Wednesday, December 1, 2010 Updated: December 6, 2:22 AM ET
Since last we met ...
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There was a moment caught on camera during the New England Patriots' 28-14 loss to the New York Jets on Sept. 19 when Bill Belichick and linebackers coach Matt Patricia were talking to defensive players on the sideline.
"The passing game is 81 and 89!" Belichick said that day.
Santonio Holmes, who missed the first meeting of the season against the Patriots due to a suspension, has two game-winning touchdowns in recent weeks.
"He's going after 81, then he's trying to get the ball to 89," Patricia repeated.
Those comments, which aired on the team-produced Patriots All-Access program, highlighted how the Patriots viewed the Jets' passing attack.
It started with tight end Dustin Keller (No. 81) over the middle. Then it went to receiver Jerricho Cotchery (No. 89) further down the field, especially on third down. If those options weren't there, quarterback Mark Sanchez would check down to running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
Things have changed since that time. In a rather big way.
When looking at the differences between the Patriots and Jets since their Week 2 meeting, none is more prevalent on the New York side than receiver Santonio Holmes joining the offensive attack. Holmes was serving a four-game suspension the first time the teams met; now he adds another explosive receiver for the Patriots to defend, along with Cotchery and Braylon Edwards.
"He's a big playmaker -- fast, quick, good routes, runs well after the catch," Belichick said Tuesday of Holmes. "He complements Braylon well because Braylon's a big, physical downfield receiver. [Holmes] can get down the field, but he can also run short-intermediate routes, run after the catch and do all those things."
Percentage of Pats' targets
The Patriots have thrown the ball to only 10 players since Moss left, compared with 13 with Moss on the team. Some of that is due to injuries (Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk). But that has coincided with or forced the emergence of players like Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead.
Holmes has 32 receptions for 491 yards and four touchdowns since his return, with some of his biggest plays saved for the end of games; he's delivered game-winning touchdown receptions against the Texans (with 45 seconds remaining) and Browns (in sudden-death overtime).
In addition to Holmes' presence, the other significant changes for the Jets since Week 2 are having starting outside linebacker Calvin Pace back in the lineup, cornerback Darrelle Revis at full strength, and veteran Trevor Pryce -- signed after he was let go by the Ravens -- in the defensive line rotation. The Jets are also considering a switch at kicker this week.
The changes on the Patriots' side are more extreme.
One of the defining aspects of the loss to the Jets was quarterback Tom Brady targeting receiver Randy Moss 10 times and completing just two passes. That seemed to be the springboard to the Patriots' decision to later trade Moss and bring back receiver Deion Branch, signifying a shift to a different style of passing attack, one that distributes the ball more evenly.
In addition to the Branch-for-Moss change, the Patriots also found themselves a third-down running back in Danny Woodhead. When Woodhead was signed Sept. 18, one day before the game, many thought it was simply gamesmanship -- the Patriots signing a former Jet. But when Belichick was asked about it just minutes after the loss to the Jets, he said simply, "We thought he could help us."
Has he ever.
Woodhead has stepped in for injured veteran Kevin Faulk (torn ACL) and been a four-pronged threat as a rusher (344 yards, 3 TDs), pass-catcher (24 receptions, 1 TD), blocker and special teamer (7 solo tackles).
"He's got a lot of different roles on the team," Belichick said. "He's picked it up quickly, he's a tough kid, he's out there every day. He works hard and keeps getting better."
The Patriots also have starting left guard Logan Mankins back in the lineup; he had missed the first seven games of the season in a contract standoff. Other changes include the loss of kicker Stephen Gostkowski (torn quad) for the season, Kyle Arrington's replacing Darius Butler at cornerback, BenJarvus Green-Ellis's stepping in as the top option at running back and rookie Jermaine Cunningham's emergence as a top option at outside linebacker over Tully Banta-Cain.
Belichick has liked what he's seen from his club since that time.
"I'd say overall that the team has improved on a weekly basis and for the most part on a daily basis," he said. "It's been steady and for the most part consistent. Hopefully we can continue to do that in our remaining opportunities left this season."
Monday marks a big opportunity, which is part of the message Belichick has delivered to his players. Both the Patriots and Jets have evolved since their first meeting, although one thing remains the same: When they square off, it's usually a big game.
The stakes can't get much higher than they are in this one.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.