Sports Nut

Rex Ryan vs. the New England Cyborg-Team

The Patriots’ Tom Brady

Poor Cory Redding. The Ravens lineman scored his first career touchdown and barely had a video highlight to prove it. See, grandkids? Here’s me running the ball in against the Steelers—no, wait, right there, behind where Terrell Suggs is flexing to celebrate the sack, see? That white blur, going right to left. That was part of my shirt. No, really. Come back, kids!

Luckily for Redding, the network eventually found the one camera, high up to the side, that had not decided—along with 21 top-flight professional football players—to ignore the football. So by the fourth or fifth replay of the touchdown, it was possible to see what had happened. And unluckily for the Ravens, the Steelers were immune to embarrassment or panic. In the first half, bumbling Ben Roethlisberger helped stake the Ravens to a 21-7 lead; in the second half, unflappable Ben Roethlisberger brought the Steelers back and then, with a little less than four minutes left in a tie game, announced to the huddle that he was going to go downfield and win the thing.

And so he did, in his usual beefy, implacable manner. It’s hard not to wonder, given Roethlisberger’s ever-lengthier history of off-field destructiveness (self- and other-), if the tau proteins aren’t already hardening in his brain. His habit of greeting teammates by knocking helmets together instead of slapping hands can’t help. But when it comes to the job of moving a football toward pay dirt—whether by bulling it a yard and a half to the sticks on a third-and-short keeper or by heaving it 50 yards in the air—Roethlisberger is the most useful kind of stupid: too dumb to doubt himself.

That makes him a playoff hero. With apologies to the folks who were putting Adam Vinatieri in Canton for his 50-yard non-game-winning kick last week, it’s the second round of the playoffs where the action starts to mean something in football-history terms. Till then, any meaning you might want to take from the results is strictly provisional.

For instance, I made a calculated decision this year to pay no attention to the Atlanta Falcons. I haven’t taken the Falcons even half-seriously since the Dirty Bird era, and they didn’t deserve it then, either (the record book says they appeared in a Super Bowl against the Broncos, but I don’t remember the Falcons even showing up). So Aaron Rodgers and the Packers affirmed that I’d made the right call. Goodbye, Matt Ryan-Cassell and your Atlanta City Falcon-Chiefs.

Back into the broth of mediocrity from which you bubbled up.

The annual churn among playoff qualifiers is diverting and makes for good insta-trivia—the Bengals? Last year? Really?—but it’s the sense of year-to-year continuity that keeps the playoff results from feeling like Keno numbers. The principle of Anyone Can Win needs the principle of You Have to Beat the Man for ballast.

Which is to say: Hail Rex Ryan and the Jets! Late in the game, as the Patriots’ chances kept fading, the network put up a graphic saying that no one had beaten the Colts and Pats back to back since 2001. Taken literally, this was so meaningless that even one of the booth guys flagged it—how long has it been since someone beat the Raiders and Vikings back to back, or any other arbitrary pair of teams that don’t play the same divisional schedule? But what this factoid was trying to express was that the Jets had finally, definitively moved up in class. The Colts and the Patriots are genuine NFL powers, year in and year out. And the Jets beat them both, on the road.

The fuss over Ryan’s alleged trash talking last week seemed overblown. What did he really say? He said that the Jets’$2 45-3 loss at Foxborough in the regular season was his fault—that is, that his players were not 42 points worse than Bill Belichick’s players, and it was his job as coach to make up the gap. Hence Belichick’s uncharacteristic counter-remarks about it being the players’ game. The Patriots play best when they’ve got some wind in their sails, when they believe the other team can’t possibly stop them. Before long, the other team believes the Patriots can’t be stopped, too.

And that was how this game seemed to be going, until Tom Brady—slicing the Jets apart on New England’s first drive—hung a pass up, and New York’s David Harris grabbed it and went thundering upfield. He was hauled down at the 12-yard line, and the Jets missed a field goal, but they had warned the Patriots there was something more than a set of traffic cones on the field.

What is it about the Patriots’ pissy excellence all these years? When they are good—whether running up pinball scores on helpless opponents or simply cold-bloodedly draining the clock for yet another three-point victory in a Super Bowl—they project the sense that their coach and quarterback have solved the game of football the way an unbeatable computer has solved the game of checkers, and with just as much joy.

It baffles me, against that backdrop, how anyone can hold Rex Ryan’s crude, buoyant humanity against the Jets. He talks big, and then his team plays big. What’s wrong with that? To root for Ryan to get his comeuppance against the Pats was to root for the machine—the machine, and the mechanical story line.

Instead, the Jets knocked the New England cyborg-team around until gears and chips were spilling all over the grass. As the game wore on, and big white-and-green shirts kept rampaging into the Patriots backfield, you could see Brady losing faith in the whole enterprise. His eyes and his feet got twitchy, and he started missing his targets. Patriots fans love gloating about the face that Peyton Manning makes when the Colts lose, but by halftime, Tom Brady was developing a face all of his own: a Sad Baby face, the petulant, uncomprehending look of a 16-year-old kid who got a convertible Mustang for his birthday, then left the top down in a rainstorm.