Breaking down the AFC divisional battle, Jets at Patriots, Sunday, 4:30 ET, CBS
1. Tom Brady is still improving in his craft. At the end of his 10th season as a starter, Brady's mastery seems to be expanding. He finished with 11 straight starts without an interception, the longest stretch in the NFL since the 1970 merger (a run that included a league-record 335 consecutive passes). He also had at least one touchdown pass in every game, a feat no quarterback had accomplished in six years. Tucked into those numbers was his 21-for-29 night in Week 13 against the Jets, when he threw for 326 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-3 blowout, embarrassing a proud defense on national television. Facing a secondary that had lost safety Jim Leonhard only days before, Brady was ruthless and brilliant.
PLAYOFF POLL GALLERY: WHO DO YOU THINK WILL WIN?
Of late the Jets have seen improvement from their safety duo of Brodney Pool and Eric Smith, who will share the burden of corralling Brady's arsenal. "Anytime you have a safety covering a wideout or a receiving tight end, I don't know if [you're] comfortable, but he can certainly do the job," Jets coach Rex Ryan said of Pool. "He's as athletic as any of the safeties out there."
When the Jets have beaten the Patriots in recent meetings -- as they have in consecutive games in East Rutherford -- they have done so with a heavy pass rush. In the Jets' losses, though, Brady stands tall in the pocket, unbothered.
"We need to do a better job winning one-on-one battles," said Jets pass rusher Jason Taylor. "Another thing is, I think Tom does a great job of diagnosing what the defense is and what's coming at him and understanding where to go with the football. He's very much a student of the game, and he's seen it all, and I think he does a great job of putting his team in a position to be successful. When you're playing against the best quarterback in the league, it's sometimes tough, regardless of who you're playing against up front."
2. While every press conference seems to turn into a circus, Rex Ryan is no fool. Ryan might talk too much for many folks' tastes, but it is hard to argue with his coaching acumen or his team's results. In his first two seasons as Jets head coach, Ryan has already compiled a 3-1 postseason record in four road games, motivating his team to play its best despite long odds. Like his father before him, Ryan coaches in bold strokes and bright colors. His defense is always attacking. His motivational speeches have quickly become the stuff of legend. The Jets say there is no one they'd rather play for. "He wants to protect our guys," quarterback Mark Sanchez said of Ryan standing up for his players.
Ryan's rhetoric isn't just idle chatter. Every word seems to serve a purpose. He tweaked Tom Brady in comparing him to Peyton Manning and in accusing the Patriots' quarterback of pointing to the Jets sideline after touchdowns. It has clearly become a theme in the Jets locker room as cornerback Antonio Cromartie went as far as calling Brady a curse word. Ryan stood up for Cromartie, as was expected. Ryan's bombast can grow tiresome outside the Jets locker room, but it is hard to argue its results.
3. Mark Sanchez doesn't scare easily. In just his second season, Sanchez has already played in four playoff games (he's 3-1), getting the kind of exposure to big-time pressure that many quarterbacks don't face until deep in their careers. Sanchez's Jets have now defeated Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning in the postseason. Knocking out Tom Brady in the playoffs would be the signature win of his young career. "This would set us up right where we want to be," Sanchez said.
Sanchez has shown remarkable poise in hostile environments (Heinz Field in December, Lucas Oil Stadium in January) and will be asked to do so once more. His approach, though, has been to view the game through the lens of the Jets, not himself. "I think it's bigger than just me," Sanchez said. "It's about the entire team."
The Patriots might be the league's best example of a team that can win in several ways. Beyond Tom Brady's quarterbacking gifts (which will likely culminate in an MVP), the 2010 Patriots hurt opponents in every phase of the game. New England led the league with 25 interceptions (the fourth-highest total in team history) and returned four of those interceptions for touchdowns.
On Oct. 4, in Miami, the Patriots became the first team in NFL history to score a touchdown five different ways in the same game -- a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown, a kickoff return for a touchdown, a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown and a returned interception for a touchdown. In all, the Patriots tallied nine non-offensive touchdowns in 2010, tying a team record that was set in 1961. Most impressive about this season's Pats team? Its 21.8 average margin of victory is greater than the four previous Patriots teams that reached the Super Bowl under Bill Belichick.
The Patriots' ownership of the AFC East in general and the Jets in particular will continue. Patriots 27, Jets 13