OWINGS MILLS – A friendly punch in the gut from outside linebacker Jarret Johnson to the massive midsection of Rex Ryan defines the Baltimore Ravens’ rivalry with the New York Jets more than nasty words or cheap shots.
"He punched me in the stomach the last time," said Ryan, the former Ravens defensive coordinator who helped launch Johnson’s career. "I’m going to whip him this time. I’m going after Jarret Johnson."
As the Ravens (2-1) square off with the Jets (2-1) in a clash of AFC bullies tonight at M&T Bank Stadium, don’t expect the tenor of the game to mirror what it’s like when Baltimore plays the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In this case, familiarity with their foe breeds respect instead of contempt as Ryan, linebacker Bart Scott, wide receiver Derrick Mason and safety Jim Leonhard return to Baltimore for a regular-season game for the first time since joining the Jets.
"It’s very different than the Steelers rivalry, same kind of atmosphere, but different," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "The Steelers are the Steelers, but these guys were Ravens at one point. It’s like fighting your brother."
As much as the game figures to be emotional for both sides, particularly for Ryan after being passed over for the Ravens’ head coaching position that went to John Harbaugh three years ago, the competitive aspect of this encounter looms largest.
And Ryan, who was stung initially when Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti tabbed Harbaugh over him after firing Brian Billick, seems to have moved on from that disappointment having led the Jets to consecutive AFC championship game appearances.
"Would I have loved to have that job at the time? Oh, heck yeah, absolutely," Ryan said. "Was it painful that I didn’t get it? It really was. But I’ll tell you what made it good for me is the fact that they gave the job to John Harbaugh. If they weren’t going to give it to me, I’m glad they gave it to John."
Last year’s grudge match between these teams, a 10-9 victory for the Ravens to launch the NFL season, is over.
Now, both franchises enter this rematch with identical records and different circumstances.
The Ravens are coming off a 37-7 rout of the winless St. Louis Rams where they opened up the offense as rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith broke out with three touchdown catches.
And the Jets’ proud defense was embarrassed in a 34-24 loss to the Oakland Raiders where they allowed 234 rushing yards as running back Darren McFadden gained 171 yards and scored two touchdowns.
So, the Jets’ focus is on improvement rather than garnering bragging rights or settling old scores.
"I mean, we danced this dance a little bit over a year ago," Scott said. "So, I expect it to be pretty much the same. You know, friends off the field, but opponents on the field. And we have an obligation to ourselves and to our teams to try and get a victory. It’s more important about trying to get a win other than worrying about who played where, who coached where. It’s not about that."
It was Ryan who coached middle linebacker Ray Lewis, free safety Ed Reed and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs during the Ravens’ defensive heyday. Now, he’s got his own team to run.
"I’m proud that I coached that group," Ryan said. "Make no mistake: I’m 100 percent Jet now, and they’re 100 percent Raven. I love those guys, but not on Sunday."
The Ravens have an opportunity to improve to 3-1 heading into their bye week.
And the Ravens hope to take advantage of the Jets’ sudden vulnerability against the run after the Oakland game by attacking them with Rice, a Pro Bowl runner.
"As a running back, you sort of lick your chops when a guy goes for 170 yards," Rice said. "At the same time, we’re playing the Jets, so we know they’re going to come in here amped up ready to play."
The Jets rank 31st against the run after the Raiders game dropped them to surrendering an unseemly 136.7 yards on the ground per contest.
"I don’t think we’re the 31st run defense in the league, but that’s what our stats are," Scott said. "So I guess we are, but we know better than that."
"Oh my gosh, we have to get it fixed," Ryan said. "I know that."
A year ago, the Ravens narrowly defeated the Jets despite mounting no running game as Rice averaged only two yards per carry. He finished with 43 yards on 21 carries.
"We’ll sign up for that right now," Ryan said.
It wouldn’t be the Ravens and the Jets if there weren’t at least a few exchanges of words before kickoff.
When it was pointed out to Ryan that he has yet to beat the Ravens in the regular season or preseason since leaving Baltimore, he had a quick rebuttal.
"That is a fact that we have not beat them since I have been here," Ryan said. "The fact of the matter is, we all said we were going to meet in the AFC championship game. Now, we haven’t won the AFC Championship Game, but we have gotten there two years in a row. The Ravens haven’t. You could throw that one right back at them as well."
Lewis smiled when he was informed of Ryan’s brash remarks.
"Wow, the only response I can ever have for that is he was sitting in the same place I was sitting watching the Super Bowl," Lewis said. "He had to be, because he wasn’t in it. That’s the only thing you can ever talk about. I don’t care how far you go."
This figures to be a pivotal game in the AFC as the Jets’ pass-oriented offense of quarterback Mark Sanchez, tight end Dustin Keller and wide receivers Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Mason takes on a hurting Ravens secondary that’s missing first-round cornerback Jimmy Smith and could be without cornerback Chris Carr due to as setback with his lingering left hamstring injury.
"It’s a conference home game, it’s against a team that’s going to be in the playoffs," Harbaugh said. "This game is going to matter at the end. It’s going to mean a lot."