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Win? That's half the battle

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Hey, here's one you Patsologists may have heard before. On the subject of your 2006 New England Patriots: It Is What It Is. Or, They Are Who They Are. Take your pick.

At times, they can be cuddly and cute, such as when they constructed a 24-0 lead midway through the third quarter of yesterday's game. Other times, they can be reckless and exasperating, such as when they had a brain cramp and opened the door for a quite legitimate Jets' insurrection that wasn't put down until Tedy Bruschi came down with Chad Pennington's quasi-desperation heave with five seconds to go, an interception that preserved a 24-17 victory.

The boys are now 2-0 either because of, or despite, themselves. Again, take your pick.

Rest assured you won't get a straight answer from Coach Bill, by the way, who left little doubt that 10-year aide Eric Mangini is now a non-person in his mind if his feeble attempt at a postgame handshake was any indication. ``Always good to come down here to Giants Stadium and get a win," he dead-panned. As opposed to where, exactly. Coach?

He rattled on about it being a ``typical AFC East game," one that was -- you guessed it -- ``tough and hard-fought."

``In the end," he concluded, ``we made a few more plays than they did, and that's why we came out on top."

I think we can safely assume the mentor was holding something back. This was a game in which his team was in complete control for 45 minutes. This game should have been O-V-E-R at the end of the third period, but it wound up being in doubt until the final seconds, thanks to some inexplicably bad tackling that led to both Jets touchdowns. No way Coach Bill was as sanguine about this messy turn of events as he sounded. I can't buy that, and neither should you.

In the end, truth be told, they saved the game by making play after offensive play in a drive that consumed an impressive 8:15, and which included five first downs and three third-down conversion passes by Tom Brady to three receivers, each of whom ran routes to make it past the first-down marker by exactly 1 yard. It was the kind of precision drive we have all come to expect from this team in the Brady Era, but in this instance it didn't result in a point. That's because the Jets' Jonathan Vilma blocked rookie Stephen Gostkowski's 29-yard field goal attempt. (I told you this was an exasperating team).

There are no set-in-stone conclusions to be made about this team after the first two weeks of play. The Patriots are not what they were two years ago; we all know that. But there is still residual veteran talent, and in rookie Laurence Maroney they have the kind of explosive back not seen around here since the days of Curtis Martin. The Kid combined with the well-seasoned Corey Dillon to produce 145 of the team's respectable 147 yards on the ground. Last week's rushing haul was 183. Suffice it to say that no one is asking if anybody who works for the Patriots happens to have Marion Butts's phone number.

And the passing game had something of a pulse, too. Reche Caldwell had one regrettable drop, but he also had one very impressive sideline grab. Rookie Chad Jackson punctuated his NFL debut (he missed all of the preseason with an ailing hammy) by latching onto a Brady pass for a 13-yard second-period TD reception. We're not talking pyrotechnics here, but we are talking about a semblance of professionalism. Brady was at the controls of what you might refer to as a balanced offense.

The second Patriots drive of the game may very well have been an official Preview of Coming Offensive Attractions, since the 11-play, 82-yard march featured heavy doses of Maroney, spiced with a 29-yard Jackson reception, a 14-yard third-down catch by tight end Benjamin Watson, and a finishing 1-yard ramble into the end zone by Dillon, who may very well emulate the 2005 Jerome Bettis by being the deep-in-the-red-zone (the infra-red zone?) touchdown closer.

There is little doubt Jackson is a huge part of the post-Deion Branch offensive plan. Belichick was given two opportunities this past week to downplay the rookie from Florida. Both times he gave expansive answers. He was similarly effusive on the subject of Doug Gabriel, the veteran picked up from Oakland. The rest of us may not like the idea that there has to be a Plan B. But there was one, for sure, and Jackson did nothing to embarrass either Belichick or Scott Pioli with his performance yesterday.

It will be left to Brady to make it all work, but at least this year he starts with an honest-to-God running game. ``It takes a lot of pressure off me," he said. ``I don't feel like I have to throw every third down. We ran the clock well in that last drive. If we execute the way the coaches are coaching us to execute, we could be dynamic."

It's not exactly dynamic yet, but how could it be? ``We have a bunch of guys who haven't been with us," Brady pointed out. ``That's kind of the way it is. Everyone's new but one [the venerable Troy Brown, who had four catches for 51 yards]. You can't throw four years worth of offense at guys."

Anyway, the offense basically did its job. It was the secondary that stopped tackling guys. Granted, Jericho Cotchery and Laveranues Coles are superb athletes, but neither ever should have been able to turn their modest catches into touchdown jaunts of 71 and 46 yards, respectively.

The Cotchery play, during which he somehow deflected a blow from Chad Scott and was able to maintain his balance, was a definite highlight-reel play, but it was eminently preventable. And it changed the tenor of the game. For the next 10 minutes or so the Patriots were just plain awful, with Brady throwing a deep interception, Vince Wilfork contributing a needless drive-extending personal foul, and Coles being allowed to turn a first down into a touchdown. From 24-0 it went to 24-17.

``That's the NFL," said center Dan Koppen with a shrug. ``That's going to happen. It was a hostile environment, and I think we responded to it very well with that drive."

``We were playing very well," said linebacker Mike Vrabel. ``Then, starting with that one play [by Cotchery], we started to [expletive]. We can eliminate that. We've got to continue to play well throughout the game. You can't take anything for granted."

And you can't take anything for granted with this team, starting, apparently, with a 29-yard field goal that should have put the game away. This bunch may need some tough love. You're good New England folk. My guess is you're up to the task.

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

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