After two weeks of talking the talk and walking the walk, the Jets are suddenly quiet ahead of Sunday’s AFC championship game in Pittsburgh. A team and a coach that has been anything but silent on and off the field in these playoffs has curiously chosen this week to rise above the banter and jawing and focus on the Steelers.
The lack of decibel level from these Jets could well be the quiet before Sunday’s storm.
Prior to their wild-card matchup against the Colts two weeks ago, head coach Rex Ryan made it clear that he wanted to beat Indianapolis and specifically Peyton Manning, repeatedly calling out the Colts quarterback and his sterling record against Ryan in the playoffs. Then last week, Ryan called the showdown against the Patriots “personal” and billed the game as “Bill Belichick against Rex Ryan.” Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie followed up the showdown talk by stating his hatred for New England quarterback Tom Brady in an expletive filled rant.
But since Bart Scott’s outburst on Sunday after the win over New England, including a line where he said the rivalry with the Patriots will continue "for life - as long as I'm in the division," the Jets have been remarkably quiet. Even when given the chance on Monday, Ryan dodged the question about whether this game was “personal” like last week’s self-proclaimed showdown with Belichick. And there was nothing but praise from Ryan for Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and no hint of a personal vendetta or grudge match as was the crescendo seven days prior.
“Ryan sees himself as an equal with Mike Tomlin in that both were given opportunities to be head coaches,” said sports psychologist Dr. Marshall Mintz who has a practice in Springfield, N.J.. “Although Tomlin has won a Super Bowl, Rex feels more like an equal.”
And that equal status means that Ryan needs to go with a different motivational tactic this week and can’t inspire his team to step up for him.
Two weeks ago, Ryan targeted Manning, a quarterback who defeated his Jets last season in the AFC Championship Game and who consistently beat the Ravens when Ryan was on the coaching staff in Baltimore. Then in the build-up to the divisional playoff game against New England, Ryan purposefully shouldered the burden of the game. With the Jets still recovering from a Week 13 blowout to the Patriots in a Monday night game, Ryan said the Jets were on “level ground” with the Patriots but he had to raise his level against Belichick.
It was Ryan trying to “psyche-out” his team by pinning the responsibility for the loss on himself and not their woeful play in the 45-3 regular season loss at Foxboro. Ryan acknowledged that he alone was responsible for the 42-point defeat, thus clearing the team from questions about their performance. Dr. Mintz attributes Ryan’s words to producing “the most powerful emotional factor in the game for the Jets which was a feeling that they were underdogs and underrated.”
Ryan can’t play up that factor for this Sunday, given the Jets 22-17 win in Week 15 of the regular season at Heinz Field, so now he goes with a different approach.
The curious factor for the Jets this week is that Ryan is now taking a one game at a time approach to this game. The focus of the fans and much of the media is on the team winning this game to go to the Super Bowl, putting the ultimate reward ahead of the actual game itself. After spending an entire year talking about his team being good enough to win the Super Bowl, Ryan is now asking his Jets team to not look to far ahead and just focus on becoming AFC Champions. Then and only then can they begin that Vince Lombardi trophy talk.
It’s a difficult task and balancing act given this franchise’s less than stellar history marked with years of futility. A win on Sunday would put the Jets in just their second ever Super Bowl and the obvious attention of this week goes beyond just one game towards a possible trip to Dallas.
“That’s it. That’s why this week is about winning the AFC Championship game. It’s not about winning the Super Bowl or going to the Super Bowl,” Ryan said Monday. “[The AFC Championship] would be a huge accomplishment. Then, we’ll worry about that the week after, but this is where our focus is.”
After two weeks of Ryan’s combative talk, the sudden shift is another part of the master motivator now putting his team on the doctor’s couch to help them focus on the task at hand. Dr. Mintz sees it as another shrewd move by Ryan who has yet to have a mental misstep this postseason.
It could be another master stroke from Ryan in terms of getting the psychological edge. Two weeks ago, he understood the need to vilify Manning after his performance last year in knocking the Jets out of the playoffs. Then last week, his comments specifically were designed to rebuild the confidence of a team embarrassed in their last trip to Foxboro. Now with the specter of a Super Bowl appearance, a rare occurrence for the Jets, he’s downplaying this game as just another step towards a goal. Rather than focus on the reward, Ryan is talking about the challenge.
“We want to be AFC Champs to start with. That’s the thing we want to accomplish this week, becoming the AFC Champions would be a great step for us,” Ryan said. “Then, you worry about the next week, but we have a long way to go before we get there.”
Baby steps, Dr. Mintz said, is the right approach for this game. The time is right for the Jets to be taking a lull from their usual mouthy ways.
“Any quality coaching will focus on the near term execution of planning and preparation. That is all that can be managed and controlled. The philosophy is that determined practice, focused practice and attention to proper execution will give one the best chance for competition success,” Dr. Mintz said. “Any focus on the results or outcome of a game is a distraction and likely to produce anxiety and confusion.”