There surely will be captivating action on the field when the Patriots visit the Jets in Sunday's season opener. But based on the last two meetings between the clubs, there is another important area to watch: the sidelines.
One of the intriguing subplots in the rivalry is the tug-of-war that has taken place outside the lines. It's a game within the game, with each sideline trying to wrestle the tempo away from the other and create advantageous matchups.
One team rushes its personnel onto the field. The other tries to match it.
The next snap, it's a new offensive personnel grouping coming on. How will the defense respond?
One team goes no-huddle. The other must determine how best to substitute.
The other team tries a quick snap at the line of scrimmage. Is the defense in position?
Who's burning timeouts?
All the quick-strike personnel changes, and non-changes, can create a frenzied environment. Coaches and players must stay mentally sharp. Hand signals must be communicated clearly but with urgency.
While someone like Hall of Fame offensive lineman John Hannah might wonder what happened to the days of simply taking the field and knocking over the guy on the other side of the line, games between the Patriots and Jets have become the ultimate thinking man's contests.
Players on both sides have detailed how that process has evolved.
When the Jets came into Gillette Stadium last November and posted a surprising 17-14 victory, New York players said it was a result of a masterful game plan that included the no-huddle offense and an ever-evolving defense. Defensive players talked about how Patriots quarterback Tom Brady sets the protection for his offensive line at the line of scrimmage by identifying the "mike" linebacker and also reading the safety, so they countered by not declaring those players before the snap. Defenders said they moved around freely before the snap, essentially nullifying whatever protection Brady set, then pressured him into submission.
Credit the Jets for some terrific coaching and execution in that contest, which was countered aggressively the next time the teams met, in a January playoff game.
Figuring the Jets would employ the same plan that worked two months earlier, the Patriots opened with a no-huddle approach and went to a quick snap count at the line. What resulted was the team ripping off a whopping 73 plays, easily the highest total of the season, in a 37-16 win.
Brady's comments after the game were telling.
"I have never been in a game where it was like that," he said. "We were rushing to the line of scrimmage and rushing to run plays."
Said Jets outside linebacker Matt Chatham at the time, "They put a lot of pressure on us. I think they countered it pretty well by playing quickly and not allowing for a lot of the disguise."
So where do the teams go from here?
It's one of the intriguing questions to be answered, and one both coaches have had more than four months to plan for.
There already appears to be some gamesmanship between the Patriots and Jets, as receiver Reche Caldwell met with New York officials on a free agent visit yesterday.
The Jets might indeed be interested in Caldwell, who was released by the Patriots Monday. But considering they are stocked at the position with six receivers - Jerricho Cotchery, Laveranues Coles, Justin McCareins, Brad Smith, Wallace Wright, and Chansi Stuckey - the visit with Caldwell probably could have waited.
Of course, Caldwell could provide some immediate value by passing along inside information about how the Patriots have been preparing for the Jets.
New York also hosted former Patriots safety Artrell Hawkins last month.
Linebacker Chad Brown, one of the class acts to come through the Patriots' locker room in recent years, realizes his 14-year NFL career probably ended after the team cut him Saturday.
The 37-year-old Brown will stay sharp in case there is an emergency call, but he already has been transitioning to his post-football life in recent years. In addition to operating a reptile business in Colorado, he sells hand-held infrared devices that sense temperature, is involved in real estate development, and also recently received his license to operate an automobile dealership.
Part of the reason he re-signed with the Patriots over the last two years, only to get cut at the end of camp, was to study the way the team does business and then apply it to his own interests.
"To be in a championship environment, a focused, purposeful environment where there is one goal and only one goal, there is a lot to learn," he said. "I've picked up a lot, and I will use these lessons, and these management techniques, in my business life."
"One thing is how Bill [ Belichick] loves consistency," he said. "If you were a player who was a 9 skillwise, but sometimes in practice you were a 2 or a 3, and sometimes in a game you were a 6 or a 7, he can't count on you when you're flashing a 9. But if you're a 7, and you're a 7 every day at practice, and you're a 7 in every game - and he can count on you to be that - that's actually better than the guy who flashes a 9.
"The same thing applies in business. You have an employee who occasionally hits a home run but a lot of the time hurts you, that's not what you need. I want consistency of effort, consistency of focus. Small stuff like that is what you pick up."
Brown played in 187 regular-season games from 1993-2006, suiting up for the Steelers, Seahawks, and Patriots while totaling 79 career sacks. He never won a Super Bowl ring, but if this is indeed the end, he walks away feeling good about his body of work.
"It's been a fantastic ride," he said. "I don't think you play as long as I have without having a true love for the game. Coming to the Patriots [in 2005] and playing inside linebacker and struggling a little bit, I learned a lot about myself, a lot about why I love the game, why I play the game.
"Before, I had a lot of success and my love for the game was focused inwardly. How well did I play? Did I get sacks? Coming here, you realize you're just a part of it. The true success is the team success."
Since Rodney Harrison signed with the Patriots as a free agent March 12, 2003, the team has played 74 games, of which he has played 53. How has the club fared with and without him?
Here is the breakdown:
In the 53 games Harrison played (including playoffs), the Patriots went 44-7. In the 21 he missed, they went 13-8.
In games Harrison played - the majority of which came in the Super Bowl seasons of 2003 and 2004 - the Patriots allowed an average of just 13.6 points.
In the games Harrison didn't play, they surrendered an average of 14.4.
One former Patriots offensive player who spent time with the team in training camp indicated that they ran just 12 plays in the preseason finale against the Giants and have been preparing in earnest for the Jets for the last three weeks . . . Brady, running back Kevin Faulk, defensive end Ty Warren, outside linebacker Mike Vrabel, and inside linebackers Junior Seau, Larry Izzo, and Tedy Bruschi were voted captains. Captains are elected by the players . . . The Patriots have won six straight road games against the Jets . . . This will be the sixth time the teams have opened a season against each other . . . Seven members of the Jets coaching staff are former Patriots coaches, players, or staff members: Eric Mangini (head coach), Bryan Cox (assistant defensive line), Brian Daboll (quarterbacks), Andy Dickerson (quality control), Jerome Henderson (assistant secondary), Jimmy Raye (running backs), and Rick Lyle (assistant strength and conditioning) . . . The Patriots are 23-24 all-time in season openers, and 4-3 under Belichick, with three straight wins.
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com