A rare nondescript game in Pats-Jets rivalry
Despite the many pregame subplots, Sunday's Jets-Patriots matchup turned out to be more ordinary than memorable, writes Gene Wojciechowski.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass.-- A pair of nor'easters arrived here Sunday. The first weather system dumped about a half foot of snow on Gillette Stadium, creating drifts in the upper decks and turning the tarp-covered field into a plow showroom three hours before kickoff.
And not to push the weather metaphors too much, but the wind chill factor bordered on subzero in the much-anticipated postgame handshake between Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his former defensive coordinator Mangini. The handshake, if you want to call it that, lasted barely long enough for Belichick and Mangini to squeeze hand muscles.
Once again the most personal, most devious, most animosity-filled rivalry in the NFL produced something worth remembering, but only barely. This time, it was a sloppy New England victory earned the hard way: a semi-squeaker against Belichick's least favorite team played in a miserable mix of Slurpee-like slush and winds that gusted to 27 mph and helped drop the temperatures to the mid-20s.
For their efforts, the Patriots beat the Jets for the 10th time in their past 11 tries, clinched home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs and became only the second team in the league's 88-year history to reach the 14-0 mark. Isn't that great, Bill?!
"Next week, we have a chance to go 6-0 in our division," Belichick said as if he were reading from the back of a soup can.
You have to admire Belichick's absolute denial of anything but the next game, even if that next game is against the 1-13 Miami Dolphins. Miami, of course, is the first and last franchise to finish an entire season undefeated. Nor does it matter to Belichick that the only similarity between those undefeated 1972 Dolphins and this year's version is the helmet logo.
"We're happy with our record, but right now it's all a one-week season," he said.
For the record, Belichick did raise his arms in triumph when New York kicker Mike Nugent missed a 35-yard field goal that would have reduced New England's lead to seven points with 2:12 left to play. And Belichick wore an odd-looking smile as he walked toward Mangini at game's end. So he can emote when in the mood.
But don't bother asking him about Spygate, or his relationship with Mangini, or how it feels to be done with Jets week at last.
"It's just like the other games," Belichick said. "It's good to win. It's good to win in the division, good to sweep the Jets. Now move on to Miami."
This was supposed to be a blowout, something in the 24- to 25-point spread neighborhood. But that was before the snow and gusts arrived and Brady failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time this season. He has two games (vs. the Dolphins, then at the New York Giants) to try to overtake Peyton Manning's single-season record of 49 TDs (Brady has 45).
"One of those days," said Brady, who didn't seem too upset about the touchdown oh-fer.
But the Patriots did block a Jets punt (resulting in a touchdown two plays later), and Laurence Maroney rushed 26 times for 104 yards and that lone New England offensive TD. When reporters gathered around Maroney's locker after the game, he made sure to remind everyone of their previous absence.
"This is the first time people have wanted to talk to me," he said. "Makes me feel halfway special. Where y'all the first 10 weeks?"
Where? Watching Brady. But with the checklist of elements ("Wet, rain, wind, cold," Brady said) and two missing tight ends (starter Ben Watson was inactive, and replacement Kyle Brady went out early), the Patriots turned to Maroney.
Maroney knew he might have a busy day when he arrived at the stadium and saw the conditions. Even the stadium scoreboard operator got into the spirit of things by running video of a roaring fireplace on the two big screens during parts of pregame and halftime.
"I told myself, 'Get prepared. Your tongue might be hanging out after this game,'" Maroney said.
The Jets (3-11) got beat, but that happens when you go through three quarterbacks in the first six plays. Starter Kellen Clemens got waffle-ironed by Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour while attempting his first pass of the afternoon. The floater was intercepted by defensive back Eugene Wilson and returned 5 yards for a gimme touchdown.
Clemens was followed by the tag team of New York wide receiver (and former Missouri QB) Brad Smith and former starter Chad Pennington. If nothing else, at least the Jets didn't roll over and play dead like in the season opener, when they got beat by 24.
You might remember that Sept. 9 game. Belichick does. That's the game in which NFL security personnel confiscated the video camera of a Patriots go-fer who was taping the Jets' sideline defensive signals.
The Steven Spielberg moment cost New England its first-round draft pick and $250,000. And it cost Belichick bits and pieces of his football reputation, as well as a half-million bucks from his own money clip.
Adding to the tension was Mangini's recent admission that the Jets were asked to quit videotaping a game at Gillette Stadium last season. Mangini said this past week that the Jets were granted permission to use a second end zone camera. Belichick said they weren't.
"Really, the past is in the past," Belichick said earlier in the week, trying to ignore the entire Mangini-Hoodie topic.
Nice try, Bill. Really, the past is in the present when it comes to the Patriots and the Jets. The two franchises have so much history together (they've played 97 times) and -- in the past 10 years -- so much ill will.
But to be honest, there wasn't much evidence of it at Sunday's game. Aside from the postgame Frosty-the-Snowman imitations by Belichick and Mangini, or when New York cut the lead to seven late in the fourth quarter, or when referee Jerome Boger temporarily suspended play "until snowballs stop being thrown on the field," it was mostly a boring game.
Not so, Tom Brady said. "Anytime you beat the Jets, it's a great game," he said.
Anybody who thinks Belichick is going to ease up on the Patriots' gas pedal going into the final two regular-season games, think again. Brady said he wants to play "every snap." And as always, that chance at matching and surpassing the '72 Dolphins' version of perfection remains.
"We aren't even there," said Patriots linebacker Junior Seau. "We're no threat to that record. We're far from it, we really are."
Spoken like a true mini-Bill.Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. He co-authored Jerome Bettis' autobiography, "The Bus: My Life In and Out of a Helmet," which is available now.