Path to victory followed familiar flight plan
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Of course they're never going to let us know their true feelings on the matter, but there was one teeny-weeny clue from the coach, who is normally loath to admit that any one game in the Big 16 is different than any other.
"I think this team was going to come in here and do what they did today, regardless of what anyone thinks," said Bill Belichick. "That's who they are."
Whoever they are, there's no denying what they are. They are undefeated. Among the supposed AFC elite, Indianapolis has a loss. Jacksonville has a loss. San Diego has two losses. And the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets definitely have a loss.
"The New England Patriots are 2 and 0," smiled Randy Moss. "So, all you haters, keep hating. We're coming."
It's a new year, with a new script. But who doesn't know that?
"People are saying, 'What's the score?' " said Adalius Thomas, who had a vital 20-yard sack of Brett Favre late in the game. "19-10. Was that it? They're not used to seeing that with us. But a win is a win."
You'll hear a lot of that in varying forms this year. A win is a win is a win. The Brady-less 2008 Patriots are not statistically-minded. Their only goal is to make sure that when the game is over they have 1 more point than the other guys. Especially these guys.
Credibility was at stake here. Could the Jets take advantage of the Brady situation? Could the Patriots put together and execute a game plan with a new quarterback on the road?
Then throw in the peripherals. The Spygate allegations burst forth right here 53 weeks ago, so things will be hot between these teams for years to come. And then there was all the blather this week in the local press about how the Jets were the heir apparent in the AFC East, and indeed the AFC. The Patriots are pretty good at playing the no-respect game, as the Jets found out yesterday in what, playoffs aside, will be the last New England appearance in this fine stadium, whose demise is a sad commentary on the bloated economics of professional sports. There may be no better place anywhere for the average fan to watch a football game, but the average fan no longer counts. Only luxury boxes count. OK, OK, that's a story for another day.
No, the story on this day was that the Patriots were the better football team. All those coronation plans for the Jets will have to be put on hold.
Matt Cassel was exactly what he needed to be, no more and no less. He was 16 for 23 for 165 yards. He had no touchdown passes, but, more importantly, he had no interceptions. Brett Favre did. And it was very, very costly. I mean, I'm just saying . . .
"Matt took things in stride," said center Dan Koppen. "He didn't try to do anything more than he was asked to. He went out and ran the offense. He just did his job out there."
Koppen clearly got the memo. "Doing your job" is the theme of the 2008 Patriots. Tom Brady is out for the year, but there is a season to play anyway, and things will be OK if everyone does his job.
"One player doesn't make the whole team," reminded cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "No one asked Cassel to have the best game of his life. They just asked him to be the quarterback of the New England Patriots."
One opinion counts more than all the others combined, and the opinion of Coach Bill was that his kid QB had done just fine. Coach Bill spoke of "good decisions," and of "managing the game" and of Cassel "not putting us in any bad positions."
No one used this phrase, so let me be the first to label Cassel a work in progress. He had one opportunity to match last week's big collaboration with Moss, and this time he did not get the job done. With his team leading, 16-10, with just under 10 minutes to play Cassel had a first and 10 at his 34. He faded back, and there was No. 81 with lots and lots of what they like to call "separation" between himself and the Jets defense. You had to think 6 as the ball hung in the air. But the pass was underthrown and Moss did not do as good a job as he might have when he came back for it. It went for a disappointing incompletion, with the fault ratio probably going 80-20, Cassel being the 80. Maybe next time.
Gone until further notice are the days of the constant empty backfields and the exotic formations. The Patriots used so many two-back sets you might have thought a 1975 Big Ten game had broken out. But the end result was a very helpful running game that was effective when it had to be - at clock-killing time.
But in the end the offense was, as Coach Bill might say, what it was. The bigger story of this game was a defense that stiffened early after a strong opening Jets drive (and which was rewarded when Jay Feely went wide right on a 31-yard field goal) and which did a pretty good job of holding down Favre, who was 18 for 26 for 181 yards, 54 of them coming on one vintage Favre broken-play hookup with Laveranues Coles. If you're a Patriots fan, you might not be very impressed with one touchdown and four Stephen Gostkowski field goals (21, 37, 28, and 27, numbers that reflect bogged-down drives), but you had to like your team only giving up 10 points.
Those defenders feel good because they know they won the battles in the trenches, most notably when a second-quarter New York first-and-goal at the 3 resulted in a field goal after the Jets had been stuffed three times.
"Right there that shows you what they wanted to do," said nose tackle Vince Wilfork. "They wanted to run the ball and show they were tougher. That was man against man down there, and we came out on top."
They'll tell you they prepare the same for every game and that they want every game. But there is no doubt - none - that the New England Patriots really, really, really wanted this particular game, coming in this particular stadium at this particular time.
Tom Brady may be gone, but he leaves behind a lot of guys with rings and a lot of guys with pride, and it all makes for a very different rooting experience for the fans.
Last year it was about kicking butt. This year it's about doing whatever it takes. If the players can make that adjustment, the fans can, too.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.