Hello Again, Chum

Some think Jets Coach Eric Mangini, right, had a role in turning in his former mentor, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, for stealing signals.
Some think Jets Coach Eric Mangini, right, had a role in turning in his former mentor, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, for stealing signals. (Mel Evan -- AP Photo)
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Last month, the New England Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills, 56-10. That game came three weeks after the Patriots had beaten the Washington Redskins, 52-7.

All of that now has everyone in the league wondering: If Patriots Coach Bill Belichick did that to the Bills' Dick Jauron, a coach of whom Belichick is said to be fond, and the Redskins' Joe Gibbs, a three-time Super Bowl winner who is in the Hall of Fame, what is he going to inflict Sunday on his former protege turned nemesis, New York Jets Coach Eric Mangini, as revenge for Spygate?

"The Patriots might score 80 in that game," one AFC general manager said recently, speaking on the condition of anonymity so he wouldn't incur Belichick's wrath himself. "Okay, maybe that's unrealistic. But how about 70?''

Practically everyone in the NFL will be peeking at the scoreboard for Jets-Patriots updates. It is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated noncompetitive game in recent memory. No one expects the Jets, at 3-10, to go to Foxborough, Mass., and derail the Patriots' bid for an unbeaten season.

The curiosity is over how much the Patriots will keep piling up points against the team that was on the opposite sideline in the opening game of the season at Giants Stadium, the game that led to Belichick and the Patriots being penalized by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for using videotaping equipment to steal the play signals of Jets coaches.

The relationship between Belichick and Mangini has been frosty since Mangini left the Patriots. Mangini had worked his way up to being Belichick's defensive coordinator, then took the Jets' head coaching job before last season against Belichick's wishes. The move looked good for Mangini, who took the Jets to the playoffs and was celebrated in New York as a coaching "Mangenius."

Things haven't gone as well this season. Mangini's team has fallen apart, and he benched quarterback Chad Pennington in favor of youngster Kellen Clemens.

The odd circumstance about the aftermath of the spying incident was that, within NFL coaching circles, there was plenty of backlash against Mangini, who was thought to have played a role in turning in his former boss to the league. Other coaches said privately that Mangini was being disloyal and wondered why he didn't object and do something about it when he was with the Patriots and presumably knew what was going on.

Goodell fined Belichick $500,000 and the Patriots $250,000, and stripped the Patriots of a first-round draft pick next spring. There has been talk all season about whether the incident tarnished the Patriots' accomplishments as they pursue what would be a fourth Super Bowl title in tandem for Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady and try to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only undefeated teams in history.

The Patriots' tactics during some games this season have been interpreted by some observers as a sort of season-long temper tantrum by Belichick in response to Spygate, and have raised eyebrows about whether he has unnecessarily embarrassed some opponents. It has been common for Brady to remain on the field in lopsided games until the late stages, and for Belichick to eschew field goals and leave his offense on the field for fourth-down tries in the second half of a blowout. Neither Jauron nor Gibbs raised any objections, but Bills fans directed an obscene chant at Belichick during the Nov. 18 game in Buffalo. Belichick's standard response has been to shrug and mutter something about just playing the game.

Belichick, of course, is saying little to nothing this week about any added desire to squash the Jets and Mangini.

"I'm telling you that we're going to approach this game like the last game and the one before it," he said during his news conference Monday.

He talked about his respect for Jets players and said: "Right now [the opening-game incident] doesn't come into play. I'm not going to worry about it. We're not going to talk about it. We're going to try to win the next game. . . . People try to make more out of it than what it is."

That, of course, is the Patriots' way: Don't talk about it. Do it. After consecutive wobbly performances in narrow victories over the Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots got back to their dominating ways last Sunday and beat the nine-win Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-13, at Gillette Stadium. That came after young Steelers safety Anthony Smith had issued a public victory guarantee in the days before the game.

Patriots left tackle Matt Light was asked in the postgame locker room Sunday whether he would get tired this week of hearing about Spygate and revenge.

"I have bad hearing anyway," Light said. "Or as my wife would say, selective hearing. There's always a reason to be motivated for a game."

A pour-it-on victory over the Jets could put the Patriots on the doorstep of some single-season NFL records. They're 53 points from the single-season scoring record of 556 points, set by the 1998 Minnesota Vikings. Brady is four touchdown passes from Peyton Manning's record of 49, and wide receiver Randy Moss is three touchdown catches from the record of 22 by Jerry Rice.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company