FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- There are bigger games this weekend, but there are no more personal ones than what's about to take place in Cleveland.
It's the Browns vs. the Jets, which means it's Eric Mangini vs. the team that fired him, Rex Ryan vs. the twin brother who coaches against him and Braylon Edwards vs. the club that drafted him, the fans who booed him and the coach who sent him out of town.
Pick a subplot. They're all intriguing. Me? I'm sticking with Mangini in his first crack at the club that expelled him because I love stories about retribution, and let's be honest: This is Mangini's chance to prove the Jets fumbled when they made him Man-jobless.
Of course, he'd never say that, nor should he. Nobody with the Jets would admit to it, either. They like what they have in Rex Ryan, and why not? He took them to the AFC Championship Game a year ago and has them at the top of the AFC East today, tied with New England.
|Eric Mangini is set to face his former team, the Jets, this weekend. (Getty Images)|
In short, Mangini has the Browns where they never, ever, ever were supposed to be -- which is on a roll, with an us-against-the-world approach that is working so well the Browns have been in every game this season.
They should have beaten Tampa Bay. They could have beaten Kansas City. They could have beaten Baltimore and Atlanta, too, and they hung with Pittsburgh for three quarters. Those are opponents with a combined 29-12 record, and don't tell me that's not a brutal schedule ... because it is.
In fact, the Browns are tied with Buffalo for the toughest schedule out there. But that hasn't flummoxed Mangini or his team. They beat the defending division champion. They beat the defending Super Bowl champion. And they beat the perennial AFC East champion.
That's two victories -- two huge victories -- over opponents with winning records. "Big deal," you say. Well, yeah, because the Jets have beaten one such team.
"I'd be lying to you if I told you I don't have any emotions tied to this game," Mangini said. "It was a big part of my personal and professional life. It's not often that you prepare for an opponent where you get to see how young guys you brought together are doing. That's pretty unique.
"But I've really put the past behind me. I feel like I'm a better coach now. I've grown more confident in my role. I really like the guys here -- just as I did the guys [with the Jets]. It's a fun group to coach. They understand we're not looking at this like a 16-game season but 16 weeks of one-game seasons. Nobody cares about how many completions or how many yards we have. If we throw two times a game or 50 times a game they don't care; just as long as we win."
And they did last weekend -- knocking off New England in a game where they ran 44 times and tried just five passes in the second half. The game plan was brilliant, and it was executed perfectly by players who are household names only within the 440 area code. But it's the team, not the individuals, that is the focal point of Mangini's system, and this Cleveland Browns team is back on the NFL map, going 7-5 in its last 12 contests.
So what? So look at last season's conference championship game participants. In its last 12 regular-season starts Minnesota is 5-7, New Orleans is 6-6, Indianapolis is 7-5 and the Jets are 9-3. I don't know what that says about those clubs, but I do know what it says about Mangini -- and so does his successor in New York.
"I think he's a great coach," said Ryan, spoken like the next opponent.
Now let's dig a little deeper. Ryan last season finished with the same record (9-7) that got Mangini fired, yet he parlayed it into a contract extension. Yeah, I know, he took them to the playoffs and within a game of the Super Bowl, but it wasn't as if he was inheriting a reclamation project.
"There were a lot of good people in place here," Ryan said. "It made my job much easier."
Not only were the Jets 9-7 when he took over; they had a passel of high draft picks turned into starters -- including All-World cornerback Darrelle Revis and Pro Bowlers Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson, all of whom Mangini drafted. When Mangini stepped in front of them in 2006, they were 4-12 and destitute -- yet overnight they went from last in their division to 10-6 and a wild-card entry.
Mangini had winning records in two of his three seasons with New York, but it wasn't enough -- just as Cleveland's recent surge may not be enough to save him again. In fact, the popular perception in most NFL circles is that Browns president Mike Holmgren probably makes a move after the season, and that nothing short of a miracle can save Mangini.
Only we just saw two of them. Now he needs a third, and I wouldn't sell him or the Browns short.
I know they have a rookie quarterback. I know they're down to Peyton Hillis for reliable running backs, and Hillis isn't a running back at all. He's a fullback that Denver didn't want. I know they're in a division that has the two best teams in the AFC -- nope, the two best teams in the NFL -- and I know Mangini and the Browns are supposed to roll over for a Jets team that has far more talent, pedigrees and TV exposure.
Only none of that matters now. Sunday is the Browns' latest Game of the Year, but with an asterisk because this is personal. This is Cleveland against the world. This is Ryan against Ryan. This is Edwards against the city. Most of all, this is Mangini against the Past, Present and Future.
"Anytime you leave a job you want to show them," Ryan acknowledged.
He was not speaking of Mangini. He was referring to Edwards, whom he admitted is "amped" for his return to Cleveland -- and it sure sounds that way, with the wide receiver Wednesday calling Sunday's game "my personal war with Cleveland."
But if that applies to a banished wideout why can't it apply to a banished head coach, too? It can, Ryan said. And it will Sunday.
"So do you think [Mangini] wants to show them, too?" Ryan was asked.
"Trust me, [he] does," said Ryan. "No question. I wanted to show Baltimore, and I spent 10 years there. I left on great terms. They helped me get this job, yet I still wanted to show Baltimore that, 'Hey, look, I'm the guy now, and I was the guy then.' It never worked out, and I hope it doesn't work out for Eric this week."
Gentlemen, start your engines.