The New York Jets 2011
Credit: Illustration by Roberto Parada

Ryan, who lived for big games, walked into the team meeting and approached his lectern with purpose. He carried a wooden baseball bat roughly the size of a loblolly pine. "Bring your bat!" he told the team. "This is the game! They're pissed off. We're pissed off." Everything about Ryan was big. His voice – flat, stentorian, tinged with the one-horse-Oklahoma inflections of his forebears – was an instrument whose design predated the age of microphones. Standing beneath the media kliegs, which emphasized the astonishing whiteness of his teeth, the smooth flush of his face, the convexity of his configuration, Ryan brought to mind a Coca-Cola Belt politician planted atop the back of a flatbed truck, suit jacket flung at his feet, imparting jubilant election-week promises to the little guy.

"You want to know how to be successful in a big game?" Ryan continued. "It's all preparation. Do the little things." Bob Sutton, the linebackers' coach, leaned toward me and whispered, "Both teams will be ready. One team will be prepared." Then Ryan said, "Both teams will be ready. One team will be prepared." Sutton grinned. "I'm telepathic," he said. (Sutton occasionally helped the boss with his speechwriting.) "This," Ryan concluded, "is a bring-your-bat game." (The flourishes were all Ryan.)

At the defensive meeting, Pettine said all he cared about was that his unit played fast, physical football. How had the Steelers defeated the Patriots two weeks ago? "It was violent," Pettine said. "Physicality is not something you just turn on come Sunday." To many, Mike Pettine was a man of mysterious, complicated passions – the dark order complementing Ryan's joyful chaos. In Baltimore, he had been Ryan's protégé, and the two had worked so well together over the years, planning the Ravens defense, that they had become "brothers," as Ryan put it. The past two years in New York, the Jets defense had been either the best in the league or just about.

He was methodical as he reviewed the calls, explaining not only what he wanted but also each call's relationship to previous iterations. Everything was a version of something they knew well. A few calls he'd been saving for weeks. One had been created for the first New England game but never used; there'd been a pre-snap penalty, after which Pettine changed the look. He peppered his descriptions with what the players' thoughts would be: "David asks, 'Whose helmet can I knock off? Whose ribs can I damage?'"

Later that day, Darrelle Revis and the other starting cornerback, Antonio Cromartie, were reviewing the Patriots film together. They were as struck as Pettine was by the contrast between Brady under pressure and Brady with excellent protection. Brady had, Cromartie thought, "that nervousness in him." Most quarterbacks did. It was just that Brady was usually so icily poised that the vulnerability in him was more striking when you saw it.

On film, Cromartie said, the Patriots were doing "the same thing over and over. It's not even different formations. It's just different personnel groups. The exact same thing with different people running it." He compared the Patriots offense to his own. "This is what makes them so good. They put everybody in the quarterback's vision. He can see where everybody's gonna be. Our offense, if they run two posts, they run the other guy coming back. Mark can't see him – it's not in his vision."

On the Jets, where the defense was not only tough but original, there was the growing feeling that Schottenheimer and his offensive players were holding the team back from winning a championship. The previous year, the Jets had begun their season with a game against the Ravens and lost, 10-9. The Jets offense was one for 11 on third down and secured a franchise-low six first downs. The game had been personal to the former Ravens coaches on the defense, and before it they had given Schottenheimer many suggestions regarding the Ravens players they used to coach. None were taken. Afterward, Pettine was so upset he could barely speak. "We knew them," he kept repeating.

The defense's superior attitude, Pettine knew, "chaps some asses across the hall," but this was the way football teams worked. He liked Schottenheimer, considered him "a great, great guy," and he knew that with a young, shaky quarterback and such an accomplished defense, "Schotty's in a tough spot." If Pettine had been the head coach, he would have sought Schotty out, tried to help. Pettine hoped someday to be a head coach. But now he was the defensive coordinator, and "I never want to farm somebody else's land. That's how you get in trouble."

At practice, although Sanchez shouted "Boom!" each time he completed a pass, and although Revis made three interceptions, the play was generally ragged. Why? Nobody could say. It was one of the cryptic aspects of the sport: Good practices could not be willed. Afterward, with the team circled around him at midfield, Ryan was as angry as I had ever seen him. Usually he preached the need for balance in the players' life. Not now. He spoke a philippic about "nothing, I mean nothing, in your life this week" being more important "than this game."

At the team hotel on Saturday night, in the 7:45 quarterbacks meeting, Sanchez was reading from the big and colorful call sheet like someone happily perusing a bistro menu. With his dark, curly hair, sloe eyes, beauty marks, and pouty mouth, Sanchez could have been a leading man in a movie. Being that good-looking, Sanchez was initially a startling presence in any room he happened to be in, but he settled everyone down with his good nature. He was a carefree Californian who called most people "dude" and saw the world optimistically: There was little in life that wasn't "sweet!" or "sick!"

The day before, he had mentioned how every Thursday night he went by himself to a local restaurant to eat a late dinner and study the flash cards he always made to memorize the week's game plan. That night, the waitress had come to take his order just as Sanchez flipped to a new card and discovered that – oh, no! – somebody had slipped in a card decorated with an enormous red dong.

Schotty asked Sanchez if a particular call confused him. A similar call, the coordinator said, had given the quarterback problems against Miami. Suddenly Sanchez looked like he'd eaten a bad snail, as he frowned and reflexively told Schotty, "I messed that up."

The receivers arrived, and Schotty told everyone, "Sooner or later they'll get tired of giving up those 8- or 9-yard routes, and then you can go deep." As he spoke, Sanchez made a succession of funny faces and finally said, "Unnhh!" When the others gazed at him curiously, he said, "Just getting excited!"

Everyone handles football pressure in his own way.

The game didn't start well, and almost immediately after the kickoff, in the coaches' box, Mike Tannenbaum, the Jets general manager, was upset. He didn't like the way the receivers came out of huddle, their body language betraying run (they'd seem disinterested) or pass (there'd be a bounce in their step). "It's obvious to me!" Given the many injuries in the Patriots secondary and the low number of Jets completions, one could almost understand Tannenbaum's frustration.

The defense's plans for matchup substitutions were being thwarted by the Patriots shift to a no-huddle, hurry-up offense in which Brady lined up his offense again at scrimmage right after the tackle and shouted out his coded instructions from under center. He ran play after play so quickly, the crowd couldn't even organize a roar to drown out his voice. "Look at the pressure no-huddle puts on opponents," said Tannenbaum. "Shouldn't we do that to them?" Still, despite the Jets offense's latest slow start, the Jets were in excellent position because the defense had given up only two field goals and then harassed Brady into a safety. Near the end of the half, Sanchez led a touchdown drive. Unfortunately, he had called a time-out right before the score, stopping the clock and leaving Brady and the Patriots 80 seconds – enough time for them to traverse the entire field and retaliate. With nine seconds left in the half, New England regained the lead, 13-9.