The Patriots now stand in their way.
And this time the Jets are looking to dominate.
“We know what’s at stake. We know what we need to do,” slot receiver Jeremy Kerley said.
The Jets (9-5) still view their first meeting with the Patriots — a 30-23 loss in Foxborough on Oct. 25 — as a squandered opportunity. But the stage is set for the ultimate revenge game.
The Jets currently are on the outside looking in on the AFC wild-card playoff picture. A victory over their biggest rival would extend their winning streak to five games and bolster their chances of reaching the postseason.
“It’s an intense rivalry, with a chance to go to the playoffs,” safety Calvin Pryor said in the run-up to Sunday’s rematch. “It’s going to be crazy, but we’re ready for it.
“When we played last time, we felt like we could play with them, but we didn’t feel like we could dominate them. I’m thinking it’s a different mindset that we have.”
The Jets have always been a confident bunch under first-year head coach Todd Bowles. But after a midseason slide — a 1-4 record beginning with their Week 7 loss in New England — they’re healthier than they’ve ever been and playing solid, complementary football.
“I think we’ve grown,” outside linebacker Calvin Pace said. “I think we’re playing with better poise. The trust is there amongst everybody. You grow a lot of times in this league by bad things happening to you.
“You can either fold, and your season can crumble, or you can pull it together.”
And the Jets are tighter than ever.
Even if they win their final two games against the Patriots and Bills, they’ll need help. Nevertheless, the Jets are confident in their chances.
For the first time since 2010, they’re playing meaningful games in late December.
“I went 8-8 my first year and we were already out,” defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said. “We depended on, like, 10 other teams to do the dirty work for us. And then last year [when the Jets finished 4-12 under Rex Ryan] was a debacle of a season. So I was never in a position to sit here and say, yeah, I’m optimistic about this team and making the playoffs.”
The low-key Bowles has always stressed that the biggest game is the next game. Ryan was his own hype machine during Patriots week.
“They’re kind of similar, except their demeanor is just a little different,” Richardson said of the two defensive-minded coaches. “Rex wants to walk the walk and talk the talk. Coach Bowles just wants to walk.”
Bowles’ businesslike approach appears to be just what the Jets needed. So has the play of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. He’s not a future Hall of Famer like the Patriots’ Tom Brady, but Fitzpatrick’s resurgence is a big reason his team has won four in a row. His career-high 26 touchdown passes are three shy of Vinny Testaverde’s 1998 franchise record and he needs 305 passing yards to move ahead of Testaverde (3,732) for the third-best season total by a Jet.
“Offensively, we’ve all got a little bit better understanding of who we are and how to get things accomplished, got a better feel for each other,” said Fitzpatrick, who has passed for 1,229 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception for a 105.7 rating during their winning streak. “With that being said . . . we have to go out there and make sure that the chemistry that we’ve built up is shown on Sunday.”
That chemistry and the addition of veterans is the glue that’s “holding the team together,” Kerley said. “Honestly, that’s what we were lacking the last couple of years. Just veterans at key positions. And credit to Mike [Maccagnan, the Jets’ first-year general manager], going out there and putting guys in the right spot. Now we’ve got that leadership to go out there and keep competing.”
Notes & quotes: CB Dee Milliner (hamstring) is doubtful and WR Quincy Enunwa (neck) is questionable . . . Danny Amendola (knee), Patrick Chung (foot), Julian Edelman (foot) and Devin McCourty (ankle) have been downgraded to out for the Patriots.
Five key Jets-Patriots games:
Jan. 16, 2011: Jets 28-21
UPSET SPECIAL: After a 45-3 thrashing in Foxborough a month earlier, the Jets pull off a stunning upset as Mark Sanchez outplays Tom Brady to earn a second straight trip to the AFC Championship Game.
Nov. 22, 2012: Patriots 49-19
THE BUTT FUMBLE: In a nationally televised Thanksgiving night game, the Patriots score three touchdowns in a 52-second span, one of which occurred after Sanchez lost the ball after running into the backside of teammate Brandon Moore. The infamous play has been dubbed “The Butt Fumble” and is one of the low moments in franchise history.
Oct. 19, 1997: Jets 24-19
TUNA SURPRISE: Bill Parcells wins for the first time against his former team, as he benches Neil O’Donnell in favor of Glenn Foley. It was the Jets’ first win over the Patriots after five straight losses, and it was a major turning point for Parcells, who would lead the Jets to the AFC Championship Game the following season, thanks in part to signing Patriots restricted free agent running back Curtis Martin.
Sept. 23, 2001: Jets 10-3
BYE, BYE BLEDSOE: The Jets unknowingly ushered in the Tom Brady era when linebacker Mo Lewis knocked Drew Bledsoe out of the game - and ultimately the Patriots’ lineup. Brady has dominated the division and the NFL ever since.
Sept 9, 2007: Patriots 38-14
SPYGATE: In the regular season opener, the Patriots win easily against former defensive coordinator Eric Mangini, who is in his second season with the Jets. But the Jets catch the Patriots illegally videotaping defensive signals on the sidelines, and so began the infamous “Spygate” scandal. Bill Belichick was fined a then record $500,000 and the Patriots lost a first-round pick the following season. — Bob Glauber