By Jason Keidel
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And Dallas was supposed to be an easy one…

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If Thursday – a most theatrical opening night – is a sign, then the NFL plans to provide a special season in 2011, where parity gallops like Adrian Peterson through the league. Indeed, if last night was the other bookend on the football microcosm, it’s time to recalibrate your preseason picks and fantasy drafts. We learned that we know nothing.

Here at home, the Jets are clearly the apple of the Big Apple, despite the Giants on-field eminence (yesterday aside), winning three Super Bowls since Namath wiggled a triumphant finger from the Orange Bowl in 1969. And yesterday did nothing to alter the altar where fans pray for football enlightenment. The Jets, just as much a cardiac risk as their coach, made an amazing comeback in the newly minted MetLife Stadium. (From now on, I will still call it the Meadowlands).

Rex Ryan, equal parts pop psychologist, class clown, and head coach of the Jets, talks in the thunderous cadence of someone who has the three rings. He has none, of course, except the one Ray Lewis won for him ten years ago.  But his hubris has inspired a team too used to losing for too long. Perhaps the Jets don’t win that game last night for another coach.

Ryan has also benefited from working with a bright general manager and for an owner who lets both do their jobs in a sport where ownership is often a perch of vanity, a misguided destination for their slush funds.

Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder, for instance, don’t seem to understand that buying a team doesn’t imbue you with Vince Lombardi’s brain. Though Jones has three Super Bowl titles, he has won none without Troy Aikman. And Snyder will soon see that his coach, Mike Shanahan, has suffered similar woes without John Elway. As is his wont, the ornery owner has an itchy vocational trigger finger, and may pay Shanahan for five years while he coaches just one. Such is life in Washington, D.C., where turnover is a rite of autumn all over town.

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Every coach is a Mensa member with a great quarterback. In case you’re too young to recall, Bill Belichick was regarded as a guru on defense sans the coaching chops to win as the leading man. He was called a choke artist in Cleveland, but then he hit the sixth-round lottery when his Patriots arbitrarily bagged Tom Brady in 2000. Like Joe Torre, Belichick went from recycled lifer to Hall of Famer once he had the horses to carry out his coaching alchemy.

Ryan reaps a loaded roster and an ascending quarterback in Mark Sanchez, who bucked a baleful trend the Jets had for the bulk of their last 40 years: bad drafts. Sanchez, a perfect emblem of his team, was great and grotesque all in one night – drilling and lobbing perfect passes moments after a galling incompletion or interception. Mike Westoff – perhaps the smartest man on the field – saved Sanchez’s bacon with yet another uncanny performance from his special teams squad.

The Jets are tied for having the third-strongest schedule this season, but there are no excuses for a coach and team with high expectations and a town quick to remind them. And since the Jets have four road playoff wins over the last two years, they seem accustomed to the cauldron of NFL life and the burning lens of New York’s media.

But it was hard to separate football from life yesterday, as all teams seemed to play in the spiritual shadow of the fallen Twin Towers. It’s tough to watch the somber services held from Washington to Pennsylvania to New York, bowed heads and the single, solemn Airman or Marine blowing Taps from a cemetery, the tombstones jutting like teeth from the manicured grass, and then flip some internal switch going from macabre to the mayhem of pro football.

But just as Ryan’s Jets needn’t apologize for an inelegant win against an inferior team, we shouldn’t forget the loved and lost just because it’s 9/12. There was a sense of discomfort yesterday, as though we were forced into collective grief because of the date. We should honor them always, no matter the calendar.

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