The Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets have been able to assemble enough talent to make a run at the Patriots in any given year, but those teams haven’t been able to sustain a legitimate run for multiple seasons.
Regardless of how the Jets got into the playoffs, they made the most of their time in the tournament by winning a pair of hard-fought road games. That alone will give them an actual reason to walk around with their boisterous swagger next season. Surely, the Jets’ loudmouth ways were laughable early in 2009 because their trash talk was baseless, but it’s got some backing now.
In the grand scheme of things, the Jets still haven’t accomplished very much. One trip to the conference championship doesn’t warrant a parade, even if the Jets already have one planned in two weeks. After all, teams like the 2006 Chicago Bears, 2005 Seattle Seahawks and 2003 Carolina Panthers have gone to the Super Bowl and proceeded to completely fall off the map. Let’s not even start on the 2002 Oakland Raiders.
However, the Jets remain built to win in the future. Every starter on their offensive line — which might be the best unit in football — is under contract for 2010. So is quarterback Mark Sanchez, running back Shonn Greene, tight end Dustin Keller — a budding star at that position — and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Wideout Braylon Edwards, whose hands are glorified lobster claws, is a restricted free agent, and Jets head coach Rex Ryan has publicly stated he intends to keep his best deep threat. Do-it-all offensive threat Brad Smith appears to be in the same boat.
The biggest questions with the Jets’ offense surround running backs Thomas Jones and Leon Washington, who helped spark the No. 1 running game in the league, despite Washington's injury-shortened season. Jones reportedly has a pricey $2.8 million roster bonus due in March, so he might not be worth the financial commitment, especially since Greene’s emergence in the playoffs. And Washington is a restricted free agent, which means other teams will have to send draft picks to the Jets if New York chooses to make the speedy back an offer.
The Jets’ secondary could see a turnover of a different kind in the coming months. Judging by Ryan’s comments about a "personal" issue with safety Kerry Rhodes and his subsequent midseason benching, it looks like a safe bet Rhodes won’t be back. Cornerback Lito Sheppard surprisingly underperformed in Ryan’s system, and the unrestricted free agent will likely play elsewhere in 2010, as will cornerback Donald Strickland, who reportedly fell out of favor with Ryan because he couldn’t stay healthy. But fear not, because cornerback Darrelle Revis can be in three places at once, and rumors indicate Revis is so good he is thinking about traveling through time to break up "The Catch."
It’s also scary to think the Jets had the top-rated defense in the league despite playing without defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, who was placed on injured reserve in October with a torn ACL. New York’s depth and ferocity with its front seven made life hell for opposing quarterbacks, and its core pieces — Jenkins, defensive end Shaun Ellis, and linebackers David Harris, Calvin Pace and Bart Scott — are all under contract next season.
Certainly, the Jets have some work to do this offseason if they want to remain at the top of their game, but their work is cosmetic compared to what the Patriots have ahead of them. This isn’t to declare the Jets as the AFC East favorites in 2010, but they’re certainly better equipped to compete with the Patriots for an extended amount of time than any other team has been in the last decade.
Right away, they’re built to win with a powerful running game and a dominant defense. They’re also committed to playing the game their way, and that formula got them nine wins with a rookie quarterback who was more of a liability than an asset. Sanchez showed he can be an accurate passer, but his decision making is of the "Mike Tyson face tattoo" variety. Once Sanchez improves his knowledge of the game, it looks like he’ll be a very capable quarterback.
And in the last few weeks, the Jets have established a winning identity. Add that to a roster loaded with talent, and they’ll be a menace to the Patriots in 2010 and beyond.