New England (9-2) hosts the N.Y. Jets (9-2) in the NFL's "Game of the Year." Jets-Pats pits two hated, big-market, old-school division rivals in a nationally televised game that will give the winner the best record in football and a great shot at home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. The Patriots have enjoyed or shared the AFC East's best record for nine straight years, a streak of divisional dominance unmatched in NFL history. Other than that, it's no bigs.
PHOTO GALLERY: The Jets-Patriots rivalry through the years
1. Larger-than-life Rex Ryan is remaking the image of the "Same Ol' Jets." Fans of the Gang Green have lamented the "Same Ol' Jets" since that lone, glorious moment in Miami 42 years ago. It's a label borne of the frustration following a team that just never lives up to the promise -- and sometimes fails to do so in spectacular fashion.
But something looks and feels different under second-year head coach Rex Ryan. His persona comes with plenty of bluster and bombast, almost to the point of parody. From the invective-laced training camp on HBO's Hard Knocks to his preseason promise of Super Bowl glory to the stand-up routines that pass for pressers, Ryan's act is larger than life.
And larger than life is always a big hit in the Big Apple -- especially when the personality delivers more than sound bites.
Ryan led the Jets to the AFC title game in his first season, with a struggling rookie quarterback at the helm of the offense. He snapped up big stars (LaDainian Tomlinson) and playmakers (Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes) in the offseason. And so far this year he's guided the Jets to a 9-2 record. With a win Monday night, the J-Men have a legit shot at wrapping up the AFC's No. 1 seed with a week or two to spare.
That's a very significant two years. The Jets have not produced a conference/league title appearance followed by another winning season since Joe Willie & Co. did it in 1968-69.
The 2010 Jets do not have the lights-out defense they leaned on during their late-season surge last year. And Mark Sanchez is something short of prolific and finds himself on the wrong side of efficient (22nd this year with an 81.8 passer rating). But they do have the look and feel of a winner.
Sanchez, despite humble numbers, is a slippery, late-game playmaker extraordinaire, as we saw in a string of last-second wins over the Lions, Browns and Texans.
Sanchez, dare we say, looks like he's forged from the John Elway mold. Remember, Elway's numbers were never spectacular. He played 11 years before he threw 25 TDs in a season and his career 79.9 passer rating is about average for his time. But Elway was a winner. Sanchez is, too: 17-9 (.654) in 26 regular-season starts.
If the Cold, Hard Football Facts suffered the debilitating weakness of human emotion, we'd love the changes that Ryan has brought to the Same Ol' Jets.
2. The debate should have ended long ago: Tom Brady is the best quarterback in football. The Cold, Hard Football Facts have been in Brady's corner in the Great Quarterback Debate of the 21st century at least since the day he won a third dramatic Super Bowl in his 71st NFL start.
You don't win consistently in pro football without consistently great play at quarterback, and the Patriots have won more consistently than any other team in NFL history. So you do the math.
The running backs are typically unheralded (undrafted BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead this year), the big-name wideouts have been a group of one (Randy Moss for 2¼ seasons) and the defenses rarely dominate, despite coach Bill Belichick's reputation as a defensive "genius."
But there is one clockwork constant when Brady's on the field: the Patriots win.
• Brady won his first Super Bowl in his 17th NFL start -- with the only walk-off score in Super Bowl history.
• He led the longest postseason win streak in NFL history (10 games).
• He led the longest overall win streak in NFL history (21 games).
• He won 34 games in 2003 and 2004, the most by any team in a two-year span in NFL history.
• He was near-perfect in 2007, leading the Patriots to the only 16-0 season in NFL history.
• With a win Monday night, he'll have won a record 26 straight regular-season games at home (currently tied with Brett Favre).
That's a whole lot of "most wins ever" on his résumé. In a sport in which bad play at QB almost always leads to a bad result on the scoreboard, Brady deserves much of the credit for this success.
And 2010 might be his best year yet. New England dropped 39 points on Pittsburgh a few weeks ago -- the most by a visiting team in the regular-season history of Heinz Field -- and have scored 115 points in their past three.
The Patriots lead the NFL with 30.4 PPG, Brady leads the NFL with a 105.8 passer rating and he's thrown 23 TDs with just four picks. Brady has not been intercepted since Oct. 17 (23-20 win vs. Baltimore), a streak of six games.
The Jets did rob Brady twice back in Week 2, but both picks came when Brady was targeting Moss deep. The declining production of the Brady-to-Moss connection is one reason the Patriots parted ways with the receiver.
The Great Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning Debate, meanwhile, has always been one of "the winner" vs. "the prolific stat machine," a la Montana vs. Marino two decades earlier. Manning's volume numbers are obviously greater. But the far more important efficiency numbers are much closer than people realize.
Manning is fifth all-time with a 94.9 passer rating; Brady is sixth all-time with a 94.3 passer rating. And Manning had all the advantages of playing at least half his games in a stat-inflating dome each year, while surrounded by a galaxy of playmaking superstars, from Marshall Faulk to Marvin Harrison to Reggie Wayne.
Brady's career rating in domes is 100.0. One can only wonder what his numbers might look like had he spent his career indoors throwing to fleet-footed wideouts instead of outside in foul-weather Foxboro throwing to Troy Brown, Deion Branch and Danny Woodhead.
3. Mark Sanchez could have another big day against New England's terrible defense. The Jets quarterback produced the best day of his career against the Patriots back in Week 2, when his team scored 21 unanswered points and rode a big second half to an impressive 28-14 win. Sanchez completed 21 of 30 for 220 yards, three TD, zero INT and a 124.3 rating. It was his highest-rated performance in a regular-season game.
But it seems every quarterback torches New England's defense. In fact, right now, New England's defense is simply not good enough to win a Super Bowl. At the very least, there is little room for error, especially in a playoff field that will likely include Philip Rivers, Manning and even Kansas City's superbly efficient Matt Cassel.
The Patriots are a defensive disaster this year: No. 22 in scoring defense and No. 31 in total defense. They look just as bad in our Cold, Hard Football Facts Quality Stats: 23rd in forcing Negative Pass Plays (sacks, INTs), 25th in Defensive Passer Rating, 29th in our Defensive Hog Index (which measures the performance of each defensive front) and dead last in third-down defense. Opponents convert a crushing 50.7 percent of third-down attempts. Even the 31st-ranked Bills allow teams to convert just 45.0 percent of third downs.
The worst defense to win a Super Bowl belonged to the 2006 Colts. But even they weren't this bad. Those Colts surrendered 22.5 PPG. These Patriots surrender 24.2 PPG.
New England's pass defense is the biggest concern, as evidenced by the way Sanchez torched it in Week 2. We measure pass defense by Defensive Passer Rating, because it has an extraordinarily high correlation to success. And right now the Patriots have an abysmal 91.7 Defensive Passer Rating (25th). In other words, opposing passers have produced a cumulative 91.7 passer rating.
No Super Bowl champion has been nearly that bad in Defensive Passer Rating. Most, in fact, have been dominant in this indicator. The worst pass defense to win a Super Bowl? Ironically, it belonged to the 2007 Giants (83.4), who beat the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Those Giants turned it around defensively in the playoffs, shutting down prolific passers Tony Romo, Brett Favre and Brady in consecutive upsets. New England will need a similar postseason revival to win its fourth Super Bowl.
In the meantime, even statistically average passers like Sanchez can expect to have big days against the Patriots.
We put a lot of stock in our Quality Standings and in performances against what we call Quality Opponents -- simply put, against teams with winning records. It allows us to separate those teams that are battle tested from those that have feasted on weak schedules. And the Jets and Patriots have moved in very different directions since their Week 2 encounter.
No team is better against Quality Opponents this year than the Patriots. They boast a league-best 5-1 record against Quality Teams. Only three other teams have more than three Quality Wins (Baltimore, Philadelphia, Atlanta).
Since losing to the Jets, the Patriots have knocked off a very impressive list of victims, including three on the road: at Miami, vs. Baltimore, at San Diego, at Pittsburgh and vs. Indianapolis. It's an extraordinarily rare string of success against tough opponents. In fact, the single-season record for Quality Wins is seven (1979 Steelers, 2003 Patriots, 2004 Patriots).
The Jets have had a much easier road to 9-2, with a 2-2 mark against Quality Teams. The wins have come against the Patriots and the Dolphins, both games in September.
The Patriots racked up all five Quality Wins in a daunting seven-game stretch from Oct. 4 through Nov. 21. The Jets have not bested a team with a winning record since that win over the 6-5 Dolphins on Sept. 26.
Gang Green is no longer New England's doormat, as we saw in Week 2, and as we've heard out of their bombastic, take-on-all-comer's head coach Rex Ryan. They enter Gillette Stadium with a franchise-record eight straight road wins, nine victories in their last 10 games and plenty of confidence.
The Patriots, meanwhile, have what appears to be a fatal weakness on defense. But they've managed to overcome that problem with a 9-2 record and five Quality Wins in the space of seven games.
New England has a few other factors in its favor, too: Brady has not lost a regular-season game at Gillette since 2006 and they've not lost twice in the same season to the same team since 2001.
Finally, quarterback is always the most important position on the field. The Patriots clearly hold the advantage here over the Jets. Sanchez will find plenty of opportunity to move the ball and put points on the board. But he's also thrown eight picks in his last six games, including at least one in each of them.
Expect one mistake to be the difference between victory and defeat Monday night.
New England 28, N.Y. Jets 26
(Week 12 prediction: Green Bay 24, Atlanta 23. Result: Atlanta 20, Green Bay 17.)