Now that the football season is officially over for all four teams in the AFC East, let’s take a look at whose stock is rising and falling in the division.
1. New England Patriots: New England entered the AFC Championship as a more than a touchdown favorite over the Baltimore Ravens. The Patriots also were 3-0 in their previous home games in the title rounds. However, the Ravens outplayed and out-toughed the Patriots during a 28-13 victory. The dynasty years are long over, and New England is struggling to win just one Super Bowl. The bar is high for the Patriots. Losing at home in the AFC title game is not enough.
2. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets quarterback: New York’s hire of general manager John Idzik and new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg were not good for Sanchez. The Jets’ incumbent starting quarterback will most likely lose his job if team can find a suitable replacement. Idzik has strong ties to Seattle, which makes the Jets a favorite to land Seahawks backup quarterback Matt Flynn. Mornhinweg also is bringing a pass-heavy, West Coast offense to New York that doesn’t seem like a good fit for the inaccurate and turnover-prone Sanchez. The only thing keeping Sanchez on the team at this point is his guaranteed $8.25 million salary. New York will do all it can to find someone to supplant Sanchez this offseason.
3. Wes Welker, Patriots receiver: For the second consecutive year, Welker had a big drop in the playoffs. Last year it happened in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, which led to a game-winning drive by the New York Giants. This year, Welker’s third-quarter drop in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game killed the momentum for New England and led to Baltimore scoring 21 unanswered points. This is not the way Welker wanted to enter free agency. His immense production will command a large contract extension, but New England played hardball with Welker last year and probably will do the same again. It’s very possible that Welker played his last game in a Patriots uniform.
1. Jets salary cap: Idzik's hiring raised some questions about his talent evaluation, but there is no doubt he will fix New York’s salary cap. The Jets are projected to be $19.4 million over the cap this offseason. High-priced veterans such as Bart Scott, Calvin Pace, Eric Smith and Jason Smith are all likely candidates to get released. New York will be a much younger team in 2013 and they have to start over before they get better. After former general manager Mike Tannenbaum grossly mismanaged the cap, Idzik should be able to figure out how to pay the bill this year.
2. Aqib Talib, Patriots cornerback: The book on Talib several months ago was not good. He was a talented, but troubled, corner who was coming off a four-game suspension by the NFL. Teams didn’t want to touch him, and Talib was going into a contract year. However, the past few months of good behavior and good play on the field has done wonders for Talib. He had a solid second half of the season for the Patriots and was easily the team’s best cover corner. New England’s pass defense fell apart in the AFC title game when Talib went down with a thigh injury, showing his importance. The Patriots need talented corners and will consider bringing Talib back if they are convinced his off-field issues are behind him.
3. Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills safety: Byrd’s stock was already high, but it just got another boost after making the Pro Bowl this week as an alternate. Byrd replaces Ed Reed of the Ravens on the AFC roster, which is ironic. Many feel Byrd is the second-best free-agent safety on the offseason market behind Reed. Byrd will get plenty of interest if he doesn’t re-sign with the Bills first. Buffalo may use the franchise tag to prevent any chance of losing Byrd, who is arguably the team’s best defensive playmaker.