Leitch: Just What’s at Stake As the Jets Meet the Patriots

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Cassell and Favre, not tossing the old pigskin around. Photo: Getty Images

The Jets have feasted on a weak schedule to rise to 6–3 and tie for first place in the AFC East. But no one’s taking them seriously until they beat somebody good. (The Bills and the Arizona Cardinals don't count.) They have the opportunity Thursday night, traveling to Foxboro to meet longtime nemesis New England. It’s the most important Jets game in about two years, and will shape the rest of the season. Before you tune in to WB-11, here’s a primer on the top story lines.

The Oedipal Drama. We’re just more than a year removed from SpyGate, which drove both Gregg Easterbrook and Arlen Specter batshit insane and assured a lifetime of tense post-game handshakes. The ensuing firestorm has cooled, but Eric Mangini and Bill Belichick now despise each other. With this game, Belichick could finally finish off talk that Mangini is as smart as his mentor. The Patriots have hammered the Jets in large part because of the wide disparity in talent between the two teams’ quarterbacks; Tom Brady makes up for a lot of mistakes. But now that the QB advantage has flipped (theoretically, anyway; Matt Cassel has improved vastly since taking over for Brady), if Belichick's boys still beat Mangini's, no one will question who the real genius is.

We Fought for Law … Cornerback Ty Law is at the heart of the Jets-Pats rivalry. He played with the Patriots for a decade, perpetually tormenting the Jets before signing with the latter in 2005, putting together a Pro Bowl season, and generally acting as the only person worth watching on a 4–12 team. He fled to the Kansas City hinterlands for two years and has been sitting out this season, waiting for the right contract to come by. And lo and behold, the Jets signed him this week. Mangini has yet to commit to Law as a starter, but every time he steps on the field, expect the broadcasters to go apoplectic.

It's Gut-Check Time. We'll find out what the Jets are made of in the next three weeks. After battling the Patriots, they'll travel to undefeated Tennessee and host AFC West–leading Denver. If they win Thursday, they preempt the possible death knell of three straight losses. By Thanksgiving weekend, they'll either be printing playoff tickets or looking forward to the draft.

In HD, You Can See the Nosesicles. It’s supposed to be miserable weather, raining like crazy, in Foxboro Thursday night. (Weather.com's “Spectator Index” rates it at one on a scale of one to ten, ten being the most comfortable conditions.) It’s going to be one of those freezing East Coast nights one associates with epic football battles.

Out of Our Heads! This week, the Daily News’ Rich Cimini wrote, “I get the sense [the Jets have] invested a lot into this game, emotionally. [A loss would] be deflating and — dare I say? — devastating. But I know this: This team is very confident. I really get the feeling they believe it's their time.” The psychological acuity of tabloid reporters aside, there is a sense that if the Jets can’t beat the Patriots this week, they’re never beating them. Of course, folks said that before week two’s Meadowlands game against the Pats, who'd just learned that Tom Brady would miss the rest of the season. The Jets lost that one, and yet somehow they’ve trudged onward.

Good Seats Still Available! For some reason — because it's a weekday night game, or the weather forecast — tickets on StubHub are shockingly cheap, especially compared to the Patriots’ other two home games this year. Or maybe it's just that Patriots fans take this “rivalry” less seriously than we do.

Is Brett Favre an Asset or a Liability? For all the Jets’ success this year, Favre has had little to do with it. He hasn't played well in more than a month, and one could argue that he's delivered only one vintage Favre game (the blowout against Arizona). His free-form ways have clashed with Mangini's conservative ball control, and while that hasn't cost the team anything yet (even if Favre's late-game interception against the Bills was as horrible a pass as he's ever thrown), it seems destined to at some point.

So far, Favre has not been the story. But he will always become the story. (And apparently wants to be. When he said, earlier this week, “I know exactly what this game means, the weight it carries,” he directly opposed Mangini’s attempts to downplay the rivalry.) And he's even more eager to get the Jets in the playoffs now that it appears his former mates in Green Bay are fading — no better way to prove your former employers wrong than to eclipse them. But when Favre tries to make something happen, he tends to make mistakes. The Jets can keep the game close and hope he doesn't give it away late. Favre can become a true Jet this week with a win. Or he can fritter away all the goodwill Jets fans have for him.