By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 05, 2007

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All the superiority on paper the Patriots have against the Jets this Sunday won't matter at all if Eric Mangini shows the football world how really smart he is.

You see pupil versus teacher matchups all the time. Bill Belichick against Bill Parcells. Bill Belichick against Nick Saban. Bill Belichick against Eric Mangini. The estimable Patriot head coach has been on both sides of this equation, and two of his four losses in 2006 have been to two branches of his coaching tree. One of those winning coaches will be on the other sideline at Gillette Stadium Sunday afternoon, and whether they shake hands or not at game's end is the least concern of either Belichick or Mangini.

Belichick is still the master coach in the NFL, who has managed to outwit and outsmart any coach in the league not named Mike Shanahan (anyone in Denver who hears you call Shanahan a master coach will recommend you for commitment to the nearest sanitarium, especially after last Sunday's stinker at home against the 49ers). But ever since running up a 24-0 lead against the Jets in Week 2, the Jets have outscored the Patriots 34-14, and Mangini actually outcoached his former mentor in the rainy Week 10 rematch at Foxborough. That little bit of outcoaching is what is providing the real spice for Sunday's Wild Card playoff game, not some dumb handshake.

And you can bet that Belichick has gotten little, if any, sleep in preparing for his third encounter against Mangini.

It could be said that few people in this area, and perhaps the rest of the nation, thought Mangini would be this successful in his first season as Jet coach. The general consensus was that he either 1) became a head coach too early, 2) picked the wrong program to begin his coaching career, or 3) a combination of the two. Mangini, the youngest head coach in the league at age 35 (he will turn 36 on January 19), figured to flop in Joisey, and flop hard. With the Giants being the real marquee team in Gotham, Mangini would learn quick that he took on the wrong program in terms of raw talent as well as how well he would be received in the New York area.

Mangini proved everyone wrong on all counts. The Giants made the playoffs as a Wild Card just like the Jets did, but are in great turmoil with their head coach, Tom Coughlin, possibly looking at taking his Herr Kommandant act back to college. Mangini, meanwhile, was a Coach of the Year candidate for most of the season and engineered a six-win improvement in the Jets, changing attitudes up and down the organization. He also showed everyone that he can coach, with his crowning achievement being the 17-14 outsmarting of Belichick in November.

So, despite everyone believing that Belichick won't get fooled again, and the record shows that he likely won't, it is foolhardy to assume that Belichick will outcoach the pants off of Mangini on Sunday. There is a reason why Belichick is angry over Mangini, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that he bolted to a team Belichick despises with a passion. Combine that with how much Belichick has to know about Mangini's smarts and how well he will know his former team, and you can forgive the Patriot head coach if he has some consternation going into Sunday.

That said, the Patriots can and should win on Sunday. Not having to face Denver was still the biggest break the Patriots could have asked for. Unlike Denver, who can beat the Patriots with their eyes closed no matter how poorly a stretch they happen to be on, the Patriots can beat the Jets. It will still be a tough game, and the eight-point spread (which has come down a bit from its 9 ½ - point opening line) is still too high. The Patriots should win a tight battle, and in the end, it likely will come down to coaching, only this time Belichick will do something to overcome Mangini and his presumably well-prepared Jet team.

The two biggest "qualifiers" for the Jet win in November, aside from the fact that the Jets historically do better against the Patriots in Foxborough versus the Meadowlands, were the fact that Mangini had two weeks to prepare for the Patriots, and that the Patriots were undermanned on defense. A third "qualifier" might also be the condition of the field, as it was this game which marked the end of the old grass surface at Gillette. None of these "qualifiers" play at all into Sunday's matchup.

The only Patriot player of real consequence who will miss on Sunday on defense is Rodney Harrison, and the consensus is that against the Jets, his absence won't be felt that badly. Vince Wilfork figures to return to the lineup, and the starting defensive line will be totally intact, unlike in November. The Patriots set a club record for fewest points allowed (237) in a 16-game season in 2006, and the Jets will be hard pressed to score double-digits.

While it could be an idea that Mangini will manage to come up with more confusing schemes for Tom Brady to deal with, with only one week to prepare, the odds on him doing it to Brady again are long at best. Mangini does have an advantage in that he knows the weaknesses of his old team perhaps better than anyone else in the league, and in theory, Mangini could spring something which Brady may find hard to digest. But it is unlikely that Mangini will "fool" the Patriots like he did in November.

Belichick has a chance here to take his former protégé to school. What Belichick will have to do here is to merely show the youngster who's still the master. Belichick will simply have to do what he does better than Mangini, and he is certainly capable of that. The Patriots have superiority at most every position out there, such that Belichick would be a lock to find and exploit Jet weaknesses better than Mangini would in doing the same thing to the Patriots.

Belichick has a long laundry list to take care of. He has to find a way to establish the run against a poor run defense (the Jets are 24th in the NFL against the run). He has to find a way to contain the short passing game of Chad Pennington. He has to defense better on third down. He has to make sure that Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery don't make big plays. He has to make sure that Kerry Rhodes isn't the second coming of Bob Sanders. He also would be well advised to not put the team in a position where Stephen Gostkowski has to save the season with a long field goal.

All of this, Belichick can do. But Belichick must also be better than Mangini in making in-game adjustments. Can Belichick deal with some exotic defensive scheme Mangini came up with which never came out in film study? In other words, can Belichick defend against himself? This may turn out to be the real key of the game on Sunday; against any coach other than Mangini, the Patriots probably win and win easy.

Belichick knows Mangini and what he is capable of. The fact that he took his football smarts and became HC of the NYJ is what irks Belichick. You can bet that Belichick is going nuts right now in making sure he does win the one matchup that matters on Sunday. The last thing Belichick wants is for the Jets to turn into the 2001 Patriots.

The NFL will be full of Eric Manginis one day (not Nick Sabans, they wind up in God-forsaken places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama). But there is only one Bill Belichick. If the Patriots win Sunday, it will be primarily for that one main reason.


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