Column: Imagine if ‘Battle of NY’ really mattered

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The rest of us should be grateful the Jets and Giants only play each other once every four years.

Imagine the hype if the “Battle of New York” actually meant something Saturday.

“There’s no way I’m going to be second fiddle,” blustery Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “If we were playing the New York Yankees, I don’t want to be second fiddle to them. This is the same type of deal. I want to be the best team in football, not just the best team in this city. But we’ll start by being the best team in this city.”

Smart man that Rex, framing the Christmas Eve collision as a fight for supremacy instead of survival. Though the winner remains in the playoff picture, both Ryan and the Giants’ Tom Coughlin know deep down that neither team is likely to make much of a dent in the postseason. Then again, nobody would tune in if promos for the game began, “If you can’t make it there, you can’t make it anywhere!”

So Ryan did his level-best Monday to sell it.

“There’s a lot of talk going back and forth, most of it driven by me,” he said. “But I’ll stand by anything I’ve ever said. I didn’t come here to be anybody’s little brother. I came here to win, to be looked at that way and to take over not just this city, even though it’s the city to take over, but also this league. I haven’t accomplished that yet. Saturday, I think, will go a long way to doing that.

“We have to win this game. We have to get in the playoffs, and the Giants have to do the same,” Ryan added. “So it’s going to be huge.”

In the Big Apple, maybe. Disappointing seasons on both sides of the divide have left Jets and Giants fans churlish, and with good reason. They are coming off what might be their worst performances of the season. The Jets’ humbling in Philadelphia a day earlier contained elements of all the flaws that have made them maddeningly inconsistent _ lousy offensive line, lousy run defense and a lack of discipline, evidenced by Santonio Holmes’ penalty for a touchdown celebration _ even though the Jets trailed the Eagles by 18 points at the time.

Small wonder Ryan was so eager to distract attention by throwing down a challenge. Or that the businesslike Coughlin was in no hurry to pick it up. He’s still sorting through the wreckage left by the loss to the Redskins.

“The responsibility always comes right back to me and I accept it. I told the players that I just expected to see more,” Coughlin said. “I expected to see quality, quality execution and really, quite frankly, we didn’t get much of that.”

Stay tuned. The contrast between the two coaches might turn out to be the most fascinating storyline of the week. Ryan isn’t going to tone down his act and Coughlin isn’t going to ratchet his up. The Jets actually play better when Ryan writes a check with his mouth and leans on them to cash it. Think back to last year’s playoffs, when he went after the Patriots and pulled off an upset, then quieted down ahead of the Steelers and got whipped.

Coughlin, an ex-Marine, does most of his talking away from the camera, but this week should provide an interesting test. A stern disciplinarian during his coaching stint in Jacksonville, he had a hard time loosening up in New York. But the Giants' leaders made a case for just that ahead of what turned out to be their Super Bowl-winning season. And while Coughlin is still a buttoned-down guy _ even by the uptight standards of the NFL _ it’s hard to see how he’ll keep the Giants from getting drawn into the war of words that Ryan launched and his players are certain to take up. So far, he’s leading by boring example.

“We are certainly going to have to prepare ourselves for this next game and both teams will have a short week. Nevertheless,” Coughlin added, “all you can do is line up and prepare as hard as you can and as we always do, play them one at a time.”

Banter is hardly the reason Ryan went out of his way Monday to call Coughlin, “one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport.” But Ryan also sounded like a guy prepared to shoulder the burden of selling the game all by himself.

“Quite honestly, both of us are having disappointing years, but it comes down to who beats who,” Ryan said. “Whoever wins this game is clearly the best team in New York.”

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