The AFC East champion is guaranteed three things each season: one hat, one T-shirt and one home game in the playoffs. Obviously, the division winner takes home a metaphorical badge of honor after achieving one of its year's goals, but ultimately, the crown is forgotten about soon after it's attained.
But as far as rivalries are concerned, especially those involving Boston and New York, the AFC East might carry a little more importance. The Patriots have won the division title in eight of the last 10 seasons, including each of the last two, but the Jets ended New England's season at Gillette Stadium, begging the following question:
Are the Patriots still the class of the AFC East?
Again, the answer is more about an ego thing than anything else. The Patriots will undoubtedly be proud of their 2010 division title, as well as their NFL-best 14-2 record, but more than that, they know they fell short of their main goal. Even worse from their perspective, their fate was sealed by their greatest rivals.
The Jets might have been able to make a stronger case for leapfrogging the Patriots if they didn't bow out to the Steelers a week later in the AFC Championship. Still, the Jets have won four playoff games in the last two years, while the Patriots haven't won a single postseason game in three years.
The question at hand is no doubt spurred by the ever-evolving Pats-Jets rivalry, which is extremely passionate and even a little weird. After all, this topic wasn't really raised after the Dolphins took the AFC East title in 2008.
Also, the answer is subjective to the weight of two issues. If it's about the last decade, there's no doubt the Patriots remain as the kings of the division, especially since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are still at the height of their careers. It's also tough to take the crown from a franchise that has won the division title in each of the last two seasons.
But if it's about the most recent moment in time, when the Jets beat the Patriots in fairly convincing fashion in January, the case could be made for Rex Ryan's club, which is 3-2 against New England since he took over in 2009.
There's one major problem with the question at this point, though. The Jets' roster is still very much up in the air for the 2011 season, while the Patriots only have two key questions to answer (Matt Light, Logan Mankins).
The Jets have a powerful list of free agents who are set to hit the market at the conclusion of the lockout, including defensive end Shaun Ellis, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, wide receiver Braylon Edwards, wide receiver Brad Smith, linebacker David Harris (franchised), cornerback Antonio Cromartie, fullback Tony Richardson and defensive backs Drew Coleman, Eric Smith, Brodney Pool and James Ihedigbo.
First, the Jets won't have enough money under the salary cap to retain all of them. Second, the teams that will be forced to spend obnoxious amounts of money to reach the salary floor will be enticed to target a good portion of these players, most notably Holmes, Cromartie, Edwards and Ellis. Because of the roster uncertainty, the Jets have work to do if they want to stay on par with the team that knocked out New England last season.
There's a strong argument to be made that Ryan's Jets have caught up with the Patriots, but it will take even more of an effort to dethrone the team that has reigned supreme in the division for the majority of the last decade.
Jeff Howe will answer one Patriots-related question every day through Aug. 1.
Sunday, July 24: What's in store for Brandon Meriweather?
Tuesday, July 26: What can the Patriots expect from Wes Welker?
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