EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New England Patriots' surprising 37-16 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday had shades of 2003 and 2004 written all over it. The clincher was seeing receiver Julian Edelman playing slot corner in the closing minutes, just like fan favorite Troy Brown did in the Super Bowl days.
Back then, it was players like Brown, Earthwind Moreland and Hank Poteat who stepped in and ensured the defense didn't break stride. On Sunday night at MetLife Stadium, it was the likes of Jeff Tarpinian, Sterling Moore and Tracy White who rose up and surely had many fans back home asking the question, "Who are these guys?"
Yes, the Patriots pretty much put a "no-name" defense on the field in their most important regular-season game, and the result was the up-and-down D turning in its best performance of the year, one that featured relentless pressure on overmatched Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.
"We had a lot of guys roll in," said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, one of the team's captains. "Whether from injury or playing guys in certain situations, Bill [Belichick] challenged us last week; he said there's going to be some moving parts, roles are going to be changing and you have to be ready to rock and roll. We all rallied around one another and we didn't back away from anything. We took his challenge and it showed."
In that sense, it was a throwback effort from the D.
The banged-up unit, which entered with the NFL's last-ranked pass defense, came into the Meadowlands with the hope that top safety Patrick Chung would pass a game-time test on his injured right foot.
It didn't happen, so his job was turned over to Moore, a rookie from SMU who went undrafted in April and was playing in his first career game after being promoted from the practice squad. Oh, it should be mentioned that Moore has never really played safety before. He's a cornerback by trade.
With the secondary already ravaged, things only got worse in the second quarter when starting cornerback Devin McCourty left the game with a shoulder injury and didn't return. That thrust four-year veteran Antwaun Molden, a little-known player who had been claimed on waivers from the Houston Texans before the season, into the game.
One looked onto the field and saw Molden, Kyle Arrington, Phillip Adams, James Ihedigbo and Moore in the secondary -- and at one point Ross Ventrone as well -- and it was hard to believe what was unfolding.
"Guys that you probably have never even heard of," Ihedigbo said afterward, smiling. "We communicated, played fast, and with a purpose. We knew it was the type of game where it didn't matter who was in the game on defense; we would step up and make plays. Ultimately we did that as a group."
It's no wonder Bill Belichick was high-fiving players after the game, rewarding them by giving them Monday and Tuesday off. Belichick has taken some heat in recent weeks for his personnel decisions, but this type of effort served as a reminder that the man leading the team still knows a thing or two about constructing a mentally tough locker room. One of Belichick's top free-agent signings, veteran defensive end Andre Carter, set a Patriots record with 4.5 sacks.
And as for the defense, well, Belichick showed he can still push the right buttons there as well, making a key tactical change early last week when it was clear that Brandon Spikes, the team's hard-charging run-stuffing linebacker, would miss the game with an MCL injury.
Belichick shifted Jerod Mayo from the weak side to the middle, and inserted Tarpinian, a rookie free agent from Iowa who had not played a defensive snap all season, into Mayo's old spot. That gave the Patriots more speed in their base 4-3 defense, and also gave the Jets a new wrinkle they hadn't seen a month earlier. Meanwhile, in sub situations when it was more likely the Jets would pass, veteran special teamer Tracy White replaced Tarpinian.
White, who was in coverage on the Giants' winning touchdown the week before, played an unsung role in executing a big part of the Patriots' game plan -- getting physical at the line of scrimmage with jams. On Rob Ninkovich's game-sealing 12-yard interception return for a touchdown, it was White's jam on tight end Dustin Keller that made the play possible.
And if it wasn't White, it was linebacker Niko Koutouvides -- signed this week to help on special teams and provide emergency depth because of injuries -- recovering a big fumble on punt coverage in the third quarter.
And if it wasn't Koutouvides, it was nickel rusher Mark Anderson taking on an expanded role and bringing heat off the edge as the pass rush sizzled.
And if it wasn't Anderson, it was …
Really, any defender fits, even a receiver like Edelman who came into the game for four plays late in the fourth quarter and tackled running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
"We were running out of guys there," Belichick said. "You never know. It's a long season. Who knows who will be playing where?"
It was the perfect answer to sum up what had unfolded, a classic Belichick "next-man-up"-type of effort for the defense.
Where it takes them, and if the defense can sustain it, who knows?
But for one night, it was good enough, the no-name defense turning in a throwback effort that looked a lot like what we saw in the Super Bowl days.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.