FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady isn’t saying he hates the Jets anymore. Rex Ryan hasn’t talked lately about kissing the Super Bowl rings of Bill Belichick.
And Spygate is three years in the past.
The rich and sometimes rough rivalry between New York and the New England Patriots resumes Monday night with a tone of civility instead of controversy — and with first place in the AFC East at stake.
“There are very few coaches that I steal from. Bill Belichick’s one of them,” Ryan said. “(He’s) the best coach in football. It’s not even close.”
Belichick returned the compliment.
“That’s flattering,” he said. “I’d say the same thing about the Jets and Rex. When he was at Baltimore (as defensive coordinator) and the Jets, you always watch their tape and see how he defends teams that you’re going to play or kind of what they’re doing and try to get some ideas.”
What? No zingers or bulletin board material?
Even Brady scrambled away from the pregame hype after saying in late August that he didn’t watch “Hard Knocks,” the reality show about New York’s training camp, because “I hate the Jets.”
Asked on Thursday if he feels the same, he played it safe.
“Well,” Brady said, “I promised coach Belichick that I wouldn’t say anything derogatory, so, I have no comment.”
There’s no telling how the players really feel, but both teams are taking the prudent approach: In a game of this magnitude between division rivals with an NFL best 9-2 record, they’re focusing on preparing for a tough night rather than on hurling verbal shots.
“I approach this week the same as every other week,” Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis said.
Bad blood boiled in 2006 when Belichick became upset that his defensive coordinator, Eric Mangini, had bolted to become coach of the division rival Jets. The next year, Mangini allegedly turned in Belichick for having a Patriots aide videotape Jets defensive signals in the season opener. The NFL fined Belichick $500,000 and the Patriots $250,000 and stripped them of a first-round draft p ick.
Ryan became coach in early 2009 and less than five months later he said, “I never came here to kiss Bill Belichick’s rings. I came here to win, let’s put it that way.”
He came close to getting a ring of his own when the Jets reached the AFC title game last season. They’re one of the best teams again this season after adding running back LaDainian Tomlinson, wide receiver Santonio Holmes and cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
The Patriots also have plenty of new faces with three rookie starters on defense, two productive rookie tight ends and Deion Branch in place of the traded Randy Moss at wide receiver.
In the second game of the season, Moss’ one-handed 34-yard touchdown catch from Brady on which Revis hurt his hamstring gave the Patriots a 14-7 lead in the final minute of the first half. They ended up losing 28-14.
“You can’t expect to win the division and lose to the same team twice,” Brady said. “We have to really go out and execute at a much higher level than we did the first time we played them because they don’t leave much room for error.”
New England’s passing game actually has improved without Moss. Branch, obtained from Seattle on Oct. 12, six days after Moss was traded to Minnesota, has 33 catches since then and scored two touchdowns in the Patriots 45-24 win over the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day.
“It’s a different offense a little bit. Branch can still go deep,” Ryan said. “But Randy Moss is a game-changer, in my opinion, so I’m happy Randy Moss is gone.”
But Brady is still there and on a roll. He hasn’t thrown an interception in six games and had a perfect passer rating against the Lions, completing 21 of 27 passes for 341 yards and four touchdowns.
Mark Sanchez also has had a solid year but is coming off a mediocre performance in a 26-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. He completed 16 of 28 passes for 166 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
“I can’t wait to get on the field again after a bad outing by me,” he said. “Last year up there, I had no regard for the ball and they ran away with it.”
The Patriots won that game 31-14 when Sanchez completed just 38.1 percent of his passes and threw four interceptions. But now he’ll get to throw against the defense that has allowed the most yards passing in the NFL.
“Each week we work to improve that,” said rookie cornerback Devin McCourty, who has five interceptions, but “I think we care about winning and that’s it.”
To do that, both teams know they can’t get caught up in the hype. Too much emotion could produce too many costly mistakes.
“I think when you put too much pressure on it, you tend to try a little harder than you usually would try and, in turn, could lose focus sometimes and not do your best,” Patriots running back Fred Taylor said. “I don’t want to put that much pressure on myself or the team.”
But there’s no getting around it: A big rivalry with the added significance of a division lead on the line is cause for plenty of excitement.
The Patriots should have an edge at home, where they’re 5-0. But the Jets are 5-0 on the road.
“It is a big game. There’s no need to downplay it,” Patriots tight end Alge Crumpler said. “Everybody understands what’s at stake. It counts as one, though.”