– By DENNIS WASZAK JR.

The Associated Press

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Rex Ryan challenged the rest of the NFL during training camp, asking if there were any teams other than his New York Jets good enough to beat the New England Patriots.

Well, Buffalo answered the call in Week 3. Pittsburgh and the Giants did, too, in the last two weeks. Now it’s the time for the Jets to back up their brash coach’s big words.

“The two years I’ve been here, obviously New England has won the division both times,” Ryan said. “They’ve beat us already. So, we know what this game represents. We’re not afraid to talk about it. It’s not one of these, ‘Well, if we don’t, there’s still a lot of season left.’ We’re approaching it like we have to have this game.”

The suddenly soaring Jets (5-3) take on the struggling Patriots (5-3) in a showdown for first place in the AFC East on Sunday night at MetLife Stadium. The winner will have at least a share of the top spot, with Buffalo (5-3) taking on Dallas earlier that day.

“We want to win our division,” Ryan said. “We think it goes through New England. That old saying, ‘To be the champ, you have to beat the champ.’ And they’re sitting right in front of us. I respect the job that Pittsburgh and the Giants and Buffalo did in defeating New England. That’s no easy task. And right now, we’re going to say we think we’ve improved as a football team, and we’re going to find out on Sunday, because this is a measuring stick right here.”

That’s how most teams approach playing Bill Belichick’s Patriots, given their consistent winning ways during the last decade. But, Ryan’s No. 1 charge when he took over as the Jets coach was to knock the Patriots off their pedestal. New York has made it to the AFC championship the past two seasons, but has done it the hard way by playing all of its postseason games on the road. Winning the division is the only way to guarantee to have at least one home game, and this one could go a long way to determining who’ll be hitting the road when the playoffs start.

“This is right where we want to be,” quarterback Mark Sanchez said, “and there’s no better team that we’d want to play than a division rival and a divisional opponent, for a game that looks to set us up real nice in the division if we win.”

The last time these teams met back on Oct. 9, the Jets were sent to their third straight loss and appeared to be in disarray. Meanwhile, the Patriots were cruising along with a high-powered offense behind Tom Brady.

Funny how things change in just a few weeks.

New York has won three in a row, beating Miami, San Diego and Buffalo along the way. New England has lost two straight and is in danger of its first three-game skid since 2002, when the Patriots lost four straight, finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.

“No doubts around here, and that’s me being honest,” wide receiver Deion Branch said. “We see in the film what we’re doing wrong.”

So did the Bills, Steelers and Giants, who were all able to come up with game plans that worked – and won. It’s a simple but not easily executed formula: Put pressure on Brady, take away the edge and shut down the running game and let the defense – ranked 32nd in the league – make its mistakes, especially in the shaky secondary.

“They’re not invincible,” safety Jim Leonhard said. “They’re a great football team, but they’ve got beat by some pretty good teams, as well. I don’t think they’re going to panic up in New England, and we’re not going to feel sorry for them, either.”

Beginning with the last meeting, the Jets have gone back to their run-first “Ground-and-Pound” approach on offense, and having Nick Mangold back from a badly sprained ankle has certainly helped. So has the defense, which is starting to show signs of dominance again with forced turnovers, quarterback pressures and confusing offenses.

“They’re a tough team to prepare for,” Brady said. “They’ve got a lot of stuff, they’ve got a lot of really good players, good scheme. They play well at home. It’s a great challenge.”

Brady is having another typically good season, but his interceptions are unusually high. After throwing four all last season, he’s got 10 this year – including four in his last three games.

“Just decision making,” Brady said. “I’ve just got to make better decisions.”

And that won’t be easy, especially with a secondary led by Darrelle Revis, who’s off to another All-Pro-caliber season with four interceptions. Brady has a 15-5 record against the Jets, including the playoffs, but is 3-3 in the last six with 10 touchdowns and five INTs.

“The guy is a tremendous quarterback, clearly,” said Ryan, refusing to say Brady looks vulnerable. “Without Peyton (Manning) playing, I’d say he’s the best quarterback in the league right now.”

After all, the Jets know better than to get too overconfident against Brady and the Patriots. Not in a rivalry that has been so intense and evenly played lately – the series is tied at 52-52-1. The teams have alternated wins and losses during the last six games, starting with the Jets’ season-opening win in 2009 and including New York’s 28-21 playoff victory last season.

“Oh, it’s fantastic,” Mangold said. “The New York-Boston rivalry, it spans across different sports. We’ve been going back and forth since my time coming in. We’ve had some great games and that’s what makes sports awesome when you get rivalries going. It makes for exciting football.”

Especially when the foes are so familiar and played each other only a month ago.

“It’s one of those deals,” Belichick said, “where they know that we know that we know that they know that we know.”

Got it?

“I said it right after we played them that they were the better team then,” Ryan said. “We’ll see who the better team is now.”