In last year's 44-7 Week 2 rout of the Jets, this writer said that knocking Vinny Testaverde would do to the Jets what Mo Lewis did to the Patriots the year before.
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After all, here's Testaverde, who enjoyed a career renaissance after joining the Jets in 1998. He burst on the Broadway scene that year, had a career-high 101.6 passer rating, and took the Jets to within a game of the Super Bowl. Injuries have curtailed his career ever since, and he has never approached his 1998 apex. But he is still a solid veteran, and except for the 2000 season, is no longer the interception machine he was with Tampa Bay and Cleveland/Baltimore.
Now, you bring in Pennington, Randy Moss's quarterback from Marshall. He looks like he could be Opie Taylor's twin brother. He came to the NFL with great numbers with the Thundering Herd, but to succeed at Marshall all you had to do was to drop back five steps and heave the ball as far as you could. Moss would simply outrun and/or outleap his coverman and make an easy touchdown grab. A few rough games in the NFL and this guy will want to head back to Mayberry, find Andy and Barney and a fishing rod and start whistling that famous TV tune.
Given the chance to start in 2002, Pennington showed the NFL that he not only could hit his receivers with alarming regularity, but also hit opposing cornerbacks and safeties with alarming rarity. Pennington revived a Jet squad that began 1-4 and wound up winning the AFC East through a chain of funky tiebreakers. Pennington's value to this Jet team was further underscored in 2003 when he suffered a preseason injury which kept him out of the first six games, the Jets going 2-4 during that stretch. They are 4-4 since his return, but his passer rating is a tad above 90 and he seems to have put himself back on track to lead the Jets to bigger and better things.
Those bigger and better things will have to wait until next year. But one nice thing he can realize this year is the chance to go 2-0 against the Patriots as a starter and to put a damper in their plans to gain the top seed in the conference come playoff time. If the Patriots are to nail down HFA, they will have to do what they have done all season long, and that is to find a way to win tough games like Saturday night's duel with their division rivals. With nothing else to play for, Pennington would love nothing better than to play spoiler with the division champs.
The Patriots either weren't ready for Pennington or capable of stopping him last year. Fighting to the end in defense of their Super Bowl crown, the Patriots hosted the Jets at Gillette Stadium last December in Week 16. In front of a national ESPN audience, Pennington toyed with the Patriots and came away a 30-17 victor. In that game he was 23 of 33 passing for 285 yards and three touchdowns. His passer rating for the game was 126.5, his third highest of the season (his highest would be the following week against Green Bay, in which the Jets clinched the division title).
Suffice it to say that the Patriots will be ready for Pennington this year. They have more material, and Pennington has less. The Patriots did not have Rodney Harrison, Tyrone Poole and Ted Washington last year. Pennington won't have Richie Anderson, Wayne Chrebet or Laveranues Coles in his arsenal. The Jets may be the home team, but the Patriots have won their last two games at Exit 16-W and three of the last four. The Patriots have not swept the Jets in a season series since the Rich Kotite era.
All that said, the Patriots gained some extra momentum in their quest for 13-2. Only two Patriot players were named to the AFC squad for the Pro Bowl, Richard Seymour and Ty Law. Suffice it to say that Tedy Bruschi, Harrison and Poole will be men possessed Saturday night, and will try to show everyone out there why they should also be going to Honolulu. If there was any belief out there that the Jets were easy pickings at 6-8, the defense will certainly not be lacking in spirit in this one.
And that will be literally the difference in the game. Stopping Pennington is the key to the Patriots emerging victorious. Assuming the Washington matchup with Kevin Mawae, which is now the leading sidebar to this contest, doesn't result in another debilitating injury to the big fella, Curtis Martin won't likely have the game he had against Pittsburgh in the snow last week. The game should come down to Pennington and his ability to solve a Patriot defense that is not only red-hot but also markedly different from the one he tore up a year ago.
Brady should not be hassled too much, given that John Abraham is out for the year and that the Jet linebackers are beginning to show signs of age. The Patriots should be able to put some points on the board. Therefore, it is imperative that the Patriots get after Pennington and shut him down and not let him get the ball to the fleet Santana Moss or the sometimes unreliable Curtis Conway or the silent killer Anthony Becht.
Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel have likely studied hours and hours of game tape, being that they cannot say that they have yet found a way to stop Pennington. Pennington's strength is in his deadly accuracy, and the best way to take that strength away is to chip and hit receivers like in Super Bowl XXXVI, as well as to hurry Pennington so as to disrupt his rhythm.
What Belichick might want to do is to focus his attack on the right side of the Jet line, and guard Brent Smith and tackle Kareem McKenzie. Sending in someone like Law on corner blitzes might be risky with rookie Eugene Wilson in the secondary, but Law might have enough speed to reach Pennington. Harrison will no doubt be involved in blitz packages, but Law could bring a dimension which the Jets might find hard to solve. Willie McGinest will be matched up with Jason Fabini on the other side, which might be a wash, but if McGinest can tie up Fabini effectively, Mike Vrabel might then be able to wreak havoc from that side.
Martin is still Martin, and he still hates the Patriots as much as ever. He always plays well against them, but the Patriots are never better equipped to stop him. Martin must be neutralized in order for the Patriots to effectively work on Pennington.
The Joisey crowd will be hot for their home team, and as anti-Patriot as can be. But this is a road venue that the Patriots can deal with, as stated earlier. The Patriots will be comfortable in this venue, and as long as they are more committed to winning than the Jets are, things should go okay.
But if Pennington is allowed to succeed, the Patriots will head back home with their tails between their legs, and the road to Houston may then run through either Kansas City or Indianapolis.
But that last statement is really unnecessary. Jets. HFA. Stiffed in the Pro Bowl. Bring it on, and a night early at that.
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