Washington extends for the line
The New York Jets business-like finish of their regular season against the Oakland Raiders earned them a new beginning. On Sunday afternoon, first-year head coach Eric Mangini will lead his club into Gillette Stadium for a Wild Card match-up with the New England Patriots.
"I am proud of the way we finished the season and earned the opportunity to play here this week. That is what we have been working for – for a long time," Mangini said Monday. "I think they earned it. Now today what we are doing is – like every other week – looking at the corrections from the game, going through those corrections, making sure we get those fixed, and making sure we are able to make some progress. And then our whole focus shifts to the Patriots."
The Jets didn't have much difficulty focusing throughout the season. While the Jets were picked by many to finish near the bottom of the league standings, Mangini is just one of 12 pro football coaches preparing his team for postseason action.
"I think he has done a great job with our young guys and also with our veterans, showing us how to keep the same approach week-in and week-out," said quarterback Chad Pennington of his 35-year old boss. "Win, lose or draw, our approach doesn't change, our preparation doesn't change, and how we work on the practice field doesn't change. We keep that same approach and what that does is provide consistency. That creates a consistent level of not only preparation and hard work, but it applies to the field on Sunday."
After clinching the playoff berth, Mangini gathered at home with his family on New Year's Eve. He attempted to watch a couple of minutes of the late games, but his son, Jake, was more interested in Play-Doh and other fun children's activities. Once the weekend football schedule was finalized, GM Mike Tannenbaum gave Mangini a ring and informed him of the familiar upcoming opponent and Sunday's 1:00 p.m. kickoff.
"I think anybody that we were going to play this week was going to be a very good football team, whether it was going to be Indy, New England or however the other scenarios worked out," Mangini said. "We understand that this is a totally different level of competition now and a different challenge for us. With a division opponent, there is some familiarity both ways. We are familiar with them and they are familiar with us – that has both positives and negatives."
The Jets experienced both positive and negative outcomes against the Patriots during the regular season. Back in September, a Jets' comeback fell short against New England as the Pats captured a 24-17 decision at the Meadowlands. Almost two months later, the Green & White upset the Patriots 17-14 at Gillette Stadium.
"The biggest thing from winning there before is we know that we can win there again," said rookie running back Leon Washington. "It gives us a lot more confidence this time around playing this team. It will be tough – they've been playing real well. Playing in New England, they have a lot of veterans that have been in this situation before. I'm a young guy, and I'm just looking around to get any help I can from our veteran players to go out here and play a good game against these guys. "
Not surprisingly, Mangini says the teams have similar philosophical thinking. Mangini joined the Jets last January after spending the previous six seasons with the Patriots under Bill Belichick. Mangini was defensive backs coach for five seasons before being promoted to defensive coordinator in 2005. The Jets' leader say his staff will review the previous two games, but there will be adjustments from both sides.
"I think there are definitely things you can take away from it, the lessons from the first game and the lessons from the second game," Mangini said. "But their approach is very opponent specific and it's very game specific. There may be some things they have seen since we played them last that they like offensively, defensive, or on special teams, so that will change. It is not a set approach week-in and week-out. What is set is their approach is unique to us. It is important for us to go back and see the pluses and minuses of those two games, as well as what we have done since the last time we have played them to anticipate some of the things may do."
There is a healthy level of respect Mangini holds for his former employer. He learned a lot in New England and was asked this afternoon if one thing stood out.
"There are multiple things I took away. I'd say the biggest thing I took away from that whole New England experience was the value of character," he said. "The locker room was filled with character and to me, character wins. Character is so important not just when you are winning but really when you are losing, when things are tough, when it's hard to come to work, and when it's hard to sacrifice because things are not going the way you want to it go."
The Jets have provided plenty of moxie themselves, taking off after a 5-5 start. This weekend's contest between the two AFC East rivals is a historical meeting. The Jets and the Patriots are familiar foes, but they haven't matched up too much in the playoffs.
"I think the Patriots have only played the Jets one time in the history of the playoffs," Mangini said of New England's 26-14 Wild Card victory following the '85 season. "I'm not exactly sure on that stat, but I'm pretty sure my research is correct. There has been a long history of playing each other but not a long history of playing each other in the playoffs. Whenever you get to play a division opponent for a third time, I think it's exciting."
Let the hype begin. Less than six days before another toe-to-toe battle and a conclusion to a memorable trilogy.
"When you go up against a team that you know - it's always better because you know them and they know you," said veteran tight end Chris Baker. "No matter who we played - we knew it was going to be a tough team either way, so it was just one of those things. It's round three."