New York NFL teams take center stage but face tough tests

By Simon Evans

MIAMI (Reuters) - The New England Patriots and the New York Jets clash on Sunday with top spot in the National Football League's (NFL) AFC East division at stake while the Big Apple's other contenders, the Giants, face the San Francisco 49ers in a match-up of divisional leaders.

After contrasting starts to the season - the Patriots racing out of the traps and the Jets making a false start - the two teams both enter Sunday's game with 5-3 records.

The Buffalo Bills, the early pacesetters, have fallen back to 5-3, meaning there is intense competition for the playoffs in what has been, in recent years, one of the toughest of divisions.

The form team are the Jets - they are 3-0 since losing to the Patriots in week five while the Patriots have lost their last two games, including a dramatic late loss to the New York Giants last week.

The rivalry pits some of the league's big characters against each other - Tom Brady, the Patriots' quarterback always relishes taking center stage in the Boston-New York City sporting rivalry, while Darelle Revis, the Jets cornerback, loves nothing more than picking off the Patriots.

On the sidelines are two of the league's most fascinating coaches - the stern, austere-appearing Bill Belichick of the Patriots and the larger and louder than life Jets boss Rex Ryan.

"You want to win your division, that was our goal. The two years I've been here, obviously New England has won the division both times. They've beat us already. So we know what this game represents, we're not afraid to talk about it," said Ryan.

"We're approaching it like we have to have this game. We want to win our division. We think it goes through New England. There's that old saying: 'To be the champ, you have to beat the champ', and they're sitting right in front of us," he added.

Belichick, typically, was more circumspect.

"The Jets are certainly playing well - have a three-game win streak, scoring points, not giving up many. They're doing a good job," said Belichick.

"I don't think there are a whole lot of new things, just they're doing a good job. It'll be a big challenge down there for us this week. I'm sure it will be a very lively crowd, emotional atmosphere."

SMART FOOTBALL

The Giants are buzzing from their victory over the Patriots, which recalled the Super Bowl triumph at the end of the 2007 season, but now the NFC East leaders face the NFC West's top dogs in San Francisco.

Eli Manning, who in the absence of his injured brother Peyton, is enjoying some positive time in the spotlight, knows a tough task awaits at Candlestick Park.

"You have to play smart football. They are really talented on defense. Their front seven is really good and you don't see a whole lot of teams running against them. They get good pressure on the quarterback, just bringing four guys a lot of times. They don't turn the ball over on offense and they get turnovers on defense," said Manning.

"They have a great turnover margin so I think it is a matter of playing football. Don't give them easy breaks and make it tough on their offense. They don't give up many big plays so it is a matter of being consistent and getting in good third down situations and trying to convert there," he added.

Monday night's game sees the rivalry between the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings return to normality without the additional presence of Brett Favre in the Vikings quarterback role.

The Packers (8-0) are the only unbeaten team in the league while Minnesota are struggling this year on 2-6.

(Editing by Clare Fallon)