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No competition for entertainment value

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In the absence of real competition, amusing little subplots are what make evenings like this tolerable, or even fun.

Who didn't expect the outcome we had? It was Patriots 31, Jets 21, and that's not exactly a shockah. Their season having been ruined by injury long ago, the battered Jets were fulfilling a schedule requirement. Their true season just beginning, the Patriots were dotting their I's and crossing their T's as they prepare for a proper defense of their title.

All this being the case, and the game being the 555th, and final, version of ABC's ''Monday Night Football" and all, how nicely fitting that the Patriots provide the viewing audience (not to mention those in the half-filled stadium) with a juicy farewell gift. Let's face it: You'll have to go to a lot of football games before you'll see a man record a sack and catch two touchdown passes before the game is even half-over.

Who else but Mike Vrabel?

That's right, two. And each of Vrabel's short touchdown catches appeared to be on the same type of play. Number 50 lined up as an eligible receiver on the left side of the line and sauntered unattended into the center of the end zone. You might think that after he had caught one such TD pass (the seventh overall in his career, on seven receptions) in the first quarter the Jets might pay at least a wee bit of attention to him when he lined up in the same spot a second time on a first and goal at the 2 in the second quarter. But nooo . . .

Again Vrabel ambled from left to right, and again Tom Brady threw the ball in his direction and again the sure-handed linebacker/tight end/TD machine latched onto the ball, this time for the sixth regular-season touchdown of his career and eighth overall.

The sack? Oh, that came on the next Jets play from scrimmage. This Vrabel guy does have a theatrical flair.

It's hard not to be cavalier while discussing the Jets these days, but how many positive things can anyone say about an NFL team that goes through an entire half without recording a first down? That's hard to do, but that is what happened last night. Practically speaking, the Jets had no offense as they fell behind by a 21-7 score at the half. The New York score came courtesy of a Ty Law 74-yard interception return (the longest of his career). In so doing, he exceeded the first-half output of his offensive unit by 46 yards.

You're probably wondering what quarterback Brooks Bollinger had for a rating. Try 10.7.

The flip side was equally embarrassing. The Patriots had three scoring drives, and they could be categorized as (non-sequentially) easy, easier, and Who Brought The Pop Warner team? The drives were as follows: 13 plays, 67 yards in 8:03; 11 plays, 61 yards in 7:08; and 13 plays, 78 yards in 4:11 (the traditional end-of-the-half march Brady orchestrates with such chilling calmness).

The most spectacularly efficient was probably the first, which came on the opening drive of the game. Brady's game plan called for seven running plays to start. When he finally did pass, it was good for 20 yards. The drive culminated in Vrabel's first TD reception. It was a ridiculously casual demonstration of superiority, and it set the tone for a half in which the Patriots would compile an astonishing edge in time of possession: 23:34 to 6:26.

And just for yuks, the Patriots took the second-half kickoff and went 74 yards in 15 plays for TD No. 4, consuming a whopping 9:24.

Were the Jets that bad or were the Patriots that good? That's actually an interesting question, given how close the game came to being 28-0 at the half and also given the self-destructive nature of the Jets, whose four penalties (for 35 yards) included one on a Patriots fourth-down try, a face-mask infraction that was good for 15 yards, and one for ''a hand to the face" on a Corey Dillon run.

The Patriots? That would be zero first-half penalties for zero yards.

But we'll never know what kind of effort would have been necessary to defeat the Patriots had they been playing a good team. Right now, the Patriots themselves are good, real good, and it's time to start worrying about keeping the key players healthy between now and the weekend of Jan. 7-8, when they begin true defense of their title. For the one downer last night was the fact that Tedy Bruschi left the game in the first half with what was described, in classic Belichickian obfuscation, as a ''leg injury."

The Patriots don't need that, and they don't need anything happening to their quarterback, either, which means we might be heading for a week of speculation about just how much playing time, if any, Brady should get in Sunday's regular-season finale against Miami.

Is it really important, for example, to get that third seed in the AFC? The third seed package would be Pittsburgh, followed by Denver at Denver. The Steelers are playing well of late (witness their 41-0 conquest of Cleveland Saturday), and do the Patriots really need to see them again? Going to Denver is never exactly pleasant.

Contrast that scenario to one in which the Patriots would get Jacksonville and its highly synthetic 11-4 record. The Jags have benefited from a lame-o schedule. As for the Colts, who knows where they're going now? They might rally around their coach in his moment of personal sorrow, or they might implode.

And then there's the little matter of pass protection. Lately, there hasn't been any. So is there any real reason to fear the Colts? Denver or Indy, the Patriots will be on the road, regardless.

It all comes under the heading of pleasant conversation for a team on the move. It's hard to imagine that when the NFL schedule came out, the football world assumed this game would be a big AFC East confrontation, with perhaps a division title to be decided. What a way to end a glorious 35-year run for ABC, right?

And it was, if you happened to be a fan of arcane football moments. The Patriots might have decided otherwise, but I say the game ball should have gone to Mike Vrabel, the clear Man of the Match on the final night of ABC ''Monday Night Football."

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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