There have been more signs of revelry than a heated rivalry. Compliments have been shared, as have T-shirts, and the closest thing to trash talk between the two sides has centered on a meeting that never took place.
But as the Ravens and New York Jets get together Sunday night before a sellout crowd at M&T Bank Stadium and a prime-time television audience, there will be plenty on the line, from an opportunity to make a statement to an old friend or previous employer, to a more prominent spot in the unsettled AFC hierarchy.
"All that stuff is really legit," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's all real. We're excited to play them. We were excited to play them last year in the opener. We were excited to play them two years ago in the preseason game here. Yeah, that's all valuable stuff. It is a conference home game. It's against a team that's going to be in the playoffs. This game is going to matter at the end. It's going to mean a lot. It means a lot probably on every level."
Harbaugh's Ravens have already beaten Rex Ryan's Jets once, opening the 2010-11 season and the New Meadowlands Stadium with a 10-9 victory. The Ravens' focus Sunday is building off of last weekend's 30-point rout of the St. Louis Rams and taking a 3-1 record and some momentum into their bye week.
The Jets, meanwhile, are more concerned with saving face than sending messages. They gave up 34 points last Sunday in a loss to the Oakland Raiders and spent the days leading up to the game absorbing criticism from their Hall of Fame former quarterback Joe Namath and questions about what has happened to their once-vaunted defense.
That probably explains the subdued tone coming out of Jets camp this week heading into a game that carries tremendous meaning for several of their players and coaches. Wide receiver Derrick Mason, linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard are former Ravens. Ryan was a member of the Ravens' coaching staff for 10 seasons, including one year as Harbaugh's defensive coordinator, and he still harbors bitterness for not getting the head coaching job when Brian Billick was fired. Ryan's staff also includes four former Ravens assistants.
"We have an obligation to ourselves and to our teams to try and get a victory," said Scott, who played for the Ravens from 2002 to 2008, making one Pro Bowl. "It's more important trying to get a win than worrying about who played where, who coached where. It's not about that. It's about getting a much-important 'W.' Somebody's going to be at 2-2. Both teams need a win."
It has been only three weeks, far too small a sample size to make any declarations, but the AFC standings already have taken on a bit of an unfamiliar look. The Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs, the respective winners of the AFC South and West last season, are winless. The Buffalo Bills, who went 4-12 last year and haven't had a winning season since 2004, are unbeaten.
The Raiders, Cleveland Browns, and Tennessee Titans have the same record as the Ravens, Jets, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Houston Texans and San Diego Chargers.
"That's the beauty of the NFL," Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda said. "You just never know. It just goes to show you that those losing teams, they are that close to being a winning team. That much makes that big of a difference."
Yanda, well versed in all the game's subplots, stopped short of saying that the Jets are "just another NFL team," but he did offer a firm reminder that making any conclusions this early in the season is foolish.
"It's Week Four," Yanda said. "Where we are in Week Four doesn't take away from what we're trying to do overall. The Jets are in our way. Obviously, they're probably going to be in the playoffs. That's a good team. You could say it's a test for us, but teams change so much. They could become a completely different animal than they are in Week Four."
Ravens center Matt Birk did call the game a "barometer" of where the Ravens are as they head into their bye week, then another meaningful AFC matchup, this one with the Texans. However, the consensus in the Ravens locker room is that as important as Sunday's game is, there could be a far more significant matchup between the teams down the line.
"They've been in the AFC championship the past two years," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "They've been a dominant team late in the year. You have to plan on competing against them at the end of the year, so it's very important that we get a win against them."
The sense of urgency might be even greater for the Jets, who will have to go on the road to play New England next week before matching up with the Chargers two weeks later.
When reminded that he is 0-1 against the Ravens, Ryan, the Jets' bombastic coach, pointed out that the teams were supposed to meet in the AFC championship game and the Ravens haven't held up their side of the bargain. Inside linebacker Ray Lewis countered by saying that Ryan and the Jets watched the Super Bowl the past couple of years from the same place the Ravens did: their couches.
That's about where the trash talk topped off this week. Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who never shies away from verbal give-and-take, even showed up at his Wednesday briefing with the media wearing a "Can't Wait!" T-shirt in honor of Scott, his "friend and mentor."
The Jets linebacker trademarked the phrase and provided the T-shirts to several Ravens. He has sold the shirts to raise money for former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand, who sustained a severe spinal injury in a game last October.
"It's not as friendly as you think, because come Sunday night, Rex is going to try to beat us. Bart is going to try to get after us," Suggs said. "It's a little different because it's a little personal, because they once were here. We have tremendous respect for them and love, but we have a job to do. They are in the way of where we're trying to get. They see us as being in their way. They are going to do whatever it takes, and so are we, by any means necessary."
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