THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

After being turned in, Patriots turned on the jets

Mangini's maneuver fueled their engines

Email|Print| Text size + By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / December 11, 2007

FOXBOROUGH - The song choice was fitting. As at least one Patriots player hit the weights yesterday during an off day, Kanye West's "Stronger" could be heard blaring through the walls at Gillette Stadium.

Coach Eric Mangini and the New York Jets may have thought they were weakening their division rivals when the former Patriots assistant turned in Bill Belichick, tipping off NFL security to New England's illegal taping of defensive signals during the first quarter of the season opener Sept. 9.

But it only made them stronger.

The Patriots won that game, 38-14, and haven't lost since, standing at 13-0 as they prepare to face Mangini and the Jets this Sunday at Gillette Stadium in a highly anticipated rematch/grudge match.

It was hard to imagine at the time - when Belichick was being branded a cheater, held a series of uncomfortable press conferences (one of which he walked out on rather than explain his interpretation of the filming rules), and was fined $500,000 by the NFL - but he's come out the winner in all this.

Instead of having to find a way to motivate his awe-inducing assemblage of talent each week, Belichick has built-in inspiration, courtesy of Mangini and what has become known crassly as Spygate. The result has been a team that is chasing history and doing it with a record-setting romp through the league.

Even if he won't admit it.

"I'm telling you that we're going to approach this game like we approached the last one and the one before that," said Belichick. "That's all I can tell you."

Plus, even though commissioner Roger Goodell also fined the Patriots $250,000 and docked them their first-round draft choice in 2008, New England still will have a top 10 pick courtesy of a trade with the San Francisco 49ers.

"At least we did something positive in their eyes," Jets safety Kerry Rhodes told the New York-area media yesterday. "It is what it is for those guys. I'm sure they're using it in some kind of way for themselves. Anybody would."

Meanwhile, Mangini and the Jets seem to have been enveloped by the fallout from the camera confiscation, starting the season 1-8 and benching starting quarterback Chad Pennington, last year's NFL Comeback Player of the Year, in favor of the untested Kellen Clemens.

Clemens, who has started each of the last five games, is 2-4 as a starter - he filled in for an injured Pennington in Week 2 against Baltimore - and has thrown four touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

While the Patriots can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a victory, New York (3-10) is playing for pride.

"We're not happy where we are. We definitely thought we would be in the thick of things right now," said Rhodes. "We're not. We're 3-10. But we're going to come out and try to play them as tough as we can."

Sunday is the Jets' Super Bowl, a chance to end the Patriots' pursuit of an undefeated season. A playoff team last year, the Jets are 24-point underdogs, though they still believe they can play with the Patriots, according to Rhodes. But the safety had to admit that even a win over the Patriots wouldn't salvage the Jets' disappointing season.

"We're 3-10," he said. "If we get one win, we're still 4-10. It's not going to help us out in that respect."

Hailed as a genius in his first season, when he led the Jets to the playoffs with a 10-6 mark - including a 17-14 victory over his former boss - Mangini has had his choice of defense, his coaching methods, and his integrity questioned this season.

The Jets have been undone by sketchy offensive line play that has neutralized the offseason acquisition of running back Thomas Jones, a poor pass rush, and an inability to make clutch plays in close games.

But they have gone 2-2 since their bye week, and Belichick said they have talent.

Belichick said the Patriots studied films of the Jets' 19-16 overtime win over the Steelers - an effort he called impressive - to help prepare for this past Sunday's 34-13 victory over Pittsburgh.

"I think I have a lot of respect for the Jets, Jets players," said Belichick. "They have some outstanding players and they played very well against Pittsburgh.

"I can't tell you what happened in all of the other games. The only games I really am familiar with are our first game with them and then this Pittsburgh game because of the amount of time that we spent watching Pittsburgh last week.

"The rest of it, we'll catch up on the next couple of days and try to be ready to go."

Notice no mention of Mangini, his former protege, accidental or intentional.

Yesterday, Mangini said he hasn't spoken to Belichick since the teams' first meeting. He said that his feelings toward Belichick haven't changed; he respects him and appreciates the significant role he played in turning Mangini from a Cleveland Browns intern into an NFL head coach.

Mangini's feelings may not have changed, but the fortunes of his team did. You don't need a video camera to capture that picture.

Knowing what he knows now, that he tugged on Superman's cape, would Mangini do it all again?

"As I've said, I've really said everything I can say about this," Mangini told reporters during his press conference yesterday. "It's a league matter, and it's in the past. We're moving forward."

The Patriots probably will be doing a lot of that with the football Sunday.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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