It is the NFL's conspicuous good fortune to have the Jets and the Patriots playing this Thursday night on the league's very own network. It's more than a battle for first place in the AFC East. It's more than the latest installment in the dreadfully familiar rivalry between coaches, the monotone mentor and his equally glib ex-apprentice. Rather, it's an opportunity to see the game's most outsized and controversial figures match wits and skills.
It's a team game. I've heard that somewhere before. But let's be serious: This one comes down to Brett Favre vs. Bill Belichick. Going back to the beginning of last season, they are the most dramatic protagonists in the pro football narrative. And given what's happened through 10 weeks of the regular season, the burden of proof, and the pressure that goes with it, is on Favre.
I'm not exactly sure how this could be happening. Twice this season I sat in the San Diego press box and watched the Chargers—an inexcusably soft team that needed help to survive the Chiefs at home—demolish first the Jets, then the Pats. Week Three saw Favre throw a couple of interceptions (would've been three if Antonio Cromartie didn't let a ball go through his hands) as the Jets lost 48-29. Some weeks later, the Patriots lost by 20. There was no way, I declared, that New England could get by with Matt Cassel at quarterback.
Now, with the Patriots at 6-3 and their woefully inexperienced quarterback coming off a fine, mistake-free game against the Bills, my chagrin is equal to the credit due Cassel. Still, even more credit is due Belichick. To this point he's gotten more out of a guy who hadn't started since high school than Eric Mangini has gotten out of the NFL's career leader in touchdowns, yards, completions, and attempts.
By now you've heard a lot about Favre's difficult transition into Eric Mangini's offense. But, really, who had the tougher adjustment: Mangenius and Favre, or Belichick and Cassel?
The Jets are coming off a big win, 47-3 over the Rams. But it shouldn't come as such a shock. At 6-3 themselves, the Jets have some talent, not to mention a Hall of Fame quarterback. More shocking was that the quarterback went without an interception for the first time since Week One.
Favre has 12 interceptions to go with his 16 touchdown passes. Cassel, who has thrown for only 179 fewer yards, has thrown seven touchdowns, but also, only seven interceptions. He hasn't been well protected either. Cassel has been sacked 29 times, 13 more than Favre.
Belichick isn't a nice guy; he's a proven cheater. But he's also having the best season of any coach or player in the league, including the Titans' Jeff Fisher. Consider the injuries he's had to work through:
He lost the best quarterback in football. He lost his best running back, Laurence Maroney. Actually, the entire backfield has been decimated. Sammy Morris has missed three games. Lamont Jordan has missed five straight. Kevin Faulk, who's 32, has missed a game. No matter. Belichick comes up with somebody named BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
What's more, the guys who are supposed to protect Cassel can't seem to protect themselves. Three offensive linemen that signed as free agents in the offseason were hurt before they could ever play in a game. Right tackle Nick Kaczur missed a couple of games. Right guard Stephen Neal was out until Week Seven.
That would be the same week that safety Rodney Harrison was lost for the season.
Now comes more good news for the Jets: Adalius Thomas is gone with a broken forearm.
In other words, Belichick has Favre right where he wants him.
On the Mark
By now, you've probably heard of the astounding $28.1 million verdict against the NFL Players Association.
A federal jury in San Francisco has ruled that the union sold out retired players by failing to market their images to Electronic Arts, which manufactures Madden NFL.
In other words, not only did Gene Upshaw and his cronies make life miserable for retirees with disability claims, they were ripping off their own.
So, I'm thinking maybe those "GU 63" patches the players have been wearing should be changed to "GU 28.1."
I'm sure to be overcome with emotion when Jimmie Johnson wins another Sprint Cup next Sunday in Miami.
Kind of how I felt when Vijay Singh won the FedEx Cup.
Who says golf misses Tiger Woods?
A friend asks how I saw the Roy Jones-Joe Calzaghe fight.
"The end of Jones," I say.
"Gee," he says. "Didn't that happen, like, five years ago?"
The guy has a point. But the problem with Jones isn't what he tried to do on Saturday.
It's what he didn't do 10 years ago, when he was the most physically gifted fighter of his era.
You don't earn much love fighting off-duty cops.
By the way, did you see the way Calzaghe was shimmying and taunting his opponent?
It made for great TV. But I have to wonder, if the racial equation was reversed—if Calzaghe was the black fighter—would he have gotten grief for embarrassing a game but aged champion?
If I'd just bet Texas Tech and the over each week, I'd already have enough to send my kid through college.
Now, even as you read this, a concerned father is calling his bookie.
By the way, where do these Big 12 coaches get their playbooks, the Arena League?
I'm sure the President-Elect was touched to learn that Brandon Marshall was willing to take a 15-yard penalty for a gloved salute to honor his victory.
Good to know that McCain didn't have a lock on the knucklehead vote.
Giants tight end Kevin Boss caught six balls for 69 yards and a touchdown on Sunday.
Jeremy Shockey, who makes about three times more, had two catches, 16 yards, and a round of embarrassing words with his quarterback.
All of which makes me think that Shockey will be evacuated from New Orleans before the next hurricane.
If the Clippers were an automaker, Donald Sterling could get some relief on Capitol Hill.
The question isn't how Randy Moss—who mentioned some "iffy calls" against the Bills—had his $20,000 fine rescinded.
It's how the NFL ever fined him in the first place.
If you ask me, though, the league got what it wanted. Bottom line: For most guys the mere threat of a $20,000 fine is enough to have a chilling effect on postgame locker room speech.
Stephon Marbury, who's getting $22 million to do absolutely nothing, says he wants to own the Knicks.
I say he already does.
This article originally published on FOXSports.com.
Read more of Mark's columns here.