FOXBORO — As I was driving home from northern New Jersey two months ago, I pulled my day-timer out from my briefcase, opened it up to the month of November in the calendar section, and circled "Nov. 22."
From hearing several New England Patriots, including and especially quarterback Tom Brady, they didn't need to circle anything. That date was quickly etched in their memory.
A few hours before that trek on Route 95 northbound that Sunday afternoon, the New York Jets not only beat the Patriots, 16-9, but they embarrassed them. With their rookie coach, Rex Ryan, smugly piling on as well, they talked trash toward the Patriots and lived to tell about it.
Well, Nov. 22 is now only three days away and the "Great Grudge Match" isn't so flashy.
The Patriots and Jets are not only fresh off losses, but knockout losses; the kind of losses where a doctor is called in, holds up a few fingers, and asks "What day is it?"
All you have to say about the Patriots is fourth-and-2. No more explanation will ever be needed.
As for the Jets, it's not so simple.
They allowed two kickoff returns from touchdowns to blow it against Miami (a 30-25 loss) before allowing the mediocre Jacksonville Jaguars to maul their "highly touted" defense (Maurice Jones-Drew had 123 yards rushing and quarterback David Garrard completed 16 of 26 passes for 221 yards, 1 TD) at the Meadowlands.
The bruising defeats have taken the luster off this game, which was supposed to center on good old-fashioned hatred, in the sports sense of course.
All of sudden, showing up the other team, which has seemed to be the tenor of this Pats-Jets matchup over the last decade, doesn't matter.
Both teams had better win ... or else.
If the Patriots win, they will win the AFC East division. If the Jets win, they will be one game behind the Patriots and would win the division tiebreaker with its two-game sweep.
The tough guy talk — "I'm not gonna kiss Belichick's rings," said Ryan in an interview last spring — is nowhere to be found.
To the contrary.
The recent skid has Ryan a little more philosophical and a lot less willing to speak his mind.
A perfect example of that was him giving his thoughts on Belichick's decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 against the Colts on Sunday night.
"I don't know all the specifics of it," said Ryan to the Jets media contingent on Monday. "Apparently Belichick went for it on fourth-and-2 from the 28 yard line. I don't know what the time was or anything else ... He put it in offense's hands ... He's won a hell of lot more games than I have. I'm not going to criticize the guy one way or the other."
Didn't know the specifics? Apparently Belichick went for it?
I'm guessing Ryan, his twin brother Rob, defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns and their daddy Buddy had an hour conference call blasting Belichick's strategy.
But for the first time, with microphones in his face, Ryan sounded like an NFL head coach.
About 240 miles to the north it's been all systems going forward. They've "moved on." Everybody has turned the page. They don't talk about the past any more.
"I think you talk about what the current situation is," said Belichick yesterday. "Today is Wednesday, we talk about Wednesday."
Ditto for Tom Brady, when he was asked if his pass to Kevin Faulk, on the 4th-and-2 play, could have been put in a better spot.
"It's already Wednesday," he said. "That game was last Sunday and really that game can't help us at all moving forward, so it doesn't really do us a lot of good to waste energy thinking about it or talking about it. We've got to just go worry about the Jets."
Not the trash-talking grudge match with the Jets, mind you, just the Jets.
This game, now, is important for reasons none us realized when we circled "Nov. 22" two months ago.
Whoever loses, the Patriots or Jets, is in trouble. Deep trouble.
E-mail Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.