January marks start for Patriots mind games

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It finally started to feel like January yesterday, at about 1:05 p.m. to be more precise.

Here in New England, football’s emotional roller coaster from one drive to the next has become as sure a sign of the new year as ice shacks on the pond and the tax preparers’ office in the strip mall. Perhaps even more sure, given the current climate.

But the Jets/Patriots Border War – Postseason Edition showed yesterday that football is a game played, and viewed, as much with the head as the heart.

Baseball is supposed to be the sport for intellectuals. And, on the off chance that it isn’t one of those four-hour American League marathons, it does exercise the brain. But hopefully, those who sneer at football as an intellectual vacuum stopped watching Upstairs, Downstairs for a minute and paid close attention yesterday, because the chess match going on between Eric Mangini and Bill Belichick would have made Grady Little’s head explode.

Actually, a chess match isn’t quite the right comparison. The pace of the game, which Mangini almost seemed to use as a challenge to Belichick (which he quickly accepted), was quicker than a board game where the purists still use hour glasses to measure time between moves. It was more like, well, more like a chess match where stop watches keep time and Red Bull is the beverage of choice.

There was so much brain matter being used yesterday, I half expected Alex Trebek to step in as host. And what I wouldn’t give to know what was going on in those pigskin-pointy heads on either sideline from one play to the next. I’d at least like to urge the NFL to allow fans to tune in to the radio traffic that goes on in each coach’s head phones during the game, the way NASCAR allows fans to listen to the back-and-forth between drivers and crew chiefs during races.

Or maybe I could be a fly on the wall when Mangini breaks down the film on this one. I’d like to know what he thinks of Belichick deciding to pick on Andre Dyson to open the game, or the three quick runs by Kevin Faulk at the end of the first half, or the perfect counter-point to the Jets’ blitz on the clinching TD pass to Faulk, which was set up by keeping the running backs in for pass protection the rest of the game. Will he shake his head and ask himself “Where’d that one come from?” Or will he smack himself in the forehead for not anticipating New England’s next move.

Make no mistake, the Man-genius is everything he’s been touted to be. It’s no hype. Since Nick Saban has retreated to college football, this guy is going to be Belichick’s AFC East foil as long as both are in the division.

Mangini should have earned the respect of Patriot fans if not his mentor. Hopefully the postgame hug puts that tired “story” to rest. (Maybe the self-important media folks in New York and Boston will focus on the near-clothesline Belichick used on a photographer to get to Mangini). Admit it, whether it was controlling the pace of the game with his “Look Ma, no huddle!” offense or trying to hurry Brady with amoeba-like blitz packages, he reminds you a lot of our boy Bill.

The Jets have looked like the 2001 Patriots all year. They just ran into a more talented, more experienced version of that team. The grind-it-out offense, the bend-but-don’t-break defense, the kicker who doesn’t miss (Yeah, they were chip shots, but can we at least start hoping Stephen Gostkowski is a candidate for that description without getting laughed at?)

And the fact is, New England still has the prototype coach and quarterback for this kind of football. I could have sworn Brady came out in a smock, mask and gloves the way he operated on the Jets in the opening drive. Given time to throw, he can make Jabar Gaffney look like Deion Branch. Given time to throw, but no open receivers, he can lumber for a first down. Given a running game, he can play-action defenses into convulsions. Given a couple of Pro Bowl-caliber receivers, he’d probably never lose a game.

As long as Belichick and Brady are the brains of the outfit, the Patriots will have a leg up on everybody.

Doesn’t mean they’ll win it all every year, or even this year. Doesn’t mean they won’t get out-thunk occasionally. It just means it’s going to feel like January for another week, and there’s nothing El Nino or global warming can do about it.

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