For anyone who was worried that the storied Jets vs. Patriots rivalry might be diminished this year and lose its luster, you have nothing to worry about.
Sunday's overtime thriller (Patriots 29, Jets 26) was as tight a game as these two franchises have ever played.
Obviously, these two teams will duke it out for AFC East supremacy. But what do we make of this rivalry?
Are these two contenders or two teams fighting for nothing more than a playoff bid?
Case 1: The Jets and Patriots are Contenders
Let's argue that these teams are still contenders, like they both have been since after the 2008 season, when the Miami Dolphins won the division.
The Patriots still have strengths on their team. The Patriots have often looked weak against the Jets in the past few years, but those same teams have dominated other defenses. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady simply does not match up well against the Jets defense.
Even Sunday, the Patriots did things on offense that they can be proud of. They put up 131 yards on 31 carries, finding a good mix of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Brady had a respectable game, with 259 yards and two touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball, the Jets have plenty to feel good about (as much as one can after a loss). The biggest underdogs of the week, they played solid football for the third week in a row. With Darrelle Revis out, their secondary continues to play well. With Santonio Holmes out, their wide receivers have stepped up.
With Sione Pouha and Kenrick Ellis out, their young players on the defensive line are playing better. The Jets are clearly bringing a next-man-up mentality.
Perhaps the best thing for the Jets to feel good about is quarterback Mark Sanchez. With 68 percent completions, 328 passing yards and a 90.3 quarterback rating—all while under significant pressure—Sanchez has most likely earned a few weeks of respite from media slander.
After holding their own against the Houston Texans and New England Patriots—considered by many to be the two best teams in the AFC—the Jets have clearly distinguished themselves from the lower levels of AFC teams.
Case 2: The AFC East is Weak
Let's argue that the AFC East is simply weak. The NFC is the stronger conference this year. The NFC East and NFC West are both much stronger than in previous years. The AFC East—after perennially fielding two playoff teams per year—is just not that good right now.
The Patriots now have three losses—and very nearly a fourth one—that can all be attributed to bad fourth-quarter defense. If there is one defense—and one secondary—you do not want on the field in the fourth quarter, it's the one in New England.
The Jets' terribly depleted wide receiving corps ran the Patriots secondary ragged, with rookie Stephen Hill and second-year backup Jeremy Kerley having no trouble getting open. The run defense was not much better, giving up 106 yards to a team with three injured running backs.
Worst of all, what has happened to the Patriots offense? Didn't they used to throw actual passes? The current variant of the Patriots offense is the most extreme case of a dink-and-dunk offense left in the modern NFL.
The Jets have a better looking downfield passing game, and red zone passing game, tonight than the Pats. Didn't see that coming
— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) October 21, 2012
Meanwhile, the Jets have plenty to worry about. While they have won the games they were supposed to win, they have not yet beaten a 2011 playoff team this year. Being second-best to the Patriots counts for little if the AFC East is only going to field one playoff team.
Furthermore, the two things the Jets are supposed to be great at—fourth-quarter defense and special teams—are lacking. The Jets defense had an opportunity to end the game with the Jets up 26-23. They gave up a scoring drive to end regulation and then another to begin overtime.
Where was the one big stop the Jets needed?
The special teams unit had its own fair share of mistakes. They allowed a kick-return touchdown and ruined their own field position with a bad holding penalty (by Nick Bellore).
At this point, the Jets are so ruined by injuries that they are going to be stuck being an average team, looking up at the AFC elite.
So which is it? The Patriots and Jets both have Week 9 byes, so they will both be looking to head into them with wins next weekend. The Patriots have a very winnable game in St. Louis. A blowout of the Rams could make them look like contenders again.
Meanwhile, the Jets will play host to the Miami Dolphins. That is a must-win game for them and one they absolutely should win. Even depleted by injuries, there is no excuse for losing to the perennially last-place Dolphins. If the Jets lose next week, you can probably count them out of the playoffs.
The truth most likely lies between the two cases presented. 2012 is certainly a down year for the AFC East. Neither the Jets nor the Patriots can make a case for being the best in the AFC.
But if one of them reaches the playoffs, a lot of crazy things can still happen.
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