As much as it pained every Jets fan to see them 30 minutes away from the Super Bowl and ultimately lose the game, there's really nothing to feel bad about.
You've heard the reasoning before, but I'll say it here: rookie head coach, rookie quarterback, completely new defense, and the loss of two pro-bowl players in Kris Jenkins and Leon Washington early in the season.
A very delicious, sinfully good cake courtesy of Rex Ryan (a man who probably knows his cakes).
And like Rex has been saying since the end of the season, the Jets have nothing to apologize for and earned every right to play in the AFC Championship.
Kind of hard to believe considering the odds they were up against for most of the season.
Alas, to end “Year One” of the Rex Ryan regime where the Jets did is better than anyone could have imagined or predicted.
But looking forward, the Jets have much to be excited about and could be playing meaningful football games next January as well.
Here are two reasons why: 1) the returns of Leon Washington and Kris Jenkins; and 2) Mark Sanchez with a year of NFL and road playoff experience.
1a) The return of Leon Washington
Since he was drafted in 2006, Leon Washington has been the biggest play-maker/home run threat on the Jets roster. He possesses the ability to score every time he touches the ball, and without him on the sidelines, the Jets are a completely different team.
He's played crucial roles in special teams as a punt and kick returner and has played a prominent role in the Jets rushing attack, mainly complementing Thomas Jones and his physical, straight-ahead running style.
Leon Washington is more of a shifty, quick back, with the ability to make defenders miss and take off down the field.
Not to mention Brian Schottenheimer has had to eliminate the screen pass without the sure-handed Washington in the backfield (Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene haven't shown this ability).
Having as athletic an offensive line as the Jets do, the screen pass would surely be effective and open many things up for Sanchez and the offense as a whole.
Leon Washington allows Shotty to reach deeper into his bag of tricks.
The Jets lead the NFL in rushing in 2009 with Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene carrying the bulk of the load.
Assuming TJ comes back next year, imagine what Leon Washington's presence could do for the Jets offense.
1b) The return of Kris Jenkins
He stands at 6'4", weighs 360 pounds, and is very athletic. How does one block such a man?
Many have tried and few have succeeded.
So it's really without question that the loss of Jenkins was monumental for the Jets defense.
He was the cornerstone of Rex Ryan's system that would literally take on two offensive linemen and still have an impact on a play.
But the real impact of Jenkins' absence was felt by the Jets' run defense. Players stepped up after his loss, like Sione Pouha and Mike DeVito, and they really did a nice job; but Jenkins is the type of player who's really difficult to replace.
The Jets finished the season as the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL; without Jenkins clogging up the middle.
Imagine what his presence will allow other Jets defenders to do on each play.
2) Mark Sanchez with a year of NFL and road playoff experience
All you really need to do is watch the three playoff games the Jets played. Mark Sanchez played terrifically and saved arguably his best performance for the biggest stage and against the best defenses.
Against the Colts, Sanchez threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns, which was the third highest yard total in his career and his most since Week 8.
He finished the post-season with a 2-1 record and a 92.7 passer rating (almost 30 points higher than his passer rating over the course of the regular season).
After the Week 15 meltdown against the Falcons when Sanchez completed only 18 of 32 passes for 226 yards with three interceptions, Rex Ryan and Schotty pulled back the reins on their rookie quarterback.
They asked him (or forced him, assuming Mark didn’t have a say in the matter) to do less and make better decisions when given the chance.
Since then, Sanchez upped his play enormously and showed signs of maturing into a true NFL quarterback. The biggest sign: less interceptions and better decision-making.
Sanchez clearly took heed of his bosses.
Over the period of five weeks since Week 16 of the regular season when the Jets won four out of five games, Sanchez threw for 708 yards, four touchdowns, and only two interceptions.
As the weeks progressed and the stakes were rising, the Jets began to ease off the reins and let Sanchez play.
Against the Bengals in the first round, Sanchez threw the ball 15 times for 182 yards and one touchdown.
Against the Chargers in the divisional round, he threw 23 times for 100 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
And against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game, Sanchez threw the ball 30 times for 257 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Although the Jets lost the game, Sanchez played his heart out and didn’t cripple his team as he ultimately did earlier in the season.
In fact, the story of the AFC Championship was quite the contrary.
Sanchez stood in the pocket, made his reads, sold the play-action and pump fake, took big hits, made clutch throws, and didn’t force throws.
Mark Sanchez was playing the best (and by “best” I mean doing what needed to be done to win, not based purely on statistics) football of his NFL career at the most opportune time.
Playing in front of the most hostile crowds he’s ever seen against some of the best defenses in the NFL, Sanchez resembled more of a veteran than the 23-year-old rookie quarterback he actually was.
And if his performance in these playoffs is a sign of his NFL future, Jets fans should be smiling all off-season.
Remember, Mark Sanchez was only a rookie this season, and he helped bring his team within one game of the Super Bowl.
The Jets were a 9-7 team in the regular season and won two road playoff games en-route to the AFC Championship.
They did so with ultimately a one-dimensional offense lead by an error-prone rookie quarterback and a man who had never held a head coaching position in his career.
Additionally, two of the most important players on the Jets were missing for most of it.
But with the return of Leon Washington and Kris Jenkins, and with Mark Sanchez having nineteen games of NFL and NFL playoff experience under his belt, the Jets could find themselves one step closer to a championship in 2011.