The Jets are playing the Patriots.
Usually, that sentence would be enough to drive up excitement and stir anticipation from players and fans alike. For most of the past two decades, these twice-a-year regular-season meetings not only have been circled on the schedules but underlined, starred, arrowed and surrounded with just about any doohickey and doodle imaginable to stress their importance.
That was the case in the spring when this Sunday’s matchup first hit the calendars in Florham Park.
It was made doubly significant when the Jets lost their Oct. 30 game to New England at MetLife Stadium.
From the moments when they walked off the field after that gut-wrenching loss, they were talking about getting another crack at those guys.
“We’ll have those guys in a few weeks,” Zach Wilson said back then when asked about a rematch shortly after his three interceptions played a key part in the 22-17 defeat.
But something strange happened between then and now. The hatred and disdain between the two franchises hasn’t abated one little bit, and the desire of the Jets to end their 13-game losing streak against New England certainly isn’t any less than it was when they tried to halt it at three, eight, 10 or 12. Yet the most important element of this game somehow isn’t whom it’s against or where it is being played.
It is about what the Jets will be able to call themselves with a victory:
A first-place team.
That’s more important than any rivalry.
“I get it’s the Patriots and I get it’s big for the fans and some of the people upstairs in the business department, our ownership and all that stuff,” Robert Saleh said, “but for us as coaches, players, you’ve got to keep the main thing the main thing. This is another championship opportunity versus another championship football team, and we’ve got to play at a championship level.”
He’s tried to downplay the whole Patriots Thing in the past, efforts met mostly with eye rolls and sighs.
This time, though, he’s not just spewing coachspeak. He’s also right.
There still is plenty of time left and too many good teams in the AFC East to think having that first-place honor in late November means the race will be over. Anyone who has rooted for the Jets for any part of their existence knows not to celebrate something before it actually is achieved, and even then to do so with extreme caution.
This is a franchise that generally does not need to wait long for second shoes to clunk them on the heads. Success is not a position of familiarity.
What a win would do — besides forcing all of the other teams in the division to look up to the Jets — is give them a win over each of the other teams they are battling. That would prevent them from losing any head-to-head tiebreakers in January.
“Divisional games are always important because there’s ramifications way down the line from a scenario standpoint,” Saleh said.
So yes, the Jets are facing the Patriots on Sunday. But in a way, they are facing the Dolphins and Bills at the same time.
Way back during OTAs and in the early days of training camp, linebacker C.J. Mosley started believing this was a team that would get to this point and beyond. He determined the Jets were a postseason team.
“You could see the work ethic, feel the camaraderie everyone was bringing,” he said this past week. “You could see how everyone was bonding together. When we finished minicamp, I just had a good feeling, a really good feeling about our team, our defense, about the guys who came here and wanted to do something.
“I truly believe we are a team that can make the playoffs.”
They played that way in the first half of the season to get to this point. Now all they have left is to go finish it.
That process starts Sunday.
Against what team? That hardly seems to matter as much as it once did.