Thursday November 13th, 2008

This is what it was all about, right? When the New York Jets went out last offseason and spent lavishly to land big-name veteran additions like Alan Faneca and Damien Woody for the offensive line, Kris Jenkins for the defensive interior and Calvin Pace for the linebacking corps, it was with a big-game week like this in mind.

And when the Jets decided to buckle their chinstraps in early August and be a player in one of the biggest sweepstakes in recent memory, rolling the dice that a living legend like Brett Favre could take them where quarterback Chad Pennington never could, it was for just this kind of situation: A first-place, mid-November showdown of AFC East co-leaders, with Bill Belichick and his hated (but envied) New England Patriots providing the competition.

I mean, what could be clearer? The Jets, after last season, had a 12-game gap to close on the division-champion Patriots. But now, thanks to fate, a bit of fortuity and the spending of a small fortune, here they are tied with New England at 6-3, and in prime position to grab sole possession of first place in the AFC East for the first time all year. All they've got to do to make all their high-profile and risky moves pay off is to follow through and beat the Patriots tonight at Gillette Stadium. Then it will have all been worth it, and New York will be a huge step closer to both the playoffs and winning its first division title since 2002.

Favre gets it. He knows it's a case of if not now, when for these Jets? He's 39 and playing year to year (as you might have heard something about). He didn't agree to come to New York to restore the team to respectability or spend three years chasing down the Patriots.

The Jets are already 0-1 against New England in the Favre era, thanks to that 19-10 Week 2 loss at the Meadowlands, and he's quick enough on the uptake to realize that a sweep would give the Patriots what amounts to a two-game lead (thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker) with six games to play. But with a win, the advantage shifts New York's way. A Patriots loss proves their vulnerability and opens the door for the Jets to build some belief in themselves.

"I know exactly what this game means and the weight it carries,'' Favre said Tuesday. "I'm well aware of what New England has done over the past decade or so. I'm well aware of what this game means.''

How could anyone not be? Favre tried to partially dodge the question of whether he was brought to New York for exactly this type of game, to beat the Patriots with first place on the line, but he didn't sound too convincing. The reason is obvious: Of course, he was. Not saying doesn't it make it any less so.

"That may be true,'' Favre allowed. "Then again, it may not be. That may have been why we brought Kris Jenkins in. Let's put it off on Kris.''

Let's not. Let's get real instead. Acquiring Jenkins was certainly considered part of the puzzle. But Favre was seen as the final, crucial piece. And this week is when all his years of experience, all his winning track record and all his ability to rise to the moment on the biggest of stages means the most. This is what the Jets paid for and gambled on -- for Brett Favre to add another chapter to his legacy, and produce the best game of his brief 10-game Jets career tonight at Foxboro. Nothing less than the Full Favre is required.

"It's a big opportunity for us, obviously,'' he said. "Short week. No over-scheming. No over-thinking. Just comes down to execution.''

The Jets really couldn't have much more going for them heading into this, the defining game of their season. They've won five out of six, and enjoyed a virtual homecoming-like confidence-boosting victory last Sunday at Giants Stadium, jumping out to a team-record 40-0 halftime lead over the overwhelmed Rams en route to a 47-3 victory. As if that wasn't enough good karma, New York this week signed ex-Patriots and ex-Jets cornerback Ty Law off the street, just to give itself one more bullet in its quest to blunt the Patriots' passing game and supplant the five-time defending division champs.

And then there's the weakened state of New England's roster to consider. Could the Jets ask for anything better than no Tom Brady, no Rodney Harrison, no Adalius Thomas and no Laurence Maroney to contend with? (I suppose they wish Belichick could be stricken with the 24-hour flu on game day, but that's probably hoping for too much). The Patriots are down to fourth-string rookie running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and as productive as he has been, scoring a touchdown for four consecutive games, he's just another reminder that the record-breaking Patriots offense of 2007 is a distant memory.

For the Jets, it's all there for the taking. They missed an opportunity to land a blow to the Patriots' season in Week 2 at home, in Matt Cassel's first start since he played high-school quarterback, and that makes this one exponentially more crucial. New York has lost 13 of its past 15 games to the New Englanders, a streak that started just after Jets linebacker Mo Lewis knocked Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe out of that September 2001 game, the shot that simultaneously launched the Brady era and Patriots dynasty. New England has owned this rivalry ever since.

"We're still trying to find an identity,'' said Favre, who threw for just 181 yards, with one touchdown and one interception in Week 2. "Until we beat these guys, until anyone beats these guys and knocks them from the top, they're still going to be the team to beat. We know that. I think every one of our guys is aware of that.''

We know it. The Jets know it. The Patriots know it, too. But this kind of opportunity to turn the tables on New England is exactly what New York was after when it decided to open its checkbook and spend on the likes of Favre, Faneca, Jenkins, Pace and Woody. The potential payoff is huge. And so too will be the disappointment of a gamble taken and lost.

Maybe quicker than they ever expected, the Jets at least have their shot. Now let's see if Favre and his teammates summon up their best and get it done

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