The New England Patriots were left stunned by the New York Jets' coach's decision to suit up with 11 defensive backs.
NFL's New York Jets are flying off the back of coach Ryan
Several grinning New York Jets players pranced around the field with their arms extended out to each side, like children mimicking aircraft in flight.
Another executed a standing mid-air flip. Yet another leaped on to the broad shoulders of his head coach, who had limped all the way into the end zone to celebrate with his guys.
The game was not even over.
What to make of this team - disciplined at times, disorderly at others - that surely would have drawn more than one unsportsmanlike conduct penalty had New England not kept the heat on with a late touchdown?
Well, this: there is a method to the maddening ways of Rex Ryan, their rotund leader. With a 28-21 sucker-punching of the Patriots, the Jets have ridden on Ryan's back to four straight road play-off wins. A fifth is there for the taking on Sunday in Pittsburgh for the AFC championship.
We figured a behind-the-curtain peek at the Jets on a cable television reality series was Ryan's cry for attention, a way to land on the back pages of the New York tabloids and on to the front burners of America's football conscience.
Who knew that he was exhibiting his profane cockiness to show loose-lipped players that they, too, could mouth off or behave with impunity, which helped build a loyalty much like committed soldiers to their captain?
We concluded that Ryan holding a funeral for a football used in the Jets' 45-3 regular season loss to New England was making light of a defeat that could have crippled their play-off chances.
Who picked up on the notion that his players would buy into the shtick and stand up to the Patriots on Sunday as if that 45-3 game never happened?
We did not detect the purpose of his week-long act of humility leading up to Sunday's game, when he exaggerated or even feigned inferiority to Bill Belichick, the Pats coach.
We failed to recognise him not just for his wizardry with defensive Xs and Os, but for achieving the elusive goal of any professional coach - motivating players to perform at their maximum.
Who could have imagined that a Ryan-arranged speech to the players on Saturday by partially paralysed former Jet Dennis Byrd would inspire them to run through a figurative wall for him?
No way Ryan is walking blindly down this path, making these calls without forethought. An accidental genius, he is not.
Ryan said on Sunday night, with a face as straight as he could manage: "I was dead wrong. I thought the game would come down to me and Belichick … but it came down to our players and our assistant coaches, and we won that battle."
Well, of course it came down to 45 players and 18 assistants per side, not one man against one man. Still, Buttoned-Up Bill versus Raving Rex had a clear winner. "You work on something all week," said Wes Welker, the Patriots wide receiver, meaning man-to-man pass coverage that the Pats coaches anticipated "and you get something else," meaning a dizzying array of zones made possible by Ryan suiting up an unheard-of 11 defensive backs.
Welker did say the Pats adjusted strategically, but he was covering his tracks. The game's lingering images, aside from the Jets' playfulness, were close-ups of quarterback Tom Brady's perplexed look, start to finish, frozen on his face. He was sacked five times and had to kill numerous plays with intentional incompletions.
"The game plan was out of sight," said Trevor Pryce, the Jets defensive lineman who has executed 14 seasons worth of them. "We did some stuff I've never seen a pro football coach do. Ever. And that was Rex."
Yes, they refer to him as Rex, not Coach Ryan. And they speak of him in terms rarely heard in the NFL.
"I love my coach," Bart Scott, the linebacker, said. "Let me tell you something: I would die for that man."
In the closing seconds, the network television announcer took New York to task for a lack of restraint.
Ryan could not care less. He has his players' backs, and he is delighted that they have eagerly climbed aboard his own. The results speak for themselves - harsh, loud and clear.