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ON FOOTBALL

Image was hard to shake

FOXBOROUGH -- This time there was no escape for Bill Belichick. The "no-look handshake," just like everything else the Patriots coach tried yesterday, was foiled by his former student, his acolyte really. For at least one day, Eric Mangini was always one step ahead of his old mentor.

Only minutes after Mangini's Jets came into the Patriots' home ground and both beat and baffled them, 17-14, the coaches met in the middle of the field for the traditional postgame handshake. Two months ago Belichick gave Mangini what in boxing would be called the "Tommy Hearns shake," two fingers barely touching the other man's palm before he recoiled as if the fellow's hand was radioactive and disappeared. Eye contact? Not hardly.

This time Mangini was ready for it, though, just as he had his team ready for most everything Belichick's Patriots tried. As the two got within gripping distance, Mangini made his move before Belichick had time to react.

"I just grabbed Bill's hand and his forearm and pulled him in and said 'Great job!' " an elated Mangini said after his Jets found a way to make the AFC East a race once again. "He didn't say anything. Just 'Huh?' "

"Huh?" seemed to be what Belichick and his team were saying much of the day as the Jets rushed for 117 yards, converted 46 percent of their third downs, and limited New England's offense to 25 percent on the game's most critical down (3 of 12).

Because of those things, only a game now separates the 6-3 Patriots from the 5-4 Jets, and the main reason was, in the words of Richard Seymour, "We got outplayed and we got outcoached. They did a good job of using different schemes. It was more about them doing a good job than anything we didn't do. They kept us off balance the whole game.

"They did a good job of mixing the passes, and when we would rush upfield they'd run a draw. Eric had those guys ready. We'd get into one thing to adjust and they'd switch to something else. Eric was here. He knows the kind of things we like to do. You gotta meet power with power and we didn't do it."

Saturday night Mangini showed his team a video of the first Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay fight, explaining that Liston was the most feared fighter in the world after having twice destroyed Floyd Patterson. He recalled how Liston had said of the man who later would be called Muhammad Ali that, "He should be arrested for impersonating a boxer."

"Then we played the fight and they saw Liston quit on his stool," Mangini said. "I told the team we wanted to play like Cassius Clay. Play fast. Keep it uptempo. Don't let them relax. Keep methodically moving on them. Wear 'em down. I'm just so proud of the way that our guys fought. It was going to take a good performance on offense, on defense, on special teams, collectively to beat an opponent like the Patriots on the road. It's hard to beat the Patriots. We're pleased with that."

For most of the rainy afternoon those Patriots seemed one step behind with the exception of a late scoring drive in which Tom Brady whipped them 61 yards in 31 seconds to close the gap from 17-6 to 17-14 after the 2-point conversion with 4:14 to play. It was the one time New England seemed to have command of the situation, but it was quickly negated when the Jets got it back and held the ball for three minutes, leaving Brady with only 68 seconds and no timeouts to muster a tying or winning score from his 11. Not only was he unable to muster the magic this time, the game ended with him being sacked by Shaun Ellis and fumbling the ball away as time ran out.

It was that kind of day for Mangini. A day when he had all the answers. Or at least enough of them.

"I think this was one of the best game plans we have had the whole year," said Jets defensive end Bobby Hamilton, who once plied the same trade for Belichick. "I think we did a great job of putting the right guys out there in the right defenses and called a good game plan."

That plan was the handiwork of Mangini and his young coordinators, Brian Schottenheimer and Bob Sutton, who had two weeks to work on it, and it showed. They had figured out what New England had done to them two months ago and postulated on what the Patriots might try this time. Their answers became questions Belichick and his team could not answer this time.

"Each week the defense is going to change," Mangini said, sounding much like his mentor. "A lot of the things you saw here were elements we've had in place throughout the whole course of the season. We're getting better at executing them. As we get more and more successful at doing those things, we can add the multiples to the equation. I think the defense did a nice job throughout the game disguising fronts, moving around, disguising coverages. That really helped us. There were some things that have always been in that we tweaked and there were some things that were a little bit new so it was a mixture of the two."

Whatever it was, it worked. It worked well enough for Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin to lament, "They came in and they knew what they were facing when they came in here and they matched the intensity of the crowd and they matched the intensity of us early and they prevailed in the end."

Even, as it turned out, in the final handshake.

Ron Borges can be reached at borges@globe.com.

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