The media hype was nearly suffocating in the Patriots conference and locker rooms on Wednesday. The tabloid-style angle: Coaches Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini hate each other, and can't get very close without feeling homicidal urges. The un-football-related evidence: They didn't congratulate each other enough after each of their two meetings this season. (Each team won its respective away game.)
"I don't think this is really a game about relationships," said Belichick on Wednesday. "I think it's about two football teams. That's what we are. We're trying to put our best game out there, and I'm sure Eric and his staff and his team are going to do the same on Sunday. That's really our focus on the game, to perform our best."
This game is big because the Patriots and Jets are division rivals. It's fun for the media because Mangini coached under Belichick.
Patriots defensive back Ray Mickens, who played with the Jets over nine seasons and stepped in as the Pats nickel back this year, knows what this game is about.
"I'm not going to compare [Belichick and Mangini]. It's not the time to do that," said Mickens who was with the Jets this year until the end of preseason play. "It's just a good story for you (members of the media). That's about it. I don't get into none of that stuff. It's an opportunity, and I just want to do everything that I can to prepare and help my team win. That's basically it."
By the time the clock runs out at the end of this game, the Jets will be the Patriots most frequent opponent in franchise history – This will be the 95th meeting between the two teams. And the all-time records are similar (the Jets hold a three game lead in the series), which is more than enough to create a solid rivalry in two of the biggest sports towns in America.
This is playoff football, not a mind-match between Professor Xavier and Magneto. Neither of these coaches is going to melt into a pile of goo after an hour-long staring match. They'll meet at midfield, as is customary, but the game will be over by then. This is about football. Sure, it's about beating the guy across from you, but what about the other guys who'll be lined up across from each other for 60 minutes on Sunday?
With that question in mind, here's an on-field problem facing the Patriots this week:
Quarterback Chad Pennington's passing accuracy coupled with outstanding receivers makes for a dangerous passing attack.
Pennington's 2005 season was cut short when he tore the rotator cuff in his throwing arm during Game 3 against the Jaguars. It was a dangerous re-injury for Pennington, who also suffered a torn rotator cuff in Week 9 of the 2004 season, leaving him out for three games. He bounced back to complete 64.5 percent of his passes this season, good for fourth-best in the league.
"I wouldn't say I'm surprised," said Pats safety Artrell Hawkins on Wednesday. "He's done everything he's needed to do to get his team to this point. The thing about Chad is, even before the injuries, he was always an accurate quarterback. I would say he probably is the comeback player of the year, because not many people gave those guys a chance and I would say it starts and ends with how Chad has played this year."
Part of what makes Pennington's accuracy so dangerous is that, by dumping solid passes off quickly, he makes it difficult for defenses to pressure him in the pocket.
"I think it's going to be difficult to get to him," said defensive lineman Ty Warren. "I think it's been difficult the first two games we played them this year. I think the reason behind that is because they throw a lot of short passes and things like that. That's a part of their game plan and that makes it difficult to get to them."
"You want to get there," said Warren, who was inactive for the last meeting with the Jets, causing the defensive line to be reshuffled. "But at the same time, I don't have no control over what they come into the game doing. If they want to do the short throws, they'll do the short throws."
The Jets used short flat routes and quick passes to neutralize the Patriots big men in their Week 10 meeting. However, the Patriots secondary isn't going into this game with any expectations.
"The last game's the last game," said Pats cornerback Asante Samuel, who finished the regular season tied for the most interceptions in the league (10). "This is a new game. It's a new season. I don't want to say what [Pennington]'s going to go and do. He might come out throwing flats. He might come out throwing all deep balls. You don't want to go in saying 'He's going to do this,' because then you're already putting a disadvantage to yourself. So you've just got to go out there and play technique and play smart."
The Patriots almost let the Jets back into their Week 2 meeting at the Meadowlands when wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Laveranues Coles both made big touchdown plays.
"I think they have two really good receivers in Jerricho Cotchery and, obviously Laveranues Coles," said Hawkins. "Both of them, in my opinion, are No. 1 receivers. Cotchery, in particular, has been really good down the stretch. We have to be able to make plays and get our defense off the field."
Cotchery seemingly defied gravity, bouncing off a Patriots player before sprinting into the end zone on a 71-yard catch-and-run in Week 2. His athleticism even surprised Belichick, who challenged the play thinking that Cotchery's elbow had touched the ground.
"We're in the NFL. Us being competitors, getting touchdowns caught on us, obviously we're disappointed about that," said Samuel. "So we just got to try and go out there and prevent those from happening.
"[Cotchery and Coles are] physical, explosive guys. They can take a one-yard route and take it up the distance. They've done it before and they (can) do it day-in and day-out. We just got to go out there and play with good technique."
With receivers as athletic as Coles and Cotchery and a quarterback as accurate as Pennington, the Jets passing game, and how the Patriots defend it, will be worth watching in this game.
Coaching will play a role in this game, of course. And when the dust has settled, most of the headlines will understandably center on the coaching matchup. But entering the game, the Patriots are all about preparing for a do-or-die game, not coach Mangini.
"I don't really consider it to be a factor," said the well-spoken Hawkins of Mangini's knowledge of the Patriots. "All I know is he's wearing the opposite team's colors. While I do respect him, and I think he's a good coach, it really doesn't factor into how we prepare and what the outcome of the game will be."
"You could say you know a guy, but they can always change it up. If you watched the Boise State game this weekend, they switched it up. They hit three plays that you're lucky to hit one of in ten tries. They hit three going down the stretch: The hook-and-lateral, the halfback pass and the statue-of-liberty. Are you kidding me?"
Asked if he thought the Jets would run the statue-of-liberty play, Hawkins answered seriously.
"You know, I don't know," he said. "This is a game where everything's on the line. You kind of have to be prepared for everything. You never can say, 'Well I know a guy so well that we have an advantage.' That's really not the case."
The Patriots practiced outside on one of their upper practice fields today, wearing shorts/sweats, helmets and shells. Quarterback Tom Brady was seen wearing one of Belichick's signature cutoff gray sweatshirts under his pads. Everyone on the Patriots roster except safety Rodney Harrison was seen during the portion of practice available to the media. He was downgraded to "Out" on this week's injury report.