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Good old time

Belichick and Patriots enjoyed team win vs. Jets

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / November 15, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - Bill Belichick has been criticized in recent weeks like never before in his Patriots tenure, with even some of his most ardent fans questioning his decisions.

As Belichick wears several hats - or hoodies, if you will - most of the criticism was directed at Bill the General Manager, who released solid contributors (James Sanders, Leigh Bodden) and brought in unknown castoffs (Sterling Moore, Antwaun Molden).

Time will tell if the changes lead to greater success for the Patriots, the first step being a win in the postseason.

But for Sunday night at least, some of the old magic was back, and for that, Bill the Coach probably deserves much of the credit. The 37-16 victory over the Jets was the type of team win that used to be commonplace for the Patriots; all that was missing was Rodney Harrison claiming that no one believed in them.

As long as New England has Tom Brady at quarterback, the offense will be fine. Brady brought a bunch of third- and fourth-string receivers such as Jabar Gaffney, Reche Caldwell, and Doug Gabriel to within minutes of the Super Bowl in 2006, and since then he’s had far better talent to throw to, leading to some explosive offenses. He has had down moments, but by and large, Brady’s excellence is a constant.

But the Patriots defense has been a different story.

Belichick didn’t earn the title of defensive genius because he had a team of superstars; he did it by finding smart, hard-working players and tailoring the game plan to their strengths while also taking away the strengths of the opponent. He also had assistant coaches who had been in the game for years, who knew what adjustments to make.

Many smart, gritty players have moved on, and so have most of the coaches who were in the defensive meetings. Too often, plays haven’t been made when needed, on-the-fly changes weren’t made, and opponents have been able to march on the Patriots at will in crucial moments.

And then there’s the near-constant lack of pass rush, which would cause even a secondary of four All-Pros to look ordinary.

Against the Jets, however, the Patriots of old were back. Belichick’s fingerprints were all over the defensive game plan. The line went back to being more physical, putting quarterback Mark Sanchez, who even on his better days can be skittish, into full “Happy Feet’’ mode. Receivers were re-routed.

The whole defensive unit played sound against a New York offense that had awakened over the last month.

Andre Carter, who gambled on himself and asked the Redskins for his release on the eve of the lockout, sacked Sanchez 4 1/2 times and was credited with eight quarterback hits. Rob Ninkovich, who joined the Patriots in 2009 with a list of transactions and little else on his NFL file, had two interceptions, the second of which he ran back for the clinching touchdown. Special teams ace Tracy White, normally a linebacker in name only, was credited with four tackles.

Niko Koutouvides, unemployed since New England cut him at the end of training camp and re-signed last week, made the special teams play of the night, recovering a muffed punt to set up a short scoring drive.

After the win at Metlife Stadium, player after player said there was a lot of football left, but Belichick knew that it was as must-win as a Week 10 game can be - the Patriots were facing their first three-game losing streak since 2002, the AFC East title was likely on the line, and when it comes to the Jets, there’s no love lost.

Deion Branch, who spent four-plus seasons in Seattle between his Patriot tenures, was asked about the notion that the game had passed Belichick by, and the receiver looked puzzled.

“I don’t know what that means,’’ Branch said. “He’s still the best coach in football. He’s a teacher. He’s constantly teaching, each and every day.’’

Belichick and Brady set the NFL record for most victories by a coach-QB tandem, surpassing Don Shula and Dan Marino with their 117th win. Brady believes, as Branch does, that Belichick is still the game’s best.

“Believe me, I appreciate every day showing up to work and having him as our head coach,’’ said Brady during his weekly contractual appearance on WEEI. “There’s no [other] coach I’d ever want to play for. He gets us prepared every week. There’s so many things I’ve learned from him over the years about mental toughness, and his ability to stay really even-keeled through the wins and the losses.

“And the last two weeks [before the Jets game] have been rough, but you know what? He never lost faith in us or confidence in what we’re doing.’’

Public confidence in Belichick has wavered in recent weeks, but on Sunday night, Bill the Coach was back at the top of his game.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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