Friends face pivotal game

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. --- Rex Ryan felt confident about his chances of getting the Atlanta Falcons' head coaching job two years ago.

He thought the interviews went well, hit it off with owner Arthur Blank and believed he was a perfect fit.

"Of all the places I went, I thought I had the best shot there in Atlanta," Ryan said. "I think I wanted that job more than I did maybe some other ones."

The feeling wasn't quite mutual, though, and the Falcons hired his friend and former colleague Mike Smith.

"I think I was too fat," Ryan said with a laugh.

He added that Baltimore was coming off a subpar season in which the Ravens went 5-11. It all worked out in the end for Ryan, in his first season as coach of the New York Jets (7-6) and looking to stay alive in the AFC playoff mix against Smith's Falcons (6-7).

"I think they made a great decision," Ryan said, grinning. "Not the best decision, but a great decision. No, but it's amazing how it works out. I'm certainly happy that it worked out like it did for both of us."

The two coached against each other at the college level -- Ryan as the head coach at Morehead State and Smith at Tennessee Tech in the Ohio Valley Conference -- and then worked together with the Ravens from 1999-2002.

"He's a great guy to hang out with," Smith said of Ryan. "When I say hang out with, it's in a social setting, because he has such a great personality. Everybody that has ever played for Rex Ryan will always tell you he's fun to play for and they always play hard."

The two talk throughout the season, and they will share information if they face common opponents. This week is a little different, of course, with both teams needing victories to keep their playoff hopes going.

"We still have a chance," Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "We don't control our own destiny, but we still have a chance to make the playoffs, just like them."

The teams are going in opposite directions, though. The Falcons have lost two in a row and three of their past four, erasing the momentum of a 4-1 start.

"It's going to be a big game up there," Smith said. "They're fighting for their season, we're fighting for our season. There's three more games to be played. To me, it's going to be a good ballgame."

The Falcons face the prospect of playing without two of their best players on offense -- quarterback Matt Ryan (turf toe) and running back Michael Turner (ankle) -- for the third game in a row, although they returned to practice Thursday. If Ryan can't go, Chris Redman will get his third consecutive start. Same for Jason Snelling, who has filled in adequately for Turner.

"We still have to go out and play a game," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "We have to keep playing football."

That's what the Jets have done despite some key injuries of their own, including to quarterback Mark Sanchez. If Sanchez can't go, Kellen Clemens would start again for New York, which has won its past three games.

"Whether it be the mental mistakes, turnovers, we have done a lot of damage to ourselves," linebacker Calvin Pace said. "Now we're not beating ourselves. If we can keep that up, we'll be fine."

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