’t much.