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TURNING ON THE JETS While Giants play swallow the leader, Eric Mangini is quietly building New York's other team into a playoff contender

Eric Mangini isn't like the other coach in town. He's 35 but could be mistaken for the polite neighborhood kid stocking shelves at the corner store. He's quiet and unassuming. His demeanor exudes more "ho-hum" than "here we come," yet he's certainly inspired the New York Jets during his first season on the sidelines.

The other guy in New York is Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who possesses the piercing stare of a drill sergeant who could scare the boots off an Army Ranger. Coughlin doesn't look at people so much as through them. He doesn't talk to people so much as at them, making sure everyone knows who's running the show.

At least that's how many outsiders perceived the New York-New York situation. The past month has revealed a different picture, with Mangini clearly in command and Coughlin losing whatever foothold he had on the Giants. The Giants have been in a free fall and can no longer boast the best team in the Meadowlands.

That distinction belongs to the Jets, who subtly but assuredly have assumed their place as New York's team on the rise and perhaps the better choice to make the playoffs.

"It's always going to be a reflection of the coach," Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma said last week. The Jets under Mangini have won three of their last four games and are now 7-5, keeping them very much alive in the AFC playoff race. They buried the Green Bay Packers in the first half last Sunday and rolled to a 38-10 victory on the road. Suddenly, people have taken a liking to the rookie coach and have given him a new nickname: Mangenius.

Mangini might have another tag at season's end: Coach of the Year. He has joined New Orleans rookie coach Sean Payton among the leading candidates for the top coaching honor. What better way to explain how the Jets have stayed in contention despite having the 24th-rated offense and the 27th-rated defense?

"I'd love to be Father of the Year. That's a distinction I would love to get," Mangini said during his weekly conference call. "What I told the team from the first day I got here was that every decision that was made was made in the best interests of the New York Jets and to help us win. I think they've seen that that's true as the weeks unfold."

Mangini installed the 3-4 defense after the Jets for years ran the 4-3. He has two rookies starting on the offensive line in center Nick Mangold and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Quarterback Chad Pennington has been solid in running an effective short-passing game with a no-huddle twist that has kept teams off balance.

Unlike the Giants, the Jets have found ways to win. Unlike the Giants, they haven't dominated the headlines. And unlike the Giants, they are coming together with their coach's even-keel approach as they enter the most critical stretch of the regular season.

"It's the same approach we take as a team whether we have a game like we did against Jacksonville [a 41-0 loss in October] or the game against Green Bay," Mangini said. "You're constantly fighting human nature of not getting too high and not getting too low. If you do, you lose what's important."

The Jets had assumed their usual place in the background while fans gushed about the Giants potentially playing for the Super Bowl. A month ago, the Jets were ho-hum at 4-4 while the Giants were here-we-come at 6-2. Over the past four weeks, the Jets remained unruffled while the Giants unraveled.

It wouldn't be ludicrous for the Jets to run the table and finish 11-5. Their remaining four opponents are Buffalo this afternoon at home, at Minnesota and Miami, and home against Oakland. The Giants, with the 11th-rated offense and 15th-rated defense, could very well lose their final four and finish 6-10. They're at Carolina today, home against Philadelphia and New Orleans, and at Washington.

Coughlin first became a head coach at Rochester Institute of Technology in 1970, a year before Mangini was born. He's known for being a disciplinarian using old-school methods, but last week he watched the Giants take four personal-foul penalties and lose on a last-second field goal.

Mangini is the NFL's youngest coach by seven years. He started as a coaches' assistant (translation: get coffee) in Cleveland under Bill Belichick, spent a year with Baltimore, three with the Jets and six more with Belichick in New England before returning to the Jets this season.

"The only time I wasn't really the youngest guy was when I was a ball boy in Cleveland," Mangini said. "I was 23 and everybody else was 15."

Now?

"Every day there's something new that comes up," he said. "It could be dealing with itineraries. It could be dealing with issues that come up with players or staff. It could be game-planning. There are so many factors that come into play when you have 100-plus people that you're overseeing and dealing with on an everyday basis."

It could be the tight end's sideline rant about not getting the ball, the star running back announcing retirement plans and complaints about play-calling, the defensive end and wide receiver staging a public feud, fans questioning whether the starting quarterback is suited for the job and the media calling for the coach's job.

All that and more has happened with the Giants. But with the Jets, the noise is barely above a whisper. They have methodically, and quietly, plodded through the season while the Giants get the attention. And that's perfectly fine with them.

"There's really not much to talk about," Vilma said. "We're on the same page. We just want to win."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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