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It’s coach versus coach now. Belichick versus Ryan.
After a tumultuous, competitive season in the AFC East, Boston sports fans have been introduced to a rivalry that is relatively unheard of in a city that loves its sports rivalries.
As Boston sports fans, we are subjected to a variety of different rivalries sustained by media and sports industries desperate to keep ratings high. Especially at the close of a decade like this, in which the Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox all won championships and participated in at least two, rivalries have cropped up naturally.
Following the success, we’ve seen new rivalries emerge in the Patriots/Colts, Celtics/Magic, Red Sox/Rays and even Bruins/Penguins. We’ve seen Beat L.A. t-shirts come back into style, watched as New Yorkers were forced to acknowledge that the Red Sox and Yankees are currently on the same level, and remembered why a hockey fight is so much more satisfying when the other team is Montreal. We’ve seen rivalries come out of mutual respect (Brady/Manning), former teammates (Clemens, Damon/Red Sox), dirty hits (Cooke/Bruins) and conflicting styles (Alex Rodriguez/Everyone in Boston).
Rex Ryan’s antics, the Patriots’ response, and the storyline created in three games between the Patriots and Jets this year have introduced Boston sports fans to a sports rivalry unfamiliar to this city. The Rex Ryan/Bill Belichick rivalry embodies nearly all of the aforementioned traits good rivalries are built around. Each respects the other, operates in entirely different styles – coaching and personally, plays in the same division and leads a successful team.
While other recent Boston sports rivalries may involve conflicting coaching styles, none have set up a more intense one-on-one showdown between two guys who do not even take the field. True, Doc Rivers and Phil Jackson are different, but neither is petty enough to get involved in a bickering match in front of cameras and microphones, if a legend like Jackson would even acknowledge an attempt at trash talk from a coach who is 16 years his junior. Francona, similar to Rivers, is too laid back in the public eye to spark a coach-on-coach rivalry. If it hasn’t happened with Joe Girardi or Joe Maddon yet, it isn’t likely to happen ever.
Leading into their divisional playoff game, Ryan and Belichick stole the attention of this inter-division rivalry. Ryan drew attention with all of his comments about personal accomplishments, and Belichick drew focus by ignoring every single one of them. And early on game day, their conflicting styles made headlines, with Belichick benching the team’s leading wide receiver, Wes Welker, for comically violating his policy on commenting on Rex Ryan or the Jets. Ryan, meanwhile, stuck with his regular lineup, even though two of his players – Antonio Cromartie and Bart Scott – made public comments that could have earned them fines from the NFL.
Even during the game, a storyline between the two coaches emerged. First, after Ryan’s attempt at an end around with Joe McNight failed, Belichick subtly showed him up by running Brandon Tate for an 11-yard end around during his team’s following possession. Then, the infamous fake punt failed, the Jets’ defense neutralized the Pats’ offense, and, while earning his team a penalty for celebrating in the end zone, Rex Ryan reveled in the glory of claiming the latest round in his ongoing boxing match with Bill Belichick.
The simple fact that the Jets upset the Patriots shows that Rex Ryan out-coached Bill Belichick, at least this time. But, in the loss, we were given something to brood over, think about, and build momentum for next season, when New England will play the same role as the Jets did on Sunday.