Some predicted that the Patriots might look to "hang 100" points on the Jets on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium as a long-awaited emphatic response to the Spygate fiasco that unfolded following New England's opening-day trip to New York. In the end, the game was much closer than people thought, but New England did clinch home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs while becoming just the second team in NFL history to begin a season 14-0 following a 20-10 victory.
Right down to the acutely observed but uneventful postgame handshake between Mangini and Bill Belichick, this was more of a bogged-down brawl than any sort of revenge-driven blowout.
For the second time in three weeks in a game played in windy conditions (gusts to 27 mph), the Patriots passing attack struggled to get on track. Tom Brady completed just 52 percent of his passes (14 of 27 for 140 yards with no touchdowns and his sixth interception of the season), and the conditions forced Laurence Maroney into a career-high 26 carries for 104 yards and a score.
But the offense that's carried the Patriots for most of the year was far from the story. In fact, neither team was able to get much going with its possessions, as the combined three touchdowns came on defense, special teams or were set up directly by a big special teams play.
"That was another good win for our football team. It was a game where in all three phases of the game, there were some key plays in it," Belichick said. "We were able to make enough plays that we needed to make to win. It was a good football game out there today. I'm proud of the way the guys played and dealt with the elements and all the other things that go into a tight game like this. It's good to win."
New England put together a long drive to a 26-yard Stephen Gostkowski field in the second quarter, extending the lead to 10-0. The Jets got on the board via special teams midway though the period when Chris Hanson bobbled a snap, allowing David Bowens time to block his punt attempt and subsequently return the loose ball 26 yards for the touchdown.
Unfortunately for the visitors, Kelley Washington would return the favor for the Patriots with less than two minutes to play in the half, blocking Ben Graham's punt attempt. New York recovered, but the Patriots took over on downs at the Jets 3. Two plays later, Maroney plunged in from a yard out for the 17-7 halftime advantage.
Both teams would add fourth-quarter field goals (New York's Mike Nugent also missed a 35-yarder that could have pulled his team within a single score) and the Patriots came away with the win. It wasn't the blowout that's become expected in 2007; it more resembled the close-but-never-in-doubt winning ways of the 2003 Patriots. It counts the same in the standings.
"We didn't get involved with the nonsense that was going on with this game," Rodney Harrison said of some of the media buildup. "It comes down to playing football. Like I said last week, the game isn't won or lost in the media. It's won or lost in between those lines. Our focus was to go out there and shut the Jets down. We did a great job of that; I think we only allowed three points. That's something to be proud of because they have so many different weapons."
Randy Moss, who had a relatively unimpressive team-high five catches for 79 yards (although his 49-yard catch set up a fourth-quarter field goal), summarized the win: "As long as the zero stays in (the loss) column, I'm cool with it."
--With their victory over the Jets, the Patriots have clinched the top seed in the AFC playoffs for the second time, joining the 2003 team as the only squads in team history to accomplish the feat. New England has won the 2007 AFC East championship and has also clinched a first-round playoff bye. The Patriots have won their division for the fifth straight year and have earned a first-round bye for the fifth time since the current playoff format was adopted in 1990. The Patriots also earned first-round byes in 1996, 2001, 2003 and 2004. New England will host a divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium on the weekend of Jan. 12-13.
--With 14 victories in 2007, the Patriots have tied the franchise's single-season record for regular-season wins. The Patriots also won 14 games during the 2003 and 2004 campaigns, finishing with a 14-2 record in both seasons. The 2007 Patriots are the 24th team in NFL history to win 14 or more regular-season games.
--"Coach Belichick emphasized all week being mentally and physically ready to go out there and play 60 minutes of football. I don't know what personal vendetta he had against Coach Mangini, but he didn't express it all week. Anything he had was definitely kept inside. As far as preparing his team to go out there and play 60 minutes with the weather conditions, that's one thing that we've done this week, knowing what we had to do to get the win." -- WR Randy Moss on Bill Belichick going up against Eric Mangini.