Braylon Edwards bites his nails during a recent game against...

Braylon Edwards bites his nails during a recent game against the Packers. (Oct. 31, 2010) Credit: David Pokress

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Braylon Edwards sprinted down the far sideline, made his cut and leaped high. He gracefully snagged the ball, pirouetted and still had the presence of mind to stick the landing inbounds.

This is the image Braylon Edwards wants you to remember: a competitor who can make a big play. What he wants you to forget is the image of him being followed by reporters as he walked down the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse steps, hours after his September DWI arrest.

As Edwards stood outside the Jets' locker room Thursday, the wide receiver let down his guard and opened up about his struggles to accept the fact that some may never accept him. "It's hard," he told Newsday. "I can't lie to you."

Five days after his 18-yard catch set up Nick Folk's field goal against the Colts that propelled the Jets into Sunday's divisional round against the Patriots, Edwards discussed all the things he had hoped to leave in the past: his DWI, his alleged "beef" with LeBron James, his rejection by the Browns and his so-called propensity for dropping passes.

He still can't escape questions about his me-first attitude and apparent lack of focus. But perception, he's quick to point out, is not reality. "I'm a guy that's very humble, I'm a team-oriented guy, I try to work hard and do everything I can for my team in the offseason," he said.

He's also a guy who's had to accept no longer being the featured receiver, dropping behind Santonio Holmes. In two games this season, Mark Sanchez targeted him only once, and in the 45-3 loss to the Pats Dec. 6, Edwards caught only two passes for 39 yards. But he had a breakout game against Pittsburgh two weeks later, with eight catches for 100 yards.

Edwards has been frustrated by the inconsistency of his opportunities, but his attitude and work ethic haven't changed.

"He's been playing really well because of that," said offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who noticed a drastic change in Edwards' focus and "practice tempo" in the past five or six weeks. "And I told him the other day, I've never seen him work this hard . . . He knows we're getting closer, he knows 'OK, you win or go home.' "

This week Edwards scrutinized tape of the last game against the Pats, looking for little ways to improve his technique.

"Was I as crisp as I needed to be with my routes? And my blocking: Was I staying on the defensive player as long as I could so that a run could have broke out?" he said. "I'm watching those things and I'm analyzing them toughly."

Edwards bristled when the subject turned to drops. "Man, I don't drop the ball. I had one bad year," he said, referring to 2008 with the Browns, when he dropped a league-high 16 passes, "and the rest is history. That's unfair, but life's unfair."

Edwards also believes the attention paid to his DWI and scuffle with "a friend of a friend" of LeBron James outside a Cleveland nightclub in October 2009 was overblown.

"Other people have gotten [DWIs] this season but you haven't heard anything about it," said Edwards, whose Jan. 11 court date was reset for March 7. "But it is what it is and I've been able to overcome those things. And I think success in your field always overshadows a lot, so the thing for me is keep having success and taking the high road."

His teammates are just as quick to point out discrepancies between who Edwards is and how the media has portrayed him.

"How many athletes you know that gave over a million dollars to their alma mater?" asked linebacker Bart Scott, a Detroit native who has known Edwards for 11 years. "Perception is that he would spend that on a Bentley or a Bugatti, not on an educational institution."

In 2007, Edwards, also a Detroit native, donated $1 million to the Cleveland Municipal School District to create a college scholarship for 100 eighth-graders. Those students are now juniors, with 35 maintaining 4.0 GPAs out of 4.0, according to the Jets' website.

"Not a lot of guys go back," Scott said. "Not a lot of people remember. A lot of them take care of themselves."

Edwards, however, prefers to speak of his charitable work only when asked.

"My mom is a firm believer that people's true character always shows and people's true self eventually comes out," said Edwards, whose father, Stanley, was an NFL running back. "And I believe this year, with the exception of [the DWI], my character has shown and I think people are beginning to see who I really am."

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