FOXBOROUGH - Next.
For all the hype and Shakespearean plot twists, the Patriots much-anticipated rematch/grudge match with the New York Jets yesterday at Gillette Stadium was just another ho-hum victory for a team that has turned winning into a routine ritual.
Like the postgame handshake between Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his former protégé, Eric Mangini, the Patriots' 20-10 victory was anticlimactic.
Scoring a season-low 20 points, the Patriots didn't serve up the revengeful rout the hearty souls who braved the wintry weather had come to see, a point-filled payback for the Jets and their coach, Mangini, turning in the Patriots for illegally filming defensive signals during the teams' first meeting Sept. 9.
The 68,756 alleged to be in attendance simply had to settle for history, as the Patriots (14-0) became only the second team in NFL history to win its first 14 regular-season games, matching the accomplishment of the 1972 Miami Dolphins and securing home field throughout the playoffs in the process.
While the game may not have lived up to the NBA-score expectations of the Foxborough Faithful, it was exactly what the Patriots expected.
"This is the NFL," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "The worst thing you're doing [with that] is giving the other team motivation because you're basically calling them chumps.
"These are NFL players, professionals who get paid, that have pride about themselves. We ex pected a tough game. We understood what type of game it was going to be, and we just went out there and executed our game plan."
That game plan featured a heavy dose of running back Laurence Maroney, who finished with 104 yards rushing and a touchdown on a career-high 26 carries, as the Patriots' passing attack was grounded by the wet weather, the wind, and a Jets' game plan that had defenders pacing back in forth at the line of scrimmage like expectant fathers to try to throw off quarterback Tom Brady.
"We knew they were going to do a lot of that, so we just had to be prepared," said Maroney, who had his second 100-yard rushing game of the season and the third of his career. "We knew they were going to do a lot of movement, so it was basically just attack them."
Brady, who completed 14 of 27 passes, was held to a season-low 140 yards passing. He threw one interception and didn't record a touchdown pass for the first time this season, his pursuit of Peyton Manning's NFL record of 49 touchdown passes in a season temporarily frozen at 45.
"We won it. It wasn't the airshow that everybody is accustomed to seeing, but we went out there and showed that we can run the ball," said wide receiver Jabar Gaffney. "The line did a great job of blocking and Maroney did a great job of running the ball and we got it done."
They had help from the defense, which generated two turnovers and a touchdown, courtesy of Eugene Wilson, and special teams, which set up Maroney's score with a blocked punt by Kelley Washington, the first by New England since 1999.
On the Jets' first possession, Wilson picked off Kellen Clemens's only pass of the game, returning it 5 yards for a TD, the first of his career. Adding injury to insult, Clemens was knocked out of the game on the play, sustaining a rib injury.
The Jets rotated wide receiver Brad Smith, a former college quarterback at Missouri, and former starter Chad Pennington the rest of the game, with Smith running spread option plays.
Wilson, who also had a fumble recovery that snuffed out a New York scoring chance in the third quarter, was the 21st Patriot to score a TD this season, equaling the mark held by the 1987 Rams and the 2000 Broncos.
The lone touchdown for the Jets (3-11) came on a blocked punt by David Bowens, who scooped up the ball and returned it 26 yards to cut the Patriots' lead to 10-7 with 7:15 left in the first half. Maroney's 1-yard run made it 17-7 at the half.
It's highly doubtful many Patriots fans expected their team to be engaged in a 7-point game (17-10) with 6:13 remaining, but that was the case after a 17-play Jets drive culminated in a 33-yard field goal from Mike Nugent.
It appeared the Jets had pulled within 20-16 with 2:32 remaining on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Pennington to Justin McCareins but Belichick challenged the catch, and it was overturned. Replays confirmed McCareins never had control of the ball.
The Jets had to settle for a 35-yard field goal attempt into the wind. It sailed wide left and so did New York's chance of ending the Patriots' pursuit of perfection.
While it was just another win, it brought a rare display of emotion from Belichick, who raised his fist into the air, pumping it a few times after sharing a handshake with Mangini.
"Coach Belichick emphasized all week being mentally and physically ready to go out there and play 60 minutes of football," said Randy Moss, who had five catches for 79 yards, including a 46-yard grab that led to a field goal.
"I don't know what personal vendetta he had against coach Mangini, but he didn't express it all week. Anything he had was definitely kept inside."
That's the approach Belichick took when asked about the significance of his team's 14-0 start. In a twist, the 1-13 Dolphins are the next victim . . . uh, opponent this Sunday. Belichick has another score to settle with a coach in that one.
Don Shula, regret that asterisk comment now?