EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey - Rex Ryan didn't look himself in the early hours of Monday morning. He looked . . . humbled. With red-rimmed eyes and a long face, the man annually plagued by premature coronation was left to explain his team's chances of winning the AFC East. "It looks doubtful right now," he admitted. "What am I gonna say? Maybe I should guarantee the fact that we're out of it. Last time I did that we made the playoffs, so, yeah, we got no chance."Before the game began, NBC's cameras showed LaDainian Tomlinson in the middle of the Jets' scrum saying, "The division is ours, it's ours tonight. Let's go get it."Now the division is a long way from their reach. The Patriots have a one-game lead in the standings and the head-to-head tiebreaker. The combined record of the Patriots' next seven opponents is 21-42. During the week, Ryan asked Jets fans to be loud and make things miserable for the Patriots. His team made things so miserable for those fans they were leaving in droves midway through the fourth. "We've been down this road before but . . . you know," Ryan said, his voice trailing off. Starting again, he said, "I apologize to our fans. I thought our fans were ready to go, just like I thought we were. It's disappointing."Inanely phrased questions that would draw a glower from Bill Belichick were answered by Ryan even in all his glumness. Asked if he was surprised by how badly his team played, Ryan said, "I thought we'd play a lot better. You make those mistakes, you fumble a punt. You have poor time management-- a timeout that was a critical error. You make that many mistakes against that team, there's no chance."As for the X's and O's, Ryan was left to shrug. He blew sunshine about the Patriots defense, saying, "That defense is a lot better than people give 'em credit for. They're 32nd in the league (in yards allowed) and all that but when you get up a lot of scores on people you're gonna give up yards."(Aside:They are 32nd in the league because they can't defend; thenumber of blowouts the Patriots have been involved in is minimal. Never mind the fact they're completely rebuilt from training camp.) Asked ifhe was surprised New England played well with so many spare parts inserted,Ryan offered,"You got Tom Brady back there. I don't care who else you got. You see the difference a great quarterback makes in this league. You just gotta look down the road at Indy (where the Peyton Manning-less Colts are winless). This guy's an amazing player."The comment about the "great quarterback" may have been a swipe at Mark Sanchez or maybe not. Ryan does go on and sometimes his foot finds his mouth. If Ryan was making the point Sanchez is inferior to Brady by a lot, at least he didn't discriminate when leveling that charge against the Jets. "We think we're as good as the Patriots," said Ryan."Butclearly we're not."
FOXBORO -- Malcolm Mitchell indicated before Wednesday's practice that he's feeling pretty good despite missing last weekend's Divisional Round matchup with the Texans due to a knee injury.
"I'm feeling well," he said. "Just taking it day by day. Preparing. I just go from there."
Mitchell suffered the injury in a Week 16 win over the Jets at Gillette Stadium. He missed the regular-season finale and has been limited in practice in recent weeks.
Mitchell was present for Wednesday's fully-padded practice outdoors, and he said it was crucial for him to prepare as though he will play even if he's unsure as to whether or not he'll be called upon.
"That's the most important thing," he said. "Be ready for any opportunities that could come about."
He added: "As a competitor, no one wants to miss a game. What's important is the team going out theere and competing whether I was out there or not."
Should Mitchell be at all limited moving forward, the Patriots would likely continue to lean upon Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan as their top options. Both Danny Amendola and Michael Floyd were in uniform for last weekend's playoff matchup with Houston as well.
Hogan suffered a thigh injury that knocked him from the Texans game, but he said on Tuesday that he was progressing well, and he was also on the field for Wednesday's practice.
Mitchell said there is a sense of confidence in the receivers room that because of their depth, they'll be good to go as a group even if one or two members of the unit are at less than 100 percent.
"We know there's some things we can't control," he said, "but our coach does a good job of getting everybody ready."
FOXBORO -- There are plenty of damn good running backs in the NFL but there is only one Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers star shuffles, darts and then dashes, often with bodies crashing all around him, many of them intent on doing serious bodily harm . . . but often failing.
“He’s very unique,” said linebacker Shea McClellin. “I don’t think anyone else runs quite like he does, but it’s efficient and it works.”
Defensive end Chris Long concurred: “His style is so unique, his patience, what he’s able to do with his vision. And as far as breaking tackles, being a complete player, catching the ball, he can do all that stuff.”
Now don’t get it twisted. The Pats respect the hell out of Bell, but they’d prefer they weren’t in charge of corralling him Sunday because everyone has failed during Pittsburgh’s nine-game winning streak. Bell, who played in eight of those games, has piled up over 1,500 yards from the line of scrimmage during that stretch -- 1,172 yards rushing, 336 yards receiving -- while scoring 9 touchdowns.
“He’s really fun to watch unless you’re getting ready to play him,” said Long.
The respect Bell commands in Foxboro is evident when talking to the Pats running backs, who spoke glowingly about the former first-rounder and in LeGarrette Blount’s case, former teammate.
“No one can do what he does,” Blount told me. “They can try, but it won’t work.”
“That’s his style,” added Dion Lewis, himself a shifty fella. “You can’t try to do that. I’m pretty sure he’s the only guy that can do that.”
So how do the Pats accomplish something no one has been able to do over the last two-plus months? How do they slow Bell down, as they did back in Week 7, limiting him to 81 yards rushing (only 3.9 yards per carry)?
“I think defensively he really forces you to be disciplined,” said Pats coach Bill Belichick. “You jump out of there too quickly then you open up gaps and open up space. Le’Veon has a great burst through the hole. He doesn’t really need long to get through there, runs with good pad level. He’s hard to tackle so if you don’t get a full body on him then he’ll run right through those arm tackles. [He] really forces everybody to be sound in their gaps.”
“If there’s space or if there’s a gap in the defense or if there’s an edge in the defense, he’s quick to take advantage of that,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia told us during a conference call earlier this week. “He’s going to be able to get into that open space pretty quickly so you can’t really -- I don’t think you want to sit there and guess.”
If the Pats defenders, especially at the linebacker level, do that -- guess and attack a gap aggressively in attempt to make a splash play -- they may fill one gap but open two others. And that’s where a four-yard gain can turn into 40.
“Everyone on the field, it’s their job to get to him, gang tackle and be aggressive,” said Rob Ninkovich. “It can’t be just one time but every time you’re on the field.”
“There’s no one guy that can stop him,” added Belichick. “You’re going to have to have everybody doing a good job in a number of different areas all the way across the front and then do a good job of tackling.”
The Pats are a terrific tackling team, and haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season (actually, not since November of 2015), but the red-hot Bell will put recent history to the test.