NASHVILLE -- Judging by their performance on that September day in the Meadowlands -- or at least the first 36 minutes -- the rest of the Jets season would have been nearly inconceivable.
Until Jerricho Cotchery scored on an improbable 71-yard touchdown catch in which he bounced off Chad Scott and somehow never hit the ground, the Patriots were in complete control in the first meeting of the season between the AFC East rivals. New England had built a 24-point third-quarter lead, and there were serious doubts about the Jets coming back, both in the game and in the season.
But they did. And though the Jets couldn't pull out the win on that day, falling, 24-17, in Week 2, they gave indications that this wasn't going to be the down year many had predicted would start the Eric Mangini era.
It's a year that has brought not only a playoff berth, but a third matchup -- the rubber game -- with old friend and former mentor Bill Belichick Sunday at 1 p.m. at Gillette Stadium. Much is made of the matchup, not just because of the rivalry between the cities and teams, but also because of a supposed rivalry between the coaches; Belichick has rarely uttered his acolyte's name, though he managed to get it out after Sunday's 40-23 win over the Titans -- with a bit of praise, to boot.
"We're back in the AFC East for our biggest challenge of the year," Belichick said. "Eric Mangini, his staff, and entire team are doing a phenomenal job. The Jets are playing extremely well, as we are well aware based on the last time we faced them."
Ah, the last time. Remember that one? On a mud pit of a field, the Jets sloshed to an unexpected 17-14 win in Foxborough Nov. 12, a victory startling not just because the Patriots were supposed to be in control in the AFC East but because it was their second straight loss, ending a streak of 57 games without consecutive defeats.
After the game, the frustration showed.
"Eric was here, so he knows what we do, but there are no excuses," said New England's Richard Seymour that day. "They outplayed us and outcoached us today. We just have to do a better job of meeting force with force. We just have to do a better job from top to bottom being ready to go."
The Jets used a short passing game -- perfect for the arm of quarterback Chad Pennington -- to chew through the Patriots' defense, one that was missing safety Rodney Harrison and end Ty Warren. And with their defense focused on pressuring quarterback Tom Brady, the Jets allowed the Patriots to convert just three times in 12 chances on third down.
But the game did more than demonstrate that the Jets are preparing to challenge the Patriots' supremacy in the division. It signaled change for owner Bob Kraft and his stadium, as the slop soon was replaced by FieldTurf with a round-the-clock installation. Just two days later, the Patriots decided to replace the grass that had become an ongoing embarrassment and an ongoing battle, for both New England and its opponents.
Since that ugly day, the Patriots seem to have gotten a handle on their season, though there was another low point in a demoralizing loss at Miami, the only game the team lost after falling to the Jets. Tight wins over the Bears and Lions led to impressive triumphs over the Texans, Jaguars, and Titans (though none of those teams made the playoffs). The Jets, meanwhile, lost to the Bears and Bills, but beat the Texans, Packers, Vikings, Dolphins, and Raiders, ending their season with a three-game winning streak.
So now comes the final meeting. Either Belichick or Mangini will end the season with a loss to his rival and his team's rival. But Brady made an observation designed to make his team (and perhaps its fans) rest a little easier.
"We haven't lost on the new turf," Brady said. "So maybe it was a grass problem."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.