Things started out pretty well for Jeremy Ruckert as a Jets fan. About a month after he was born, his favorite team — and yes, if you know his Long Island family, he already was rooting for them from birth — beat the Patriots, 20-19, on Monday Night Football. Wayne Chrebet caught two fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Vinny Testaverde, a pair of guys with roots on Long Island.
A month after that, the Jets beat the Patriots again. Then early the next season, too. They even knocked out New England’s starting quarterback in that game.
It must have been as satisfying as a warm bottle and a blankie for the toddler. Life was good.
So far, at least.
Little did Little Jeremy know what awaited him.
“My family does not like the Patriots,” he told Newsday this past week as he stood in the Jets' locker room, all grown up, now a rookie tight end for his hometown squad but still harboring that hatred he inherited. “I grew up almost always getting my heart broken each time I watched them play . . . It always felt like the same thing every year. Watching those games. And getting disappointed.”
Since that Sept. 23, 2001 game in which Drew Bledsoe was injured and the Patriots had to turn to their unproven sixth-round pick of a backup, the Jets have faced New England 43 times. They have won a mere eight of those contests and have endured separate losing streaks against their AFC East rival that have lasted seven, five and, currently, 12 body blows in a row.
It’s admirable and a little adorable that the Jets are trying to treat Sunday’s game against New England at MetLife Stadium as a typical Week 8 contest. They are downplaying the rivalry, blocking out the history, ignoring the impact.
“A division game,” coach Robert Saleh said of his approach to this matchup. “It’s boring.”
Defensive lineman Quinnen Williams practically yawned along with his coach when it was pointed out that he personally is 0-6 against this opponent in his career.
“I’m just worrying about every single day, heading into this game like any other,” he said.
That’s probably the right attitude to have for someone who will be participating in the game.
This cannot be stressed enough, however, when it comes to the ho-humming of Sunday as something banal and unimportant:
It. Is. Not. Just. Another. Game.
It never is against the Patriots, and this latest meeting feels as if it has the potential to be looked back on in years to come as a turning point.
The long-standing dynamics of the division have changed. The Patriots no longer sit atop the hierarchy. In fact, they seem to be spiraling toward the bottom after nearly two decades as the team to beat. Their quarterback situation is in disarray, their Hall of Fame coach is scrambling for answers, and they are far from the formidable foe that has haunted the Jets for most of this century.
The Jets, on the other hand, are on the rise. They are making a push. They are building something. Maybe even something like what the Patriots had, though let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There still are the Bills and Dolphins to contend with, but the Jets can deal with those teams later.
A win on Sunday won’t erase all the gut punches and heartbreaks and butt fumbles and ghost-seeing-quarterbacks that have been part of this rivalry. It would, however, make a very loud statement that things have forever changed in the relationship between the two franchises. Changed in favor of the Jets.
Most of the Jets are new to this Patriot repugnance. Almost all of them have been exposed to it for only a few years at most. They grew up in other parts of the country rooting blithely for other teams, completely unaware of the anguish that pulling for green often brings. It wasn’t until they signed here or were drafted or hired to the staff that they tasted their first few drips of that built-up bile.
One need only look to the seething rookie tight end to understand the passion and possibility that Sunday presents for those who live outside the purposefully soundproof, emotion-proof walls of Florham Park. There’s a good chance he won’t even get to play in this one (Ruckert has been inactive in three games and has played only a smattering of snaps this season), but that doesn’t make it any less significant to him. He may be a Jets player now, but Ruckert still is the same Jets fan he was growing up.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to be in this situation,” he said, “not only to play against them but to play for this team.”
And to beat them. To start making up for the lifetime of disappointment the Patriots have poured over him and his family.
Ruckert, then, is the surrogate for just about every Jets fan in existence, their duly designated representative in the locker room. He is the one who can speak to the frustration and anger — and he has been.
While the players and coaches have publicly pooh-poohed the weight from the forlorn fan base that they are carrying with them into MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Ruckert has been quietly reminding teammates of the stakes as perceived on the outside. He’s told them what it’s been like for Jets fans to endure the biannual wrenching feeling of facing the Patriots, always expecting the worst and usually experiencing it. He’s also shared what it meant to him on the rare occasions he can recall when the Jets did come out victorious, most notably the playoff victory over the Patriots in January 2011.
Deep down, they know. They won’t say it, and maybe they don’t feel it as personally as Ruckert, but they know.
“Everybody kind of gets that. They don’t need me to say it,” Ruckert said. “It’s well known around the building that they try to get after us and they’ve had good success against us in the past. We’re keeping that in the back of our minds every day in practice and making sure we’re doing everything we can to give them a beating and hopefully keep this train rolling.”
Ruckert’s life as a Jets fan started out pretty sweet in regard to facing the Patriots. Perhaps his career as a Jet will, too.
JETS VS. PATRIOTS
All-Time: Patriots lead series, 71-54-1.
Last meeting: Oct. 24, 2021, at Foxborough, Patriots won, 54-13.
Streak: Patriots have won last 12 meetings.
Jets’ last victory: Dec. 27, 2015, at MetLife Stadium, 26-20, in OT.
Robert Saleh vs. Patriots: 0-4
-—Nov. 9, 2020 at Jets, lost, 30-27
-—Jan. 3, 2021 at NE, lost, 28-14
-—Sept. 19, 2021 at Jets, lost, 25-6
-—Oct. 24, 2021 at NE, lost 54-13
Bill Belichick vs. Jets: 34-10 (2-1 in playoffs)
Belichick without Tom Brady vs. Jets: 4-0