Make no mistake the third game between the two teams since Bill Belichick's prized young defensive student, Eric Mangini, bolted New England after just one year as the team's defensive coordinator to take over the top job with the Jets is a game that both coaches would do just about anything to win. So taking the boxing lingo a step further - "Let's get ready to rumble!"
Despite spending more than a decade together -- Mangini moving up the coaching ranks in Cleveland, New York and New England and learning from the man who's won three Super Bowls leading the NFL's modern-day dynasty - the relationship took a severe turn for the worse when the young coach decided to take a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to break free from his overbearing boss. And when Mangini's Jets got involved in New England's contract negations with Deion Branch, well, the young coach and his team became enemy No. 1 in New England. Never was that feeling so evident as when the Patriots clinched the AFC East title some in the organization celebrated the fact that Mangini's Jets couldn't win the division as much as the fact that New England itself had won.
The good ol' border war was back on.
When he was hired, many questioned whether Mangini was ready for the critical spotlight in the Big Apple or the rebuilding the Jets represented. But along the way to a 10-win season and a spot battling on wild-card weekend, Mangini's new players bought entirely into his system, his game plans and his style of preparing the team. Much of what Mangini brings to coaching might be derived from what he learned under Belichick, but make no mistake the pupil's new team believes it can beat that of his teacher.
In fact, the players' undying faith in Mangini really picked up steam when the Jets strolled into Gillette Stadium in early November and upset Belichick's team 17-14 to hand New England its first two-game losing streak in nearly four years. Since that time the Jets have won five of seven games to claim an unlikely post-season berth.
To say that loss didn't sit well with Belichick and his players might be the understatement of the year. But like New York, the 12-4 Patriots have played much better football since that meeting. New England heads into the post-season on a three-game winning streak and coming off two impressive road victories in Jacksonville and Tennessee. The Patriots haven't turned the ball over in three weeks, and aside from a new injury to safety Rodney Harrison the team heads into the playoffs maybe as healthy as it's been all season. The defense is playing as well at times as maybe any in the game and is building momentum at the right time.
So Sunday's rubber meeting between the two teams could have the makings of the most entertaining and emotionally charged contest of the NFL's opening round of playoff action. Belichick's Patriots have Tom Brady, plenty more playoff experience, the more talented overall roster and the always-important home-field advantage. And their head coach would do anything to beat his former life-long assistant.
But Mangini's Jets have put together something special in New York, have already knocked New England off once in Foxborough this season and, maybe above all else, believe in themselves and their coach.
Will that be enough for the big underdogs to go into New England and pull off the upset in the season rubber match between the two teams? Only time will tell and Belichick will be doing anything in his power to make sure it doesn't happen, so it won't be easy. But everything about the meeting should be entertaining, including the pregame buildup in which the teacher will likely once again virtually ignore questions about his prized student right up until the emotional action on the field this Sunday.
--S Rodney Harrison's injury to the MCL in his right knee knocked him out for Sunday's meeting with the Jets. There is speculation that the injury could possibly sideline the veteran safety for the entire post-season. Harrison was injured in the second quarter of Sunday's season finale win over the Titans on a low block by Tennessee wide receiver Bobby Wade that infuriated New England players and coaches, but was deemed legal by the league.
--NT Vince Wilfork has missed the last three regular-season games with an ankle injury. His status for Sunday's game in unknown.
--TE Benjamin Watson also missed the final three regular-season games battling a knee injury. Watson's status is unknown.
--RB Laurence Maroney returned to his playmaking style against the Titans after being slowed for weeks with torn rib cartilage. Maroney had a team-high 73 yards on 13 carries in the win in Tennessee, including a 31-yard scamper that set up his own 1-yard fourth-quarter touchdown. The rookie first-round pick finished the season second on the team with 175 carries for 745 yards (4.3 average) with six scores.
--P Todd Sauerbrun has struggled in his first two games in New England since becoming the team's third punter of the season. Sauerbrun punted five times in the finale in Tennessee for a 46.6-yard average and a 26.4-yard net. His numbers were hurt, though, by the fact that the Patriots' coverage units allowed an 81-yard Pacman Jones punt return touchdown that forced New England to punt short and away from the dangerous returner the rest of the afternoon. In two road games prior to his Sunday home playoff debut in New England, Sauerbrun has punted 10 times with a 40.8-yard average and a 30.7-yard net.
--RB Corey Dillon finished with a team-high 199 carries for 812 yards and 13 rushing scores for the season. The 13 rushing scores ties Curtis Martin's Patriots franchise record and sets a new career high for Dillon after back-to-back 12 touchdown performances in each of his first two seasons in New England.
If Sunday's wild card matchup between the AFC East rival Jets and Patriots were a pay-per-view heavyweight boxing match, publicity posters might say something like "Belichick vs. Mangini III: This time it's personal."
Eric Mangini's move to the Jets didn't sit well with Belichick. The playoffs only add more drama