Football fans across the country wanted San Diego versus Indianapolis in the AFC championship game Sunday, but New York Jets coach Rex Ryan said it was the Ravens who ruined the perfect game.
If the Ravens had beaten Indianapolis in their divisional playoff game, the Jets would be hosting the Ravens on Sunday instead of playing the Colts on the road.
"It would have been the perfect matchup," said Ryan, who spent the previous 10 years as a Ravens assistant, during which he built some of the NFL's best defenses. "It would have been old-school. You got two great defenses and two teams that run the ball. You have a team that made it this far last year and the team that is coached by the former longtime assistant.
"There are a lot of people in that building that I love and respect," Ryan said of the Ravens. "Plus, it would have been a home game for me."
And who would have won?
"Oh, I wanted them here to kick their butts," Ryan said, smiling. "I ain't going to lie to you."
Instead, Ryan will fly to Indianapolis, where his Jets are the underdogs of the four remaining teams to win the Super Bowl. But could there have been a better role for the Jets and their lovable, loudmouth coach?
Ryan is eating it up. He has more material than Letterman, Leno and O'Brien combined.
"I know, everybody wanted to see the Chargers and the Colts, and the quarterbacks, and explosive offenses, and yada, yada, yada," said Ryan, 47. "Guess what? We're here. The Jets, the team that backed into the playoffs.
"We're not pretty, but you know what you're going to see Sunday, and that's ground and pound, ground and pound, ground and pound."
Ryan was referring to the Jets' offensive philosophy. Because they have a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez, they like to limit his mistakes by running the ball. New York had the No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL in the regular season.
The Jets also had the league's best defense in the regular season, a formula the Ravens used to win their Super Bowl title in 2001. The Ravens applied the same philosophy a year ago when quarterback Joe Flacco was a rookie.
"Ground and pound, I got that saying from watching those [ UFC] fights," Ryan said. "I love that stuff. One guy takes the other guy down, and then he just pounds him while he is down.
"We had a rookie quarterback, and you can use one in certain situations. I thought our defense was good enough to ride the ups and downs of a rookie quarterback.
"In Baltimore, we had several years where we had to survive the ups and downs of our offense. Brian [Billick] once told me that you can't win a title like that anymore because the game has changed. We'll see. If you play good defense and run the football, you've got a chance in any game."
It's a style Ryan learned from his dad, Buddy Ryan, a former head coach in Philadelphia and Arizona. Ryan also picked up his dad's demeanor and confidence.
The Ryans have a history of building great defenses with the focus of putting pressure on the quarterback. It's a great philosophy, and Rex Ryan was great in Baltimore at devising exotic blitzes.
But what makes Ryan special is his ability to peer into players' souls and get them to play hard for him. Ryan's strength is being himself. So when he talked about not kissing New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick's rings before the season started, it was no big deal.
And when he cried before his players after a loss this season, there were no surprises in the locker room, just outside it.
"I know who I am and what I'm about, and so do my players," Ryan said. "I have this rule about the media with my players where they can say whatever they want.
"Sometimes, yeah, we don't line up right. Sometimes we do things wrong, but I don't want them just to mutter coach-speak. I want them to tell the truth, let the community get to know them. I don't want a bunch of drones.
"When I first got here, I wanted them to know I had dyslexia so if they didn't want to hire [me], then don't," he said. "I didn't want to be the corporate coach, the one who majored in Coach Speak 101. The best thing about being a head coach is you have input on both sides of the ball and you get to shape the attitude and spirit of your team."
That's what Ryan wanted to do in Baltimore. He did it his own way as an assistant. With the possible exception of Marvin Lewis, he became the most popular Ravens assistant, as big as John Harbaugh, the head coach under whom he worked.
But Ryan never got more than an interview when the Ravens fired Billick after the 2007 season. There was speculation he was too close to the players, and he certainly didn't fit the corporate image that owners around the league wanted to portray.
"That's a great organization in Baltimore, and I really wanted to put my stamp on it after 10 years in the organization," Ryan said. "But I got a similar situation here with the Jets with a supportive owner and GM.
"That was tough when I didn't get the job in Baltimore, but John gave me a chance to come back, and that was a great experience."
"Now it's on to Indy, where we have to ... not give up big plays, contest throws and get hips on people. It's a tough challenge, but so was going to San Diego."
Deep down inside, though, Ryan wanted a crack at his former team.
"That would have been nice," he said, "but the Ravens messed it up."
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