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Frosty relations

Thoughts on the upcoming Jets-Patriots game, a.k.a. The Payback Bowl, and other NFL Week 15 topics ...

• It was a snow game that truly launched the Patriots dynasty in the 2001 AFC divisional round playoffs against Oakland in old Foxboro Stadium, and we might just have our next freeze-framed moment on tap Sunday afternoon when the Jets visit Gillette Stadium to try and deny New England's bid to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only two teams in NFL history to start a season 14-0.

Nobody has figured out a way to stop the Patriots passing-game-led offense throughout late summer and all of fall, but a blast of wintry conditions in the form of the white stuff might just go a long way toward leveling the playing field in a game that New England is currently favored to win by a whopping 23 points. Look for that number to plummet dramatically if the early forecasts that are calling for five to eight inches of snow mixed with some rain become the consensus.

You'd feel even a smidge better about the Jets' chances to stay in the game if they weren't so dreadful against the run. If weather doesn't allow for the Patriots to throw the ball much, they can still take solace in knowing that New York is ranked 30th against the run, allowing 141.9 yards per game. New England's offense is averaging 113.7 yards rushing per game, which isn't bad, but it's only the 14th best figure in the league.

While the Patriots are reportedly 9-0 all-time playing in snowy conditions at home, they haven't played in a snow game in more than two years -- beating the Jets 16-3 at Gillette on Dec. 4, 2005. That means they've never experienced the challenge of playing in snow on their FieldTurf playing surface at Gillette, which was installed in November '06, just after the Jets beat New England 17-14 in a game where the chewed-up conditions of Gillette's grass field was a big storyline.

"Any time you play in a bad-weather game, your level of awareness and concentration has to go up,'' Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said this week. "You can't take anything for granted.''

• The Patriots taking the Jets for granted -- 3-10 record and all -- just won't happen. Revenge is an overused angle when it comes to pregame chatter in professional sports, but this time, there's something to it. If you thought there was tension between these two head coaches and their teams last year, when all the controversy swirled around an icy post-game handshake, the antipathy and motivational levels are in another league post-Spygate.

The Jets are the team that spawned this all. They were the spark that ignited the Patriots' Sherman-esque march through the NFL this season, with everyone in the New England organization believing that New York ratted them out to the league regarding their video-taping practices in the first half of their season-opening meeting in the Meadowlands.

The loss of a first-round draft pick, the $750,000 in league-issued fines, the taint to their three-time Super Bowl-winning legacy, the embarrassment of being labeled "cheaters'' and having Don Shula hold forth on the possible need for an asterisk being applied to whatever history they make -- it's all directly traceable to the trouble-making Jets in the eyes of the Patriots.

Don't tell me the Patriots haven't been waiting 14 weeks for this one to arrive. This is a team that can whip itself into an on-field fury over a tepidly offered guarantee of victory by a little-known opponent -- no less than Tom Brady and Randy Moss were jawing in Anthony Smith's face last week against Pittsburgh -- so you can imagine what fires they've stoked in preparation for the team that turned them in and sullied their name.

"I'm telling you that we're going to approach this game like we approached the last one and the one before that,'' droned Patriots head coach Bill Belichick this week. "That's all I can tell you.''

No, that's just all you want to tell us, Bill. There's a big difference. And for the record, I do believe that part about approaching this game like you approached the last one (see: guarantee, by Smith, Anthony). And then some.

• With apologies to Frank and Liza, it's up to you, New York, New York. With the winless Dolphins having a zero percent -- that's right, zero -- chance of pulling the upset next week at frosty Gillette Stadium, the Jets on Sunday and the Giants in Week 17 at the Meadowlands are the only impediments to the Patriots recording the first 16-0 regular season in league history.

After here's the irony: For the past six weeks or so, everybody's been asking if the Patriots will continue to play it pedal-to-the-metal for the perfect season, even after they lock up the AFC's top playoff seed and homefield advantage throughout the postseason? (To which my answer has been "Absolutely yes.'')

It's actually the Giants (9-4) who are more likely to rest people in that Week 17 home game against the Patriots. New York should have the NFC's No. 5 seed locked up by then, and will be in the mood to protect its key players in preparation of a first-round road playoff game, probably at Tampa Bay. New England, having earned a first-round bye, will likely play its starters longer in an attempt to keep them sharp for the Jan. 12-13 divisional round.

• It has been a snowy December already in New England -- we got 10 inches dumped on us on Thursday afternoon and evening -- and if next week's Dolphins-Patriots affair should be played with that form of precipitation falling, it would serve as a 25th anniversary of sorts for the Snow Plow Game.

It would be undoubtedly all too much for Shula to take, seeing the Patriots go to 15-0, the Dolphins fall to 0-15 (yes, we're assuming a loss this week at home against Baltimore), and the specter of New England's 3-0 victory over Miami on Dec. 12, 1982 being invoked. Patriots kicker John Smith converted the game-winning 33-yard field goal that day after New England head coach Ron Meyer and quarterback Steve Grogan waved snow plow driver Mark Henderson -- a convict out on a work-release program -- onto the field to clear a spot for Smith's kick.

Shula today still can turn purple in the face at the merest mention of Meyer or that game.

• I suppose nothing in the hiring and firing season should be stunning any more, but the brazenness of how Bobby Petrino handled his departure from Atlanta still amazes me. The guy makes Nick Saban look like a beacon of honesty and character. At least the Nick-tator had the decency to finish out the Dolphins' schedule last year before bolting to Alabama.

Not Petrino. He told Falcons owner Arthur Blank that he wasn't going anywhere late Monday, only to resign Tuesday morning. He conducted his Arkansas introductory press conference late Tuesday night, only hours after leaving the Falcons high and dry.

Speaking no doubt for most, if not all, Falcons players, veteran safety Lawyer Milloy said of Petrino: "The league is not for everybody. This league is for real men. I think he realized he didn't belong here.''

Ouch.

You're getting a winner, Hogs fans. As in, no more calls, please. We have a winner in the lack of integrity sweepstakes.

• Atlanta's next head coach? Put me down for 49ers assistant head coach-linebackers coach Mike Singletary, who interviewed with the Falcons before Petrino was hired last January. The X factor, of course, is Bill Cowher. If The Chin wants back in, I would expect he could have the job for the asking. Providing he and Falcons president-general manager Rich McKay can work out their lines of authority in terms of personnel issues.

Then again, after obviously botching the Petrino hire last time around, the Falcons absolutely have to get this vacancy filled correctly. I guarantee you this: Seattle secondary coach Jim Mora is smiling this week, watching the Falcons flounder around once again.

Mario Williams not being the first, second or third person to say "I told you so'' is one of the most impressive acts I've seen in a long time. The second-year Houston defensive end now has an AFC-high 13 sacks this season, after his 3½-sack showing against Denver Thursday night.

Williams is suddenly a force, and you can't exactly say that about either Reggie Bush or Vince Young at the moment, can you? Williams has to be considered one of the leading candidates for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. I didn't see that coming.

• Speaking of Houston, at 7-7 the Texans are in last place in the best division in the NFL, the AFC South. In the NFC, that record would put them nearly on the cusp of a wild-card berth.

• How cool is it that Buffalo and Cleveland are facing off this weekend in a game with AFC playoff berth implications? The last time that happened, I think Ozzie Newsome was still playing.

Before the season started, if I would have told you that Trent Edwards would be quarterbacking against Derek Anderson in a Week 15 game that was pivotal to the playoff picture, would you have believed it?

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