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Patriots show their vintage playoff style

Vanquish Jets, 37-16, to start postseason quest for fourth crown

FOXBOROUGH -- Winter hasn't yet come to New England, but the Patriots are still around to remind us that it's January.

The ring-endowed, battle-tested Sons of Bill Belichick returned to the NFL playoffs yesterday and rewarded their frothing fans with a 37-16 signature spanking of the New York Jets. In the only postseason game to be played at Gillette Stadium this season, Tom Brady and Co. overwhelmed their longtime division rivals from the Meadowlands.

It had been billed as Patriots coach Belichick against Jets coach (and former Belichick disciple) Eric Mangini -- Ice Bowl III, the Mad Genius against the Man Genius. Much was made of the cold handshake between the two when the Jets beat the Patriots here in November and fans across the country wondered if the pupil was ready to overtake his mentor.

At the end of the day, the rematch was no match. The Master humbled the green Grasshopper, enabling ever-sated Patriots fans to pour onto Route 1, dreaming of a possible chance for a fourth Super Bowl title in six years.

In order to make it to Miami for Ubergame XLI, the Patriots must win two road playoff contests, including a conference semifinal against the top-seeded San Diego Chargers (14-2) Sunday in southern California. Oddsmakers already have made the Chargers 5-point favorites, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the Patriots after their impressive demonstration against the Jets.

"I think we're playing our best football now, no question," said Brady, who worked out of the no-huddle offense much of the day and improved his career playoff mark to 11-1, completing 22 of 34 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns. "We've got a bunch of players prepared for moments like this."

Indeed. The Patriots still are anchored by a playoff-seasoned defensive corps of Tedy Bruschi, Rosevelt Colvin, Richard Seymour, and Mike Vrabel, and New England's fabled front line rarely cracked in a difficult and uneven 12-4 regular season. New England's offense, meanwhile, suffered significant attrition in the offseason, but it's clear the Bradymen are finding their rhythm and stride when it matters most. Very Patriot-like.

"It is very rewarding when it pays off," said Brady. "It is very rewarding when you lose to a team at home, really get outplayed, and then you come back and beat them by 21 points."

Belichick clearly drew extra satisfaction from decisively beating his fellow Wesleyan alum and longtime colleague, who defected from his staff last year. This time there was no sophomoric diss when the game ended. Belichick made a bull rush across the field, shucking a few camera-carriers along the way, and gave Mangini a man-hug.

The Patriots coach would not elaborate on the postgame exchange, offering a curt comment ("Do you want to talk about the game?") and an expletive when the subject was raised. In the losing locker room, Mangini said, "He said, 'Good luck', and I wished him luck. And I do wish him luck. It's like I said about our relationship -- nothing has changed."

The in-game maneuvering between the coaches was fascinating. It was the ultimate sports chess match -- a grid version of Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1972. Both teams went to no-huddle offenses and players constantly shuttled on and off the field. It was nonstop men in motion, Park Street Station at 9 on Monday morning.

"I most definitely looked at the game as a chess match," said Bruschi. "We had to stay calm and trust our preparation to make the right adjustments."

Brady laughed and said, "I've never been in a game where it was like that. It was like, 'What do we think they're gonna think if we think . . . ' One of those days."

The game was more competitive than the 21-point margin suggests. New England's victory was triggered by one key drive at the end of the first half and a crucial, almost comical, turnover in the second half.

The drive: It was a 10-10 game with seven minutes left in the half when Brady orchestrated an offensive series that could be canonized in Canton, Ohio. He drove the Patriots 80 yards in 15 plays, capping the sequence with a 1-yard TD pass to Daniel Graham. Capitalizing on a perfect throw-and-catch, the Patriots had a 17-10 lead with only 11 seconds left in the half.

"I threw it to a place where only Daniel could catch it," said Brady.

Still, the Jets offered plenty of resistance.

The turnover: With less than two minutes remaining in the third period, it was still a 7-point game and New York quarterback Chad Pennington had his team inside Patriots territory. Then Pennington threw a lateral that was ruled a fumble after it was batted down by Colvin. The ball went to the ground and most of the people on the field stopped playing, believing it was an incomplete forward pass. New England's nose tackle Vince Wilfork (conservatively listed at 325 pounds) saw the ball at his feet, picked it up, and rumbled to the Jets' 15 before he was pulled down ("I'm athletic," insisted nimble Vince. "I ran back kicks in high school").

The Patriots only got a field goal off the turnover, but the momentum had been altered. A Brady-to-Kevin Faulk touchdown pass with 5:16 left made it 30-16 and it was all over except for the handshake.

"I'm real proud of our team," said Belichick. "I thought they stepped up and played some of the best football that we've played all year as a team. I'm really proud of the way they played and their toughness and their competitiveness. Now we're moving on to San Diego. We all know how good they are. We're going to have to continue to bring our 'A' game to be competitive this time of year."

Winning two road playoff games is a monstrous task, but history has taught everyone to fear the Patriots at this time of year. So it's bad news again for the rest of the league. The playoffs have arrived and the Patriots -- like the odd local climate of recent days -- are hot.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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