- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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It's like they say in the NFL: If you can't beat 'em, be 'em.
In the late 1990s, in the days of the "Tuna Bowls," with the Jets and Patriots it was beat 'em, join 'em, then beat the team you used to work for. Earlier this week the NFL Network aired a replay of the 1999 opener, when Vinny Testaverde blew out his Achilles' at Giants Stadium. It was mind blowing to see the current Patriots' coaching staff on the Jets' sideline with Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick coordinating the defense, Charlie Weis the offense. Ex-Jets coach Pete Carroll roamed the New England sideline for what would be his last season in pro ball.
There isn't quite the same intensity to the Border Wars anymore, mostly because Bill Parcells is in a different division, but there always will be a Hatfields-McCoys/Democrats-Republicans/Autobots-Deceptacons feel to this AFC East rivalry. The Jets and Patriots still don't like each other, and Belichick's bunch, especially, likes nothing more than beating Gang Green.
The Patriots swept the Jets last year on their way to the division title and a second Super Bowl in three years, and the rivalry, with New England establishing itself as the model franchise and New York missing the playoffs for the first time under coach Herman Edwards, appeared on its way to becoming a "rivalry" in a Sox-Yanks sense, B.C., of course (Before Comeback). The Jets had to rebuild, and Edwards decided that the best way to catch the Patriots quickly was to copy them.
"A lot of what we're doing is very similar to what they're doing in New England," said Jets nickel cornerback Terrell Buckley, a Patriot in 2001 and '02 whom the Patriots cut in camp. "You know, it's a copy-cat league, anyway."
This week the Patriots have to feel like they're watching themselves when they study film of the Jets. Edwards has taken elements of the Patriot Way, taught them in his unique way, and by stressing New England hallmarks like unity and poise in pressure situations, he has New York 5-0 for the first time in the franchise's 45-year history. Sunday the Jets meet their makers, of sorts, in the Patriots, who are in the middle of the longest winning streak in league history (20 games, including postseason) and are another victory from establishing the league record for consecutive regular-season wins (18).
Are the Jets, whose victories have come against teams with a combined 6-22 record, just wanna bes, like that Compton, Calif., cat who rhymes like Biggie? Or are they, at least this year, equals to the Patriots, Ryu to New England's Ken (bring back Street Fighter II), so to speak?
Edwards is curious to know that himself.
"The great thing about this team right now is, I don't know what's going to happen," Edwards said this week. "This is a new game for us. This is a whole new atmosphere for this team. It's something this team's going to have to go through. And we're going to find out a little bit more about our football team. Every time we play, we find out more about our football team, and that's what I like about it."
The thing many, including Edwards, can appreciate most about this Patriots team that is rewriting the record books is that everyone within the organization seems to be on the same page, all working toward a common goal; Broncos safety John Lynch said after he visited New England last offseason that he heard the same thing from the scout who picked him up from the airport as he did from owner Robert Kraft. Belichick replaced a coach (Carroll) who seems better suited for the college game and built a champion by creating a major-college environment where the program is bigger than the players.
Edwards glanced over at what the Patriots have and thought, "I've got to get me some of that."
"I really admire their staff and how they've stuck together, and their players, how they buy into team," Edwards said. "That's what it's about and they've really set the model for other teams to look at and say, 'Hey, if you want to win games, this is kind of how you should orchestrate it.'
"The one thing you notice about them right away is that their players get it. They understand that it is about the team. I think you would have to really sell that. You really have to make sure you bring those types of players into your organization who understand the team is the most important thing. It's not the name on the back of the jersey, it's the emblem on the side of the helmet that you want to play for. And you want to coach for, really."
In the offseason Edwards created a 12-member leadership council (the names aren't public information) to act as locker room liaisons. He met with them and established specific goals for the team. He organized social activities (also confidential) with the idea to bring together a young team that includes some 20 new players. "We had to do a lot of things just to find out who we were, not only as football players but as men," Edwards said.
Edwards altered his approach a bit, too. For one, he limited the access of the New York media, creating something of a bunker mentality within the team. Very Patriotic. "When you're building a team," said Edwards, who is even starting to sound like Belichick, "the less distractions you have and the more of one voice you have, the better it is for the players to understand where you're coming from."
Edwards is still one of the most gracious men in or outside the league, but he felt he needed to be a little harder on his players and coaches, among them new defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson, who has helped energize a defense that has been infused with youth and speed. "I was more direct and more adamant about certain things that needed to get done," Edwards said.
The Patriots, game after game, just get it done. Their games are always close and decided in the final few possessions, but they seem to own the map for finding ways to win. The Jets have borrowed it, having withstood late charges by the Chargers and Bengals, winning a tough game in which the Dolphins outgained them, and coming from behind to beat the Bills and Niners.
New York is back atop the league in turnover differential (plus-9) and has had the second-fewest penalties assessed (21). They haven't lost because they aren't beating themselves. The Jets, thanks to disciplined practices and an emphasis on situational football, are playing, particularly in the fourth quarter, like the Patriots. They're playing as if they stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.
"They do a lot of little things well," Belichick said. "There are really big things, but also a lot of little things that add up to why they are 5-0. It's easy to see why they've won every game. They play well under pressure. They make big plays when they have to make them."
They're also making sacrifices, like working out on their off days, as more than 40 players did Monday. Rodney Harrison often talks proudly about how the Patriots "pay the price," arriving to work early and leaving late, so they can cash in on game day. The Jets have that now. There's accountability in the locker room.
Edwards likes this team's chemistry. "You have to leave your ego at the door, and I think all the players have done that," he said.
"It's a team, and at the end of the day, that's how we want to play. We want to play like a team and we want to think like a team."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The Jets are winning a lot like the Patriots, keeping games close and making the big plays at the end.