Sunday, December 31, 2006
Updated: January 1, 11:47 PM ET
Patriots won't intimidate Mangini's Jets
By Michael Smith
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Jets' Week 10 win at Gillette Stadium was satisfying for New York owner Woody Johnson, but he didn't hire Eric Mangini from New England just to split a season series with the Patriots. No, Johnson hired Mangini specifically for this Sunday.
Mangini's Jets earned their 10th victory of the season and a wild-card berth with a 23-3 win over the Raiders on Sunday. Now they get to put their copy of the Patriots' championship blueprint to the ultimate test -- in Foxborough, Mass., in the first round of the playoffs, a tournament New England (10-1 in the postseason under Bill Belichick) has owned the past five years.
In Mangini, Johnson and general manager Mike Tannenbaum saw the next Belichick. And when, much to Belichick's displeasure, the Jets wooed his defensive coordinator, this is exactly what they envisioned: high-stakes showdowns between mentor and protégé. It's just that few expected those showdowns to be staged so soon. There is no love lost between the two franchises -- the only thing that figures to be colder than the temperature for their third meeting is the shoulder they will give each other.
The Jets won't be intimidated by the Patriots' playoff mystique. Not after a 17-14 win Nov. 12 that started a 6-2 second-half run.
"We all knew that if we wanted to do something special this year, we had to win that game," Jets linebacker Eric Barton said.
New York has been the little green team that could all season. It won six more games than it did in 2006, when injuries, especially at quarterback, sabotaged what some thought could be a Super Bowl season. Now that they're in the playoffs, the question becomes: Are the Jets capable of sticking around for a while?
If you are among those who were surprised by the Jets' turnaround -- remember, they were a Doug Brien field goal from facing the Patriots in the AFC title game two years ago -- try not to make the same mistake twice and underestimate this gritty edition of Gang Green.
"I think it's been overstated the lack of talent we had coming into this season because we were 4-12 last year," said guard Pete Kendall, one of the holdovers from the '04 squad. "We felt like if we got some other pieces and stayed healthy, we had a chance to be a decent team."
For starters, in Chad Pennington, the Jets have an experienced (four playoff starts), efficient quarterback who, for the most part, takes care of the ball. He isn't in Tom Brady class as he was billed to be back in 2002, but he's cerebral and gets the job done. Pennington might not have the big arm, but New York has skill players in wideouts Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery and rookie running back Leon Washington who can produce big plays.
The Jets' defense yielded the fewest points (102) in the league over the final eight games. During the regular season, New York's D allowed the fewest plays of 20 yards or longer (17).
And the Jets, as they were during Herman Edwards' tenure, are among the NFL's least penalized teams. They don't make it easier for opponents by making it difficult on themselves. The Jets wait for the opposition to make the big mistake, and they're pretty good at being patient. That's why it could be a while before they are eliminated. It would be a mistake to underestimate the Jets for a second time in one season.
The no-style, all-substance Jets are a reflection of their head coach, and thus a reflection of their familiar first-round opponent. Mangini, by the way, might be new at the top job, but he has coached in 13 playoff games with Belichick and Bill Parcells -- two guys who know a thing or two about how to win a game or two in the NFL's tournament. Mangini owns three Super Bowl rings as an assistant, so he's no stranger to playoff pressure.
"I've learned more football from that man [Mangini] in one year than I've learned in a long time," said 13-year-veteran defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, who won a Super Bowl with Pittsburgh last season. "He doesn't leave one stone unturned. He will rep it and rep it and rep it until we can freakin' do it. He works harder than anybody I've ever seen. You trust people like that.
"He gets his point across and makes sure that everybody in the room knows his role, his responsibility and the game plan. We go through every situation, and when those situations arise, we know how to respond. We don't make many mental mistakes. If we've got 15 [mental mistakes in a game] on one side of the ball, that's way too many. In some places, that's average."
Sound like another team we know?
"It's a similarly built team," said Jets linebacker Matt Chatham, who was a member of three Super Bowl teams in New England. "The whole no-superstars thing. We play a gritty kind of game, biting, scratching, clawing, whatever it takes to win. We win on intangibles."
All the Jets talked about after wrapping up a playoff berth was the hard work they've put into adapting to scheme changes on offense and defense, adopting Mangini's philosophy, and accepting the change in culture that came with his arrival. They're a bunch of grinders. They understand that if they are to make any noise in the coming weekends, it will correlate with what they do in the quiet of Weeb Ewbank Hall during the week.
"Everybody takes it upon themselves to do the little things," Oelhoffen said of the Jets' success.
Only in their 41-0 loss to Jacksonville in Week 5 did a game get away from the Jets. They were in every other loss. They lost by a touchdown in the first meeting with the Patriots and by a field goal to the then-unbeaten Colts. They played Chicago tough. They proved they can play with anybody, anywhere. They belong here. So don't be so quick to bet against them sticking around for a couple rounds.
"We won 10 games in a hard division in a hard conference," Tannenbaum said. "It shows we're a good football team."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.