by Scott Benson, Greg Doyle, Tim Jordan and Bruce Allen

The NFL playoffs have finally arrived, and lo and behold, who should the Patriots bump into first on the road to the Super Bowl but the New York Jets.

You remember the Jets, right? They won the Super Bowl in 1968? Then they…..they…..well, they……….

Let’s review. Last year, the Patriots were Won and Done in the playoffs, and most observers considered that a disappointing season for three-time champions New England. On the other hand, had it been the Jets, that ‘disappointment’ would have tied for third-best season of the last (almost) forty years. They make the Rangers look like the 80’s Edmonton Oilers.

Those Jets.

With the Jets and Patriots ‘rivalry’ now placed in proper historical context for the benefit of the all-pillage, no-pelt Jet media and fandom, let’s call on the panel for a brief review of last Sunday, and a look ahead to Wild Card Weekend, with the season on the line for our New England Patriots.

Last week, much of the discussion centered on whether Bill Belichick would choose to ‘protect’ his starters vs. Tennessee, as he did last year in the final game with Miami. Belichick chose to go with his first string through much of the game, which turned out to be an extraordinarily chippy contest that featured what was perhaps a season-ending injury to the already-comebacking Rodney Harrison. What were your thoughts on the coach’s approach?

Scott: I was glad to see them go all out as I had hoped, but something still struck me a kind of strange. Specifically, Brady is out there in this dogfight all game, no holding back, and yet he’s suddenly sent to the bench in favor of Matt Cassel with a hard-earned three point lead and just 11 minutes to play. Anything can happen at that point in terms of winning or losing the game, if that was the objective. That decision seemed out of sorts from the approach over the previous 49 minutes, and I’ll be damned if I can wrap my head around it. I suppose he now has 11 minutes of Cassel in a pretty pressurized situation, something he didn’t have before, and who knows, maybe it makes a difference later. I was glad he played Brady (and the rest of the first string) the way he did, getting them a tough road win against a young team that had been flying. I like their momentum going into the playoffs a lot better this way. But it just seemed like they put everything out there – and a lot at risk – all day long, presumably to win, and then handed a three-point lead and most of the fourth quarter to a second year quarterback. That could have blown up pretty easy, which would have made me wonder why Brady was out there all day in the first place. I just figured in there for 49, in there for 60. Just odd, and of course, the answer will remain a mystery.

Greg: I am not sure the nature of the game didn’t dictate leaving the starters in a bit longer. And let’s not forget Harrison was injured pretty early. I was advocating playing it out and it ended up not making a difference in playoff seedings, but I am still glad they decided to. I agree with Scott it was a bit odd the timing of putting Cassel in there and I was questioning at the time it happened. But it worked out and was probably a good experience for him, so I guess the results speak for themselves.

Tim: I don’t know how it can be construed as anything but very positive. You could see the way the players responded during and after the game that playing this one to win was the right thing to do. Even the Testaverde pass sent euphoria throughout the sidelines. Winning the way they did against a desperate, well coached team was impressive and the team gained even more momentum for the post season. In addition to that, it was one of the more entertaining (and satisfying) games of the year to watch. Beating two teams fighting for playoff berths to end the year is a good thing.

Bruce: I’m glad they went for the win, and I can understand why Cassell was put in the game at the point at which he was. They needed to see Cassell play with the starters to give him a little experience with that group, instead of the second stringers, as well as being in a game where the team is going all out. Hindsight being a perfect 20/20 I kind of wish he had held Harrison back as he apparently did Watson, Wilfork and Faulk, who some think could’ve played, but were held out as a precaution. I like that the game had a playoff intensity to it, I think that it was a nice tuneup to start the postseason.

How badly does the loss of Harrison hurt the Patriots?

Greg: Since he joined the team, the Patriots are 43-6 in games Harrison starts and plays beyond the first series. They are 11-7 in games he doesn’t play. That can’t be completely a coincidence. He is the key on defense. He is always around the ball. He brings a certain level of confidence and toughness that translates to the defense, particularly the secondary, when he is in there. It hurts, no doubt.

Tim: It hurts, and not just emotionally. Rodney Harrison has a very firm handle on the defensive sets and his presence allows Pees to make more exotic calls, particularly with blitzes from the safety position. Rodney was starting to blitz, or show blitz, very well in his second game back and was doing it again before the injury. Sanders has shown more as the season has progressed, but he’s not the same player. Sanders is competent, but he doesn’t have the same command of the defense as Harrison. I like that we’ve started to notice him picking up more tackles, but most came in the backfield after solid runs by Henry.

Bruce: The stats that Greg cites are hard to argue with. He means a lot. However, I feel a bit better about it than I did when he went down the first time earlier in the season. James Sanders has made a lot of improvements since the beginning of the season. He seems to be around the ball a lot more, and is making plays at the line of scrimmage, coming in to stop a few runs. He’s certainly not at the level of Harrison, but he’s better than he was before and seems to be growing as a young player. Harrison is an emotional leader to the team and adds that level of toughness to the defense. Artrell Hawkins seems to be another nice leader for the secondary and having him back there with Sanders is a benefit. Chad Scot has also been in the safety spot at times this season and has done pretty well.

Scott: Three times in two years he has had a significant injury – I said it earlier in the year, they have to make addressing this reality a higher priority, even in free agency. Oddly, the repeated absences kind of work in the Pats favor this time, in the sense that Hawkins and Sanders (and sometimes Chad Scott) had just finished patching up that position for six weeks Rodney missed with a shoulder injury. So at least they have that experience working for them. Sad to say, they’re pretty well accustomed to playing without Rodney Harrison. It hurts them of course, the loss of his instincts, aggressiveness and presence. He’s a unique player. But I maintain it hurts them less because they’ve dealt with it so often lately.

All right, let’s get right to the game. Since this is the playoffs, let’s BREAK. IT. DOWWWN. First, Jets offense vs. Patriots defense.

Tim: The best matchup for the Patriots in this game. It’s natural to remember Kevan Barlow running wild (for him anyway) in that second meeting in Foxborough, as well as Pennington making nut-crunching 3rd down throws on two drives in the same game. But, let’s look at the whole body of work. 4 sacks and one interception in the first game for the defense, including one sequence in the 3rd quarter when even Patriots fans were starting to feel bad about how easily our defensive front was dominating the Jets offense. The key to the upcoming tilt here will be to take away Washington’s screens and the very good WR tandem of Coles and Cotchery.

Bruce: Pennington is very much trick or treat against the Patriots. He’s had some very good games against them, and has also had some very poor games. The Jets haven’t been a great running game, but had improved. The Patriots need to take the run away from the Jets totally, and force Pennington into some tough throws. I think the Jets will try and go deep on the Patriots for the big play and how the Patriots defend that could be a key to the game.

Scott: I think the Jets will give the Patriots a very good game on Sunday, but I can’t see it happening here. The Jets have had middling production from both the run and the pass, and they’ve lower shelf as scorers too. The Patriots defense has been too good for too long this season to wilt now, not against a garden variety group like this. The Jets may drive the ball a bit now and then, make some third downs (they’re quite good at this) but they’re not going to be the ones to beat the Patriots. One thing: Asante Samuel – who’s been very good – at times seemed to have the ball skills of Nick Esasky last week. Unos, dos, tres, catorce, indeed. The gambles are no good if you have to feel around for the ball like it’s in a dark closet. I’m kind of spooked by the picture of Samuel defending a deep ball that he thinks he can pick.

Greg: It may seem strange, but I have always felt the key to defending Pennington is almost the same way you’d defend a scrambling quarterback. Although Pennington doesn’t take off and run down field much, he does move around in the backfield more than your average quarterback. And he can complete passes equally well rolling left or right. This is where he does most of his damage, if you’ve really watched him over the years. So, I have always felt you contain him on the outside and force him to throw from the pocket in traditional drop-back fashion. You don’t need to overly blitz him, just make him throw downfield and take away the flats. He simply doesn’t have the arm to do it consistently and will struggle. Against the run, if they play the run as they most of the year, they should be fine and force the Jets to be one-dimensional.

How about Patriots offense vs. Jets defense?

Bruce: Run run run. Then mix up and try to use Caldwell as they did last week…a breakaway threat. The Jets are likely going to be a bit shorthanded in the secondary, so if the Patriots can protect Brady better than they did last time, they should be in good shape.

Scott: The Jets defense is pretty rangy and athletic, and we saw last time they have the ability, design and discipline to put somone in Brady’s face from almost anywhere on the field. It’s hard to call this matchup as anything but a ‘pick ’em’, with a slight edge to the team that is fortunate enough to have Tom Brady. Still, the Jets are pretty damn comparable to the Patriots defense in most major defensive stats, with one exception: run defense. The Jets are not even average. I like the idea of multiple formations, from tight to spread, that are grounded in, well, the ground. Show them everything, try to get outside, but keep hammering at their gut with Dillon and Maroney. Heath Evans too. Kevin Faulk. We’ll call this the Bruce Allen game plan.

Greg: The Jets are solid on defense. They play smart and disciplined. The Patriots have to be patient and also run the ball like they did in the first half of the last game. They may be able to hit a couple long passes over Jets cornerback David Barrett if they pick their spots right.

Tim: This is the matchup that has some question marks for the Patriots. Mangini did a great job against Brady in the second half in week 2 and for the whole game in the second meeting. He disguised blitzes well and you could see, particularly in the second half of the Jets win, that Brady struggled with recognizing it. Brady can’t turn the ball over on sacks as he’s done more this year than any other that I can remember, including against the Jets. If the Jets win it will be on this side of the ball.

Who gets the special teams edge?

Scott: At first, I think ‘even’, as both teams have good returners and are generally thought to be well coached by Brad Seely and Mike Westhoff. I’m giving the edge to the Jets, though, because the Patriots were so horrible last week. How can you play like that one week before the playoffs? God help us if that wasn’t an abberation.

Greg: I’d give this an even. The Patriots have returned the ball on punts and kicks very well at times this year. The Jets are solid at coverage. The reverse is true as well, though it wasn’t last week in coverage for the Patriots. But it should be corrected this week. The kickers even out and are both inexperienced. Call this a draw.

Tim: Two well coached teams that like to play “complementary football”, as it has now been dubbed. If you look at the league leaders in kick-off returns you see two familiar names at the top of the list: Justin Miller and Laurence Maroney. Maroney may not handle kick-offs this week with the lingering rib cartilage injury, but the team responded well to Ellis Hobbs in that role last week. Graham is a middle of the road punter and the Jets punt returns have not been as productive as the Patriots. I’d call this a stalemate.

Bruce: I think I need to give the Jets the edge here. The Patriots have been way too inconsistent in this area all season. I wonder if we’ll see more of Chad Jackson on punt returns, but I kind of doubt it, they say Ben Graham has a tough ball to catch with his Australian kicking style, which often creates a knuckleball effect. They have GOT to cover kicks better too.

Handshakes and references by name aside, who wins the coaching matchup?

Greg: The Patriots. Eric Mangini has done a good job and far better than I expected. But they had an incredibly easy schedule and I still think it’ll be interesting to see how he does in the second year of his program next year with a tougher schedule.

Tim: Bill Belichick is the best coach in the NFL, despite the wishes of the rest of the football community (media and fans alike). He’s the superior coach in every match-up he faces. However, as I have said since we learned that the Patriots would be playing the Jets, Eric Mangini is more intimate with the New England methodologies than probably any other coach in the league. That’s unfortunate and it gives me pause. Mangini can put his players in a position to steal this game with that intrinsic knowledge, but that doesn’t make him the better coach. It would be an upset, which we all know happen in this league quite a bit, especially in this round of the playoffs.

Bruce: Believe it or not, I don’t see coaching being a huge factor in this one. It’s going to come down to the execution on the field. The Patriots have the better talent and need to exploit that advantage. The two teams and coaches know each other so well, I don’t think that there is much that is going to be a surprise on either side.

Scott: Like Greg said, the Jets have done far better than expected, and Mangini is proving that he is a better coach and more ready to lead than initially given credit for. And as Tim points out, he knows plenty about how the Patriots go about their football business. But that’s Bill Belichick standing over there. And that’s NOT Mike Shanahan standing over there. Edge to Bill, and I might add, a perhaps badly-underrated and undercredited Dean Pees.

The Patriots have a few key players,like rookies Laurence Maroney and Stephen Gostkowski, playing in their first playoff game. As Daniel Graham said on Wednesday, it’s do or die time with no margin for error. Any concerns about that?

Tim:This goes back to coaching too. I am not concerned. Belichick teams prepare all year for playoff football, methodically getting better each week of the season. You cannot point to any of Gostkowski’s misses this year and attribute them to nerves. I think that’s overrated and probably an amplified aspect of the game because of Gostkowski’s predecessor and not any shortcomings as a placekicker. Maroney seems nonplussed by heightened circumstances and he’s not being asked the carry the load, just to perform in the role that he has all year. It is “do or die”, but it’s not the first time either player has performed in a pressure situation.

Bruce: The Jacksonville and Tennessee games were good tuneups for the postseason. I think they’ll be fine.

Scott: Maroney I’m not worried about. He really looks like a solid kid and a real competitor. This is going to gall Tim, but I am secretly hoping that this game is decided by a Stephen Gostkowski field goal attempt from 43 yards out with something less than 10 seconds left on the clock. I am that sure he’s going to make it.

Greg: Sure. But the Jets have rookies or young players playing too. Its not like you can change what you do to accomodate the young players. You just have to hope they’re prepared, you chose them well and see how it goes.

Let’s have it then – the final score.

Bruce: Patriots 23-20.

Scott: Patriots 16-13.

Greg: Patriots 20-10.

Tim: 17 – 10, Good guys. Defensive struggle with the offense doing just enough to let the defense seal the deal. They need to have 3 or 4 long drives and to continue their exemplary work in the red zone to get the win.

I don’t suppose anybody would have a Mediot of the Week?

Scott: I don’t, actually: instead, I have a BSMW Howdy! and thumbs up to our pal from the message board, rrsafety. rr caught a bit of radio this week that set him to thinking, and if you know our friend, you know a painstakingly thorough deconstruction is about to commence (usually offering top shelf entertainment value in the process). This is one of his best – Lies My Radio Told Me. Read it (even Michael Felger did), and perhaps think of it the next time you’re suffering through the White Noise that fronts the media’s various moneymaking operations.

Greg: How about Mike Vaccaro from the NY Post? Ole’ Mike apparently lost control of his faculties for a moment and wrote this line:

“JEFF Van Gundy has walked in Eric Mangini’s shoes before, felt the raging waters of loyalty and loathing collide within his bloodstream. He knows what it’s like to be shunned by a man he used to lionize, for whom he gladly would have taken a bullet, for whom he willingly worked endless strings of 20-hour days.”

Mangini would have not only “taken a bullet” for Bill Belichick, but would have done so “gladly?” Ummm, yeah. Kinda speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Tim: So, I am reading the dailies today and I notice, yet again, that Tony Massorotti has the vapors. This poor guy has been fighting early onset menopause for the better part of the season. I just pray that shingles aren’t far behind. Curious, I went back through the Herald archives to get a better understanding of Massorotti’s take on the team. I wanted to get a look at his last month of Patriots columns and see if any trends emerged. After painfully reading each column since December 11th, I can confidently say that Tony would be a much better fiit covering the cat fights inside the cheerleaders locker room. You know, bringing the reader closer to the captivating drama of whether Wendy deserves second chair or exactly what Kristina is doing in the bathroom that takes so long.

Here is a quick recap:

December 11: Pats are nothing special: Clearly an ordinary team

In some respects, this was only one game, but in so many others, it was a reaffirmation of what the Patriots have been, a flawed team that beats up on bad competition and can’t make plays when it has to. Teams like that don’t win championships.

Why not, Mas?

They just don’t.

Ohhhh. Okay.

December 18: So, They Beat Houston

What we learned, yet again, is the Patriots can beat a bad team into submission. What we do not know, still, is whether they can stand up to someone who hits back.

What, 13 win Chicago (5th best defense in the NFL) doesn’t hit back? The AFC East (winningest division in football) doesn’t either?

December 25: Guts will get you glory: Pats prove two tough for Jags

But then, what are the Pats if not the model of resiliency and toughness, of perseverance and grit? Every year, the Pats seem to reinvent themselves. Every year, they end up back in the playoffs. So long as the latter remains true, the Pats will be contenders for the Super Bowl.

But…but..what about “They just don’t”? Oh, that was 2 games ago when they were only 9-4 after losing to a team they struggle against on the road every year, including the gold standard 2004 season that everyone likes to remind me this team isn’t as good as. Well at least he’s coming around to the fact that this team is a contender. I am sure this will be reinforced after a physical win over a surging Titans team to end the regular season. Right, Massengil?

January 1: Behavior’s so foolish: Pats had much to lose with win

But for much of this game, with the playoffs now only a matter of days away, the Patriots gave in to their most primitive instincts and engaged in an unnecessary streetfight.

They had so much more to lose than the Titans in this game. And they got sucked in nonetheless.

So, now hitting back ISN’T a good thing? What happened? Is that really the biggest story to come out of that final game? I heard no one else share this sentiment all week.

Then today, readers breathlessly await Tony’s take on the upcoming playoff game against the Jets. Our ace football observer echoes what I am sure each and every reader is thinking, but just doesn’t have the guts to share at the water cooler.

January 4: Bill’s recognition factor: Mangini earns praise

Only three days remain before the latest installment of the Border War (Mangini Edition), and let the record show that Belichick this time fired the first shot. Certainly, it didn’t have to be this way.

He STARTED it! Way to break it down, buddy. Massengil joins a notorious list of media in Boston that give fans extra satisfaction after the team wins. I guess we should thank him for that. Next time you see him out, buy him a Zima or something.

Bruce: Gary Tanguay is always a good choice. This week he was posing the following question to guests on his FSN show: “CAN the Patriots win without Rodney Harrison?” When you watch or listen to Tanguay, you can see that he makes no effort to disguise the fact that he’s just taking a contrarian stance for the sake of it. He may have gotten a movie role, but he’s a terrible actor.