FOXBOROUGH - The mere idea bordered on heresy. Bill Belichick outcoached. Impossible.
But that was what came out of the Patriots' locker room last season after the New York Jets struck back in the border war, 17-14, on New England turf, which was summarily replaced.
Except somehow the message got lost in translation. "There wasn't one player in here that said we got outcoached," said linebacker Mike Vrabel. "We said we got outcoached and outplayed, period. Just like Bill would say we got outplayed and outcoached. Nobody here just said we got outcoached."
Indeed, after the loss, Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour said, "They outplayed us and they outcoached us today."
The part about being outplayed became a footnote in football history to Jets coach Eric Mangini beating his mentor at his own game and earning the nickname "Mangenius." The players were discounted as pawns.
As interesting as the awkward embraces, Mensa-level matching of wits, and inveterate gamesmanship between Belichick and Mangini are, Sunday's season opener at Giants Stadium ultimately will be decided by those donning helmets. As with an architect, the blueprints of Belichick and Mangini are only as good as the crew that carries them out. What looks great in theory must be put into practice by the players, and that is where the best-laid game plans can go awry.
"You could have the best game plan in the world, but if you don't have players that can go out there and play and perform, then you won't win a game," said Belichick. "Believe me, I'm well aware of that."
It certainly wasn't in Belichick's game plan to have wide receiver Doug Gabriel fumble as the Patriots were driving to add to their 3-0 lead in that fateful loss at Gillette Stadium. It wasn't in Mangini's to have Chad Pennington seal the Jets' fate in New England's 37-16 playoff win by tossing an interception to Asante Samuel that was returned for a touchdown.
With the teams meeting for the fourth time in 20 games and with each coach having months to lay the groundwork for his game plan, it's much more likely that the game will be decided the old-fashioned way - with execution - than X's-and-O's artifice.
"I think what you can say about this game is the one that executes what they do the most will come out on top," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "You might see a surprise here and there, but we've thrown the best blows at each other. The main goal is who is going to execute the most."
Patriots players understand why fans and media get caught up in the psychological warfare between the master and the apprentice, said Vrabel.
"I think you look and you got one really proven veteran head coach that has been there and has led his team to championships and has been in the NFL for 30-some years. A guy that has coached under him and learned under him and now has his own gig and his own team in New York, a conference opponent and a conference rival. It's very intriguing, but in the end, neither of those two guys is going to go out there and play, and admittedly couldn't go out there and play. They'd be the first to tell you that."
And some plays you just can't plan for.
In the first meeting last year, the Patriots jumped out to a 24-0 lead and held on for a 24-17 win. Wide receiver Chad Jackson climbed over the back of cornerback Justin Miller to set up the Patriots' first touchdown. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery sparked the Jets' comeback with a spectacular balancing act after a Chad Scott hit that allowed him to turn a certain tackle into a touchdown.
You can't draw up pre-snap disguises or elaborate coverages to stop those plays. They're just startling feats of athleticism.
Belichick was careful not to minimize the importance of his coaching and training staff in preparing players for games, and players like Josh Miller who have left the Patriots have remarked on the difference Belichick's coaching makes in a season. However, Belichick agreed that the players are the most important part of a winning formula.
"I think everybody's job is important. I wouldn't minimize what anybody does, but ultimately the players are the ones out there on the field and they make the plays," said Belichick. "The games that we've won, it's because they've made good plays, more than the other team has, and that's why we've had more points.
"But I'm not trying to say that other people's jobs aren't important and I don't appreciate what they do or that they don't mean anything, I'm not saying that. Ultimately, the players are the ones that have to go out there and make the plays. There's nothing more important than them."
Linebacker Junior Seau, who plays a little chess, said the analogy to a chess match doesn't work, no matter the brainpower of the coaches. The most important pieces on the board are the players.
"This game is tackle, run the ball, catch the ball, penalty-free, you name it, back to the basics," said Seau. "A chess match, you can play chess all you want but somebody is not going to hit you in your mouth. According to the chess games that I play, it's never physical. So you can call it what you want, but the fact is the team that plays the best Sunday will win the game."
It's just that simple, unlike the game plans of Belichick and Mangini.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.