EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It was 2001 again for the New England Patriots. They combined a dummied down game plan, a stout defense and even a reclamation-project running back to grind the clock in the second half for a low-scoring, yet dominating victory Sunday over the New York Jets.
While it's a long way from 2-0 to projecting a title, the Patriots made it clear with a 19-10 victory that they aren't going away just because Tom Brady is out for the year.
Or as Ellis Hobbs mockingly said as he walked into the locker room at Giants Stadium, "Oh, they can't do it, they lost Tom."
Even more, if the Jets were hoping to make a statement about becoming a power in the AFC East, they botched the chance. Here was a team fresh off a $140 million spending spree in the offseason on players such as Calvin Pace and Alan Faneca, a team that made the biggest trade of the offseason in getting quarterback Brett Favre and, most of all, a team that has spent three years trying to emulate the Patriots in every way since owner Woody Johnson hired former Pats assistant Eric Mangini to be the coach.
With New England on the ropes as it turns to a quarterback who hadn't started since before the Patriots won any of their three Super Bowls this decade, the Jets played with little determination.
Seize the day? How about seize a play?
"I thought this was going to be different," said Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis, who has seen the Patriots rise to dominance firsthand since being a Jets first-round pick in 2000. "It was a tough one for me … because I've been around here the longest and I've seen this all these years."
New York never led Sunday after squandering an early chance with a missed field goal. That allowed the Patriots to play small ball with newbie quarterback Matt Cassel, who spent the week telling glory-days stories about the last time he started – as a senior for Chatsworth High School in suburban Los Angeles.
Predictably, the Patriots put Cassel on a short leash. Of Cassel's 23 pass attempts, only four throws went in the air beyond the first-down marker. Of those, three were over the top of the defense. The other 19 were an array of screens and short throws to the outside, so risk-averse that the game plan looked more like a hedge fund.
Then again, the Jets knew this was coming.
"We didn't expect them to go downfield a lot," New York cornerback Darrelle Revis said.
Certainly, Mangini knew that best of all after spending time studying at Belichick's knee for so many years. But the Jets did nothing to force the action. They didn't challenge with a strong series of blitzes or tighter coverage. They didn't kick the Patriots when they were down. Instead, they were content to play the same game as New England – work the percentages, play the score, be conservative.
Unfortunately, you don't beat the Patriots at their own game. You have to do what the Giants did last season in the Super Bowl – pound the Patriots relentlessly.
And hope it works.
"They're well-coached and well-disciplined," Mangini said. "Every victory, you're going to have to earn against them."
To "earn" a victory over the Patriots, you have to take it from them, aggressively. Instead, the Jets played the odds, such as when they ran three consecutive times up the middle from inside the 3-yard line in the first half.
The strength of the Patriots' defense is its front seven, yet the Jets never tried to spread out that group. There was no trickery, no threat of using Favre as a thrower or runner. Just pound it against a front that includes Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork.
"We don't think it's a function of being conservative or not being conservative. It's really a function of what we felt was going to be the most successful at that point," said Mangini, noting that the Jets had been successful running the ball to that point. Unfortunately, that ignores the bigger picture of what the Patriots do best and what the Jets have built.
Heck, even Favre can tell you what the Patriots are best at.
"Their front seven guys are as good as anyone in football in their scheme," Favre said.
The Pats' secondary, by contrast, is not. New England is in transition in the secondary after losing Asante Samuel and Randall Gay in the offseason. It should be telling that Deltha O'Neal, who two weeks ago was toiling for the Bengals, is now playing significant minutes for the Patriots.
With Favre at the helm, the Jets have a chance to be a more wide-open offense and should have attacked the Patriots far more. Moreover, you have to play that way with Favre, who lives for the big play, often running all over the place and then throwing back across the field.
If the Jets are going to maximize Favre, they have to create more chances for big plays. So far, there's not much of that. In fact, Favre's biggest play of the day was his mistake, a badly under thrown interception in the second half that set up a touchdown.
Not that Favre was all that bad. He wasn't, however, great. His stats (18-of-26 for 181 yards, one TD and one interception) weren't all that much different than Cassel's (16-of-23, 165 yards and no TD or interception).
The Jets need to reflect on that stat line. In a game with so much to consider, Favre's impact wasn't substantially different than Cassel's.
There's something seriously wrong with that statement.