The New York Jets surprised many by reaching the playoffs in their first year under Eric Mangini. A bigger surprise would be if they defeat the New England Patriots on the road for the second time this season when the AFC East rivals meet in a wild-card game Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Mangini, a former assistant under Bill Belichick at New England (12-4) before leaving to become the youngest head coach in the NFL with the Jets (10-6), was able to get veterans and young players to buy into his system of high-percentage, disciplined football—a strategy that has been quite successful for the Patriots.
New York is in the playoffs for the fourth time in six years and trying to win its third straight first-round matchup.
“It’s a great feeling to finish the season the way we did,” Mangini said. “To me, the accomplishment comes in with what we’ve been collectively talking about for so long, and to see these guys and the way that they have worked.
“That is the most satisfying thing, the way that we have worked, the way that we have committed as a group, the way that we have made progress.”
Mangini coaxed maximum efforts out of his team, most notably giving quarterback Chad Pennington a chance to show a strong arm isn’t necessarily needed to be a playoff-caliber signal-caller. Pennington successfully recovered from a second offseason surgery on his rotator cuff to complete 64.5 percent of his passes for 3,352 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Without Curtis Martin—the fourth-leading rusher in league history— sidelined all season with a knee injury that may ultimately end his career, Mangini’s backfield by committee had rookie Leon Washington lead the way with 650 yards, while Cedric Houston and Kevan Barlow combined for 744 and 11 touchdowns.
The 5-foot-8 Washington, a fourth-round pick from Florida State, added 25 receptions for 270 yards and thinks his team can ride the confidence of New York’s 17-14 road win over New England on Nov. 12 into this contest.
“Knowing that we had won before lets us know that we can win again, and that will give us a lot more confidence this time around playing this team,” Washington said. “It will be tough; they’re playing well, we’ll be in New England and they have a lot of veterans that have been there before.”
Wideouts Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery were consistent all season. Coles had a career-high 91 catches for 1,098 yards and six touchdowns, while Cotchery, a third-year player, burst onto the scene with career highs of 82 receptions, 961 yards and six scores.
Coles realizes that the Patriots, who have won three Super Bowl titles since 2001, are a completely different postseason team.
“When you watch them, they’re the last team you ever want to see in the playoffs, because of the way you prepare and the experience they have.” Coles said. “We know we have our work cut out for us, it’s something that we’re just going to have to grit our teeth at.”
On defense, the Jets have standouts in linebacker Jonathan Vilma, safety Kerry Rhodes and defensive end Bryan Thomas. Vilma had a team-high 114 tackles, Rhodes had five sacks, four interceptions and three forced fumbles, and Thomas led New York with 8.5 sacks
While New England won its fourth consecutive division title and fifth in six years, the Patriots did not appear to be a dominant team until after losing to the Jets. Belichick’s team won six of its final seven games and scored 104 points during a season-ending three-game winning streak.
Despite lacking a top receiver, Tom Brady still threw for 3,529 yards and 24 touchdowns, his fifth consecutive season with at least 23. Reche Caldwell emerged as his top target with 61 receptions for 760 yards, but seven players caught at least 20 passes and 10 had at least one TD reception.
“The receivers that we have here have worked very hard. We put a lot of pressure on those guys,” Brady said. “This is a very difficult offense to understand. Reche has had a great year, Troy Brown’s done great, Chad Jackson is starting to make some plays, Kelvin Kight has come from the practice squad to become an active participant out there, Jabar Gaffney has come in midway through the year and has done a great job.”
Brady is 9-2 as a starter against the Jets, throwing for 2,357 yards and 12 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
The Patriots had a solid tandem of running backs in veteran Corey Dillon (812 yards, 13 touchdowns) and rookie Laurence Maroney (745, 6 TDs). Dillon, though, has averaged just 61.3 yards in his last four playoff games after rushing for 144 against Indianapolis in his postseason debut following the 2004 season.
New England’s defense matched a franchise record by allowing just 237 points, but will be without a key player. Safety Rodney Harrison suffered a torn MCL in his right knee in the season finale on a block by Tennessee receiver Bobby Wade that the league ruled was legal after reviewing the play.
“Rodney is a tough person and a tough guy. He’s a leader in this locker room. He definitely will be missed,” Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said. “But all year long we’ve had people who have been out and other guys have had the chance and opportunity to go out there and make plays.”
The 34-year-old Harrison missed six games with a broken shoulder blade suffered Nov. 5 and had played only three games the previous season due to a knee injury.
This is only the second playoff meeting between the old AFL rivals. The Patriots recorded a 26-10 road victory over the Jets in the 1985 wild-card game that started a run of three consecutive road wins en route to their first title game in franchise history. New England, though, was routed 46-10 by Chicago in Super Bowl XX.