Jets head coach Rex Ryan during a press conference. (July...

Jets head coach Rex Ryan during a press conference. (July 27, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.


Three years on the job, and Rex Ryan still hasn't slain the dragon that stands between him and the AFC East title . . . and the ultimate prize he's after.

Three years in, and the AFC East still belongs to Bill Belichick's New England Patriots.

And with Belichick & Co. coming off a fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 years and the Patriots showing no signs of slippage, once again it is New England or bust for the Jets' loquacious leader.

In fact, this might be the only topic that can knock the smile off Ryan's face, as was the case after Saturday's rain-soaked training camp practice.

Asked if it's almost a case of having to concede the division and shoot for a wild-card berth -- the way the Jets got into the playoffs in Ryan's first two years -- the coach's face flashed anger.

"You gotta knock New England off," he said. "They've been clearly dominating the division for years and years, so you have to beat them. It always goes through them."

And it will go through them again in 2012, because the Patriots are every bit as good as last year's team, which lost to the Giants, 21-17, in the Super Bowl. Tom Brady still is in his prime, Belichick is as good a coach as ever, and his defense has been retooled with several highly regarded draft prospects.

But don't suggest to Ryan, even in general terms, that the Jets aren't capable of keeping pace with New England.

"I'll tell you this, I've never gone into a game I didn't think we'd win," Ryan said. "Do I respect New England? The fact is they've won our division a zillion times. The three years I've been here, they've won it all three times, and I don't think it's been close . . .

"[But] I'll never back down or concede anything. When you talk about conceding the division . . . yeah, right. Not me. There's no chance here, not with the Jets."

There's no shortage of confidence with Ryan, whose world is all about chasing victory. He hates it when he loses, but he'll always keep swinging. And believing.

Forget Belichick's three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots and two with the Giants as defensive coordinator. Ryan pronounced himself the best defensive coach in football, better than Belichick and better than longtime Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Ryan joked that he received messages from his twin brother, Rob, defensive coordinator of the Cowboys, and 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to include them on the list, too.

No matter. Rex still says he's No. 1.

And even though Ryan's only championship ring came when he was a defensive assistant under coordinator Marvin Lewis with the Ravens in 2000, Ryan says his defenses are consistently ranked higher than any other team's units.

Ryan isn't alone in that assessment. Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie agrees that his coach is tops.

"That's why he got the [head-coaching] job," Cromartie said. "I mean, it's him and Dick LeBeau. Rex is first on the list and LeBeau's second."

No Belichick?

"Did I say his name?" Cromartie shot back. "It's Rex and LeBeau. I got a one and a two, not a one, a two and a three."

Nice dig at Belichick. Not the first and not the last from Cromartie, who follows his coach's lead quite nicely.

With the Jets, it's always about the Patriots. In fact, New England is a big reason the Jets decided to trade for Tim Tebow. Despite the potential problems that Tebow's presence creates for Mark Sanchez, Ryan believes having Tebow as another weapon in his offensive arsenal is one more way to get closer to wresting the divisional title from the Patriots.

Tebow himself wasn't capable of leading an offense to victory against the Patriots, as evidenced by last year's blowout loss to New England in the playoffs. But Ryan calculates that Tebow in a Wildcat package is one more way to conquer his biggest foe.

Yes, it always comes back to the Patriots. Unless and until the Jets can knock off the perennial AFC East champs, it'll stay that way.


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