They knew it when they walked onto the Foxboro Stadium field before the game and got high-fives and encouragement from the same Patriots fans who normally salute them with fewer fingers and four-letter words.
Then came songs about America capped by ``God Bless America'' and the national anthem. Running back Curtis Martin wasn't alone in admitting that a few tears escaped his eyes along the way.
Then when the game finally began, the teams found themselves in what Jets coach Herman Edwards told his team the night before would be an ``ugly'' affair. ``We needed a win, and it didn't need to be an easy win,'' Edwards said. ``It needed to be one where we had to struggle and doubts crept in every once in a while. But we fought through it.''
And when the Jets' 10-3 victory was finally over, no milestones - not Edwards' first NFL coaching win, Martin's clearing 10,000 career yards from scrimmage, or four more takeaways and one quarterback KO by a slowly awakening defense - mattered as much as the gameball that Edwards held in his hand at his postgame news conference.
``We dedicated the ball to New York City, and hopefully we'll be able to present it to Mayor Giuliani,'' said quarterback Vinny Testaverde. ``This game ranks right up there with the best ever for me, because of the circumstances. I'll remember this for a long time, from the national anthem to the waving flags. It makes you proud to be an American.''
In the past two weeks, New York City has been repeatedly described as a ``tough'' town, and befitting a game that the Jets were trying to win for that city, a gritty defense ruled the day. But first both teams - you could even include a third team of the NFL veteran officials who were back at work after ratifying their new contract - struggled mightily. Style points weren't important this day, but scoreboard points were, and they were hard to come by.
The Patriots scored first on Adam Vinatieri's first-quarter field goal. The Jets tied it on the last play of the first half on a John Hall field goal. And once Martin cut inside blocks by fullback Richie Anderson and the right side of his offensive line and bulled through three Patriots defenders for an 8-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter and Hall kicked the PAT, no more points would be had.
The Jets defense, champing at the bit after yielding 31 of Indianpolis' 45 points on opening day, made mistakes and bent but didn't break in the first half. The defense also forced the first of four turnovers in Jets territory when cornerback Aaron Glenn snared a Drew Bledsoe overthrow at his 3.
In the second half, the hits came more frequently. James Darling's blast of fullback Marc(CQ) Edwards and new tackle starter Steve Martin's recovery came at the Jets 7. Linebacker James Farrior made the biggest play of his five-year Jets career with an end zone interception of Bledsoe that he took out of harm's way to the Jets 44.
``I would say it was,'' Farrior, the former first-round draft pick, said when asked if the pick was the biggest contribution of his five-year Jets career. ``It was a big play. They were definitely in scoring position. I think I did a good job in helping us out.'' That's as big a chest thump as Farrior will ever allow himself. But there was no denying that the play, coming on a third-and-seven from the Jets 8, galvanized the Jets defense for the 7 1/2 more minutes they had to hold the Pats out of their end zone.
Then late in the game, Bledsoe was rocked by linebacker Mo Lewis trying to scramble for a first down. Bledsoe came back on the next series, only to see his shovel pass to Edwards stripped and recovered by defensive end John Abraham at the Jets 34. Bledsoe gamely came back for one more series but was so out of it that backup QB Tom Brady replaced him for the Patriots' final drive to the Jets 29, and then Bledsoe was taken from the stadium with a concussion on a stretcher, headed for a local hospital for observation.
But before that jarring hit, the Jets harassed Bledsoe into a tame passing game of 18-for-28 for 159 yards.
``I have to hand a lot to the defense,'' tight end Anthony Becht. ``They played like monsters today. They went in and battled and stopped them. There's going to be days when the offense is not going to be able to do what they want.'' Like Sunday, when such aging former Jets stars as linebacker Bryan Cox and defensive ends Anthony Pleasant and Bobby Hamilton took turns frustrating Testaverde and holding the West Coast offense to 238 yards.
At least the wide receivers caught nine passes this time, with Wayne Chrebet's five catches for 53 yards leading the way. If not for Martin's 106 rushing yards (his fifth 100-yard game in seven meetings with his former team), the Jets could have been in trouble down the stretch. As it was a Brady Hail Mary pass was deflected into the back of the end zone and hit the grass inches away from the fingertips of Patriots wideouts Bert Emanuel and David Patten.
But in the end the team from the Big Bruised Apple could take that ``W'' back home for its fans and the tireless firefighters, police officers, and Port Authority officers whose hats and shirts the players wore throughout the day.
``Every man in his heart felt he was representing New York,'' said Martin, who added 10 receiving yards to put his career yards from scrimmage total at 10,001.
"We just felt it was something we had to do. People would've been even more sad than usual if we had lost this game. We were all determined not to let it happen.''
The win, the Jets' fourth straight and seventh in eight games over the Pats, didn't start pretty and it didn't end pretty, as kick returner Chad Morton came away with a sprained ankle and strong safety Victor Green came off on the next-to-last play with a thigh injury. And punter Tom Tupa, in his first game of the new season, was chagrined after posting a 35.4-yard gross average, a 28.3 net and one inside-the-20 kick in nine punts.
``I thought I was ready to go,'' said Tupa, who thought he had put his sore hip flexor behind him. ``Let's just say I'm not even close to where I need to be.''
But the Jets will worry about the San Francisco 49ers and Monday night when they have to. On this day, they accomplished what they had to.
``It wasn't pretty,'' cornerback Marcus Coleman said, ``but it didn't have to be.''