Are Tom Brady and the Patriots on the fall, and Mark Sanchez and the Jets on the rise?We're in that long, desolate period when meaningful football looks like a tiny dot on the horizon. Without a shot at redemption for the next seven months, fans of 31 teams must deal with the fact they're losers.
This is the long wait until next year. Or in the case of most teams, the year after that and the year after that and the year after that.
The only folks not in a rush for the 2010 season to begin are in New Orleans. But when they sober up sometime around Bastille Day, they'll be ready to get after it again.
Even Buffalo Bills fans, who haven't seen their team in the playoffs for a full decade, find enough reasons to return to the box office every offseason and fill Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Hope and the pursuit of glory are powerful stimulants.
With that in mind, let's cast our gaze forward in the AFC East and consider which team will experience the next big payoff.
Who from the AFC East will return to the Super Bowl first?
The New England Patriots have been the default favorite for many years, and they might remain the safest pick.
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With coaches Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan at the helm, the Patriots and Jets will always be competitive.But there's a growing belief the Patriots better do it quickly. The New York Jets came within 30 minutes of making it this year and appear to have the kind of roster that sets them up for many years to come.
"The Patriots would be a good guess," said former Bills special-teams star Steve Tasker, an analyst for CBS Sports. "But the Patriots have a lot further to go. The Jets are stronger."
A sampling of accomplished former AFC East players who still follow the game closely raised many recurring sentiments:
The Jets at least have pulled even with the Patriots.
The Patriots are getting older and have more roster concerns.
If quarterback Mark Sanchez can develop, the Jets will be the team to beat for a long time.
The Miami Dolphins are on the rise but still trail the Jets and Patriots.
The Bills are a mess and don't belong in the conversation until they show significant improvements on the field.
ESPN analyst Herm Edwards, a former Jets and Kansas City Chiefs head coach, already has picked the Jets to represent the AFC in next year's Super Bowl.
"The Patriots are closer to getting back to the Super Bowl, but the better long-term future would be the Jets," said Steve DeOssie, who spent a dozen years in the NFL and hosts a Patriots postgame show on Boston sports radio station WEEI.
"That window of opportunity is closing for the Patriots in two, three maybe four years on the outside. If Sanchez develops, the Jets have a very bright future for the next seven, eight, nine years."
Sanchez has emerged as perhaps the central figure in the entire division. His progress will influence the direction of more than the Jets.
Sanchez endured a turbulent rookie campaign in which he threw 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in the regular season. But the Jets dialed him back down the home stretch. He played well enough to get them into the AFC Championship Game, where they held a lead over the Indianapolis Colts in the third quarter.
"At worst case, the Jets have pulled neck and neck with the Patriots," said former Dolphins linebacker Kim Bokamper, sports anchor of Miami's CBS affiliate. "The thing that keeps me from going ahead and saying [the Jets have overtaken the Patriots] is what to make of Mark Sanchez. You've seen the good and the bad with him. It's hard to give the free pass on him being the next guy."
The Jets have so much going for them: a fearsome defense, an extraordinary offensive line, a relentless running game. They feature an envious number of stars with many years ahead.
Tasker noted the offense should get better with some help at receiver and stressed how remarkable it was the Jets' defense remained dominant without studly nose tackle Kris Jenkins, who will be back.
"Sanchez played well in that championship game, but as we saw with Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan, every year's different," Tasker said. "When you start giving these guys more and more things to worry about and more and responsibility, sometimes these guys take a step backward. That doesn't mean I think Sanchez is going to flop, but I don't think a great, big, giant step forward this offseason is something that can be assumed."
If Sanchez merely utilizes the assets around him, then the Jets should be fine. If he can mature into a bona fide franchise quarterback, then the Jets will be dangerous.
"He doesn't have to be in the neighborhood of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, but if Sanchez can get into that second tier of quarterbacks, that would be enough," said DeOssie, who won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants before playing with the Jets and Patriots.
"He has to be able to, at given times, put the team on his shoulders and win a game. But if he develops into a competent or slightly better than average quarterback, the Jets easily have the inside track."
To take the next step, the Jets' offense needs to drift away from such a domineering run game and attain something that resembles balance. The Jets need to augment their pass attack to be able to win a game when they trail by a couple scores.
The deeper into the playoffs a team goes, the more likely an opponent will be able to put points on the board in a hurry. The Saints were only the second team in Super Bowl history to come back from 10 points down and win.
The Patriots finished their season with a clunker performance. The Baltimore Ravens went into Gillette Stadium and annihilated New England in the first round of the playoffs.
When discussing New England's future, there are more questions than there've been in years.
"We're starting to see their age," Bokamper said.
Seemingly out of habit, though, analysts still mention Bill Belichick and Brady like they're shamans who can cure whatever ails the organization.
The Patriots crave pass-rushing help. They might need cornerbacks. Brady's best friend on the field, Wes Welker, is coming off a serious knee injury.
"It'll be a big question if Wes Welker can come back and have a good season," Tasker said. "Randy Moss seems to be on the backside of his career.
"That said, it doesn't mean Bill Belichick won't figure something out, and Tom Brady makes everybody better."