Ever since the NFL went to a four-division format in 2002 where Wild Card teams are no longer able to host playoff games, winning your division has become almost mandatory in hoping to reach the Super Bowl. However, the 2005 Steelers, 2007 Giants and 2010 Packers have each managed to win the Super Bowl without doing so. While NFC teams still have a chance to accomplish this task again in 2011, it's almost impossible to expect an AFC team to do the same.
Very few people expected the 2010 Jets to even reach the AFC Championship Game when they begin their playoff run last season. In order to do so, the Jets had to accomplish a Boston Red Sox down 3-0 to the Yankees in 2004 type miracle. While they got by Manning and Brady, Roethlisberger and the Steelers stopped the team from making their first visit to the Super Bowl since the NFL merger. While nothing is impossible, getting to the Super Bowl in the AFC without winning your division is about as close as you can get.
Let's examine that even closer by looking at the previous teams who won three road playoff games to reach the Super Bowl in this span. The 2005 Steelers did not defeat any previous Super Bowl winning QBs on their way to Super Bowl XL. Nor did the 2010 Packers. Only the 2007 Giants in defeating Brett Favre and the Packers in the NFC Championship game, needed to defeat a team that had won a Super Bowl previously with their starting QB, and Favre was the only remaining member of the Packers XXXI championship team on that roster.
There is no doubt about the talent level that is on the Jets right now. If the Jets were in any other division in the NFL with the exception of the AFC North, they would be likely favorites to win the division. However, it just so happens that they are in the division with the best team in the NFL. That's not to say the Jets aren't as good or even better than New England. Defensively, they take a back seat to no one, and they always excel on Special Teams with Mike Westoff leading them. Then there is the offense...and in that shines the major difference between the Patriots and the Jets.
While Rex Ryan and his crew have shown the ability to confuse and frustrate Brady, they need to show they can continue that against the rest of the league. Until Mark Sanchez actually takes the steps that everyone on the Jets coaching staff and most in the New York media seem to think he has already done, you will see the Jets visiting either San Diego, New England, Pittsburgh, Baltimore or Indianapolis (again, assuming Manning is healthy and another team doesn't dethrone them in the AFC South) on Wild Card weekend, if they in fact reach the postseason. I can hear Jets fans everywhere shouting me down. Here are the reasons why.
Looking at Sanchez's performance last season, the biggest improvement he made was his ability to lead the Jets back in the fourth quarter. In wins over the Broncos, Lions, Browns, Texans and Steelers, the Jets trailed or were tied in the final quarter. Sanchez had zero fourth quarter comebacks or game-winning drives in 2009. However, in losses to the Ravens, Packers and Dolphins, all at home, Sanchez failed to put the Jets in the end zone. Against the Patriots at home and Dolphins and Bills on the road in weeks 2-4, Sanchez was masterful, throwing eight TDs and zero INT in leading the Jets to three straight wins. However, Sanchez threw just nine TD and 13 INT the remaining 11 games he played in (he sat in Week 17 against the Bills), so while he has the ability to play at a high level, I fail to see where it's written in stone that he has matured past that inconsistency.
It seems too simple to say that the Jets success in 2011 rides solely on Sanchez, but when you consider the QB of the team that Jets have to be better than, it becomes obvious. While it's unfair for any QB to be compared to Tom Brady, Sanchez and the Jets know that they have to be just that good to get where Rex Ryan insists they are going. While winning four road playoff games in the last two seasons is definitely impressive, the reasons why the Jets had to win those road playoff games is because they failed to be consistent enough over the course of the regular season. It's hard to win road playoff games when you win your division every year. Saying that, Brady and the Pats have now lost three straight playoff games starting with Super Bowl XLII, including the last two at home, but like I said earlier, on a one game basis, the Jets have proven they can match the Patriots. Rex Ryan has proven he can match wits with Bill Bellichick, and yes, even Sanchez has proven he can match Brady, but one game does not a division winner make.
Simply put, until the Jets show the Patriots consistency over a 17-week season, making the Super Bowl by winning on the road against three (most likely) Super Bowl winning QBs, is just too tough to ask the Jets to do. Consider this, the last time the Patriots lost a regular season home game with Brady at the helm, George Bush still had two years left as President. The housing bubble had yet to burst. The Mets tied for the most wins in baseball. Eric Mangini was known as "Man-genious." That was on November 12, 2006 when Mangini, Chad Pennington and the Jets defeated Brady and the Pats 17-14.
This is a big season for the Jets franchise. While I believe the Jets have the ability to develop, they type of consistency that can lead to a division title, home playoff games and the Super Bowl, hearing guarantees from Rex Ryan and praises from the entire coaching staff about Sanchez and his maturity entering his third season aren't enough to convince me. Believing + Seeing = AFC East crown. Believing + Ability = unknown.