AFC East: Jay Cutler

Green Day: Offseason issues await Idzik

December, 30, 2013
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MIAMI -- It has been nearly three years since that magical day in Foxborough, where the New York Jets delivered their biggest win since that other magical day in the franchise's history, Super Bowl III, in 1969.

In January 2011, Rex Ryan conquered his nemesis, the New England Patriots, creating a big, loud and cocky green monster that figured to wreak havoc for seasons to come. But instead of the Incredible Hulk, they turned into Shrek -- ugly and goofy.

On Sunday, the Jets completed their third consecutive non-playoff season. It's their longest postseason drought since the dark ages of the 1990s, when they failed for six straight years under four different coaches. Their record since 2011 is just 22-26.

Without question, they overachieved in 2013, squeezing eight wins out of a young roster devoid of stars. Ryan did a commendable job in a rebuilding year and will return in 2014, the team announced after a season-ending 20-7 victory in Miami.

For GM John Idzik, the honeymoon is over. It's on him, and he faces an offseason with many challenging issues. Such as:

Augment the quarterback position: This is the biggest decision facing the Jets. They have to decide if Geno Smith is a true No. 1 quarterback or whether they should hedge their bet by bringing in legitimate competition. They have 16 games on tape to evaluate.

While Smith's late-season rally reduces the need to make a major acquisition, the smart play would be to add a competent veteran. Problem is, it's hard to find that guy, a No. 1/No. 2 quarterback.

Mark Sanchez fits the description, but there are health and salary-related questions, not to mention the entire issue of whether they'd want to re-create last summer's competition. Been there, done that.

An interesting target would be Kirk Cousins, who probably will be dangled in trade talks by the Washington Redskins. He wouldn't come cheaply in terms of compensation, maybe a second-round pick. That's a lot to surrender for a possible backup, but they have to look at the long view. He'd be an asset that appreciates in value.

They could go for Matt Schaub, the 2006 version of Cousins. Schaub would bring some baggage to the party, assuming he's released by the Houston Texans, but he’s still only 32 and would be a worthwhile reclamation project/insurance policy.

What about the draft? Unless Idzik absolutely falls in love with someone (Johnny Manziel, anyone?), it wouldn't make much sense to sink a first-round pick into a quarterback, one year after using a No. 2 on Smith. Jay Cutler could be the big fish in free agency if the Chicago Bears let him hit the market, but he'd be a disaster in New York.

Rebuild the offense: The Jets' skill-position talent has deteriorated steadily since 2010. Since 2011, they're ranked 26th in scoring, due largely to a lack of playmakers and poor quarterback play. They've ignored this side of the ball under the defensive-minded Ryan. It's time to pour money and resources into the offense so they compete in an offense-obsessed league.

They need a new tight end and two new wide receivers, preferably a game-breaker. Stephen Hill was supposed to be that guy, but he can't be counted on after two disappointing seasons.

The free-agent market for receivers is thin -- Eric Decker of the Denver Broncos might be the best -- so look for Idzik to address the need in the draft. There are a couple of good ones, Sammy Watkins (Clemson) and Marqise Lee (USC), assuming they turn pro. The top free-agent tight end is Jimmy Graham, but there's little chance he gets away from the New Orleans Saints.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Cromartie
AP Photo/Alan DiazWill Antonio Cromartie, a Pro Bowl cornerback in 2012, be playing in the Jets' secondary in 2014?
Spend money: Facing a tight cap situation last offseason, Idzik operated on a shoestring budget, doling out modest contracts. Cap space won't be an issue this time. With Darrelle Revis coming off the books, and with Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes likely to be released (a total savings of $16.5 million), the Jets will have close to $40 million in cap space.

In theory, the Jets could stage their biggest spending spree since 2008, the year they acquired Alan Faneca, Kris Jenkins, Calvin Pace and Damien Woody, but Idzik believes in building through the draft. He owns eight choices, a total that could grow to 10 or 11 with expected compensatory picks.

This is "go" time for Idzik, a chance to show his acumen as a team-builder.

The first thing they should do is take care of couple of their own free agents, namely right tackle Austin Howard and kicker Nick Folk. Both earned long-term deals with their play in 2013. Linebacker Pace and guard Willie Colon are B-list free agents who have value for the short term.

Out with the old: Sanchez, Holmes and Antonio Cromartie -- key players on the 2010 team that reached the AFC Championship Game -- are highly paid players with injury questions. It's possible all three could be playing elsewhere in 2014.

Holmes is a goner, for sure. They would've cut him two years ago if it weren't for $24 million in guarantees, one of the contracts that got Mike Tannenbaum fired. Sanchez fits the profile of what they need, but he's due a $2 million roster bonus in March -- and there's no way that will be paid. He'd have to agree to a massive pay cut, and that's unlikely to happen. Chances are, he'll be released.

Cromartie is a tough call, with a lot depending on his bad hip. His contract, which runs through 2014, is prohibitive -- a $15 million cap charge, including a $5 million roster bonus. He says he wants to retire a Jet, but let's see if he changes his tune when they propose a pay cut. Chances are, they'll cut him, letting him establish a market price before deciding whether to bring him back on a new deal.
Ryan TannehillRonald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesThe Dolphins have surrounded young QB Ryan Tannehill with big-name talent this offseason.
The Miami Dolphins are the darlings of the offseason. They entered free agency with more than $40 million of cap room and cleaned up by signing the best receiver on the market (Mike Wallace), the top-rated linebacker (Dannell Ellerbe), a pass-catching tight end (Dustin Keller), another athletic linebacker (Philip Wheeler), and kept their own starting players (Brian Hartline, Randy Starks, Chris Clemons).

On paper, the Dolphins look like a clear playoff contender and the only legitimate challenger to the New England Patriots in the AFC East. The sky could be the limit for Miami this season and beyond.

But there is one catch for the Dolphins: None of this is possible unless second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill takes the next step.

The Dolphins proceeded this offseason with full confidence that Tannehill is a franchise quarterback. It’s a calculated risk after Tannehill had a promising rookie season where his stats didn't necessarily stand out. He threw for 3,294 yards, 12 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and made his share of rookie mistakes.

However, Miami believes Tannehill showed enough flashes of brilliance to go all-in with him. He played winning football most weeks, and led the Dolphins to a better-than-expected 7-9 record.

There is no time for Tannehill to be a one-hit wonder or have a sophomore slump in 2013. A majority of Miami’s moves in free agency were about making Tannehill a better quarterback.

“Ryan has got 35, 36 games under his belt as starting quarterback combined from a college and pro career, and you would normally like to have 35 games under your belt as a graduating senior,” Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said recently. “So I think that there is a bunch of upside left in Ryan’s potential, and I like what I see so far. I love his intangible makeup, I love his athletic skill set. We have a long way to go, he knows that, but he can get a lot better, I am very confident in that.”

The Dolphins committed $30 million guaranteed to get Tannehill a legitimate deep threat and No. 1 receiver in Wallace. Despite Tannehill's strong arm, Miami was limited with the deep ball last season because of a poor supporting cast. He completed only 14 passes of more than 20 yards last season. Wallace has elite speed and should be able to change that.

Miami also snagged Keller from the rival New York Jets, and former St. Louis Rams receiver Brandon Gibson. Keller is the safety valve Miami lacked at tight end, and Gibson brings another weapon to add to a strong group of receivers that already includes Wallace, Hartline and Davone Bess.

The Dolphins learned when you have a potential franchise quarterback, it's easier to recruit free agents. Gibson, Keller and Wallace all cited Tannehill as one of the key reasons they signed with Miami.

“I watch tons of film and I really think he’s going to be one of the better young quarterbacks in the NFL,” Gibson said. “He’s got a big arm, and he’s very intelligent and a very good athlete, and I think that can go a long ways.”

Keller played with embattled quarterback Mark Sanchez in New York for four seasons. Keller leaves the Jets for a quarterback in Miami with a much higher ceiling.

“I’m very impressed with him. I like his game a lot,” Keller said of Tannehill. “I think now you put a Mike Wallace on the team, re-sign Brian Hartline, I love Davone Bess in the slot. You’ve got Charles Clay there working at tight end, too. I think there’s a lot people that they’re going to help him thrive this year, and I’m just happy to be one of the pieces.”

Tannehill is significantly ahead of the curve. The Dolphins' initial plan last season was to let Tannehill sit while Matt Moore or David Garrard ran the team. Instead, Tannehill took advantage of injuries and opportunity and started all 16 games.

In fact, Tannehill’s Total Quarterback Rating, which measures a player's complete performance, was better last season than other big-name quarterbacks such as Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, Andy Dalton and Sam Bradford. The Dolphins believe Tannehill is just getting started.

Tannehill also flew under the radar last season with a potentially special 2012 quarterback class. Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts, Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks all shared the spotlight while leading their teams to the playoffs. Tannehill was the only rookie of the four not to lead his team to the playoffs, but those expectations will rise for Miami next season.

"We're looking for improvement from him. There's no question about it," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said at the NFL’s owners meetings. “Part of it’s the decision-making that we think is so important. Part of it’s accuracy. Part of it’s play-making ability at critical times in the course of a game. While we think he made some really nice strides in his first year, there’s still a long way to go, and he’s well aware of that.”

The 2013 Dolphins will be Tannehill’s team, and certainly Tannehill’s offense.

An important part of Tannehill’s sophomore season is that he must take more of a leadership role. The Dolphins are a young team that lost a lot of leadership this offseason. Left tackle Jake Long and running back Reggie Bush bolted in free agency, and linebacker Karlos Dansby was released.

Tannehill will lead one of the youngest teams in the NFL next season. He doesn't get the publicity of fellow draft mates Luck, Wilson and RG III, but he will be just as important to the success of his team.
There has been a long silence from the Miami Dolphins regarding four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long. Miami apparently has no interest in paying top dollar to retain Long, who was the team's No. 1 overall pick in 2008.

Long
But there are at least two teams reportedly in the hunt for Long's services. USA Today reports the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams are most interested in the soon-to-be former Miami offensive tackle. Both Chicago and St. Louis have a need at offensive tackle to protect their starting quarterbacks: Jay Cutler and Sam Bradford.

As free agency nears, it is more and more evident that we've probably seen the last of Long in a Miami uniform. The Dolphins have the cap room to spend but haven’t shown any indication they will use it on the veteran left tackle.

The only chance of Long returning to Miami is if he doesn't get much interest elsewhere in free agency and is willing to take a team-friendly contract. But those chances appear slim.
Tom Brady was on injured reserve with a knee injury the last time his New England Patriots visited the Seattle Seahawks.

The year was 2008.

The Seahawks had a 2-10 record. Seneca Wallace was their starting quarterback. Mike Holmgren was their coach. Pete Carroll was at USC.

Now, for the really different part: The Seahawks' defense, currently ranked No. 1 in yards allowed, ranked 30th back then. It had allowed six total rushing and passing touchdowns in its previous two games, one more than the 2012 team has allowed in five games this season.

Brady is back and leading the NFL's top-ranked offense against Seattle's top-ranked defense in Week 6. The teams kick off Sunday afternoon at CenturyLink Field, Brady's first road start against the Seahawks. The matchup has us talking already.

Mike Sando, NFC West blog: The last time an NFC West team drew New England, Arizona pulled off one of the more shocking upsets of the season, holding Brady to 18 points and leaving Gillette Stadium with a 20-18 victory. New England lost Aaron Hernandez to injury in that game. The Patriots have regrouped. They've scored 113 points in three subsequent games. Was that Arizona game an aberration, or should the Seahawks' defense expect similar results?

James Walker, AFC East: It feels like two different offenses since New England’s loss to the Cardinals, Mike. New England looked shell-shocked after losing Hernandez in that game. He's usually such a big part of the Patriots’ game plan that they had trouble adjusting on the fly. But New England made the proper changes. Tight ends no longer are the first option; now receiver Wes Welker is the top target. New England is no longer passing the ball 60 or 70 percent of the time; its run-to-pass ratio was 54-31 this past week against the Denver Broncos. The Patriots also used a no-huddle offense in all four quarters for the first time in that game. Can New England keep up that kind of pace, especially on the road? The Patriots are concerned about crowd noise in Seattle. Will the 12th man affect this game?

Sando: Yeah, the crowd will be a factor because the defense is good enough to make it one. Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo combined for 19 points in Seattle. Brady and the Patriots are playing better offensively than Green Bay or Dallas, though. One key will be whether Brady can get the ball out to Welker quickly enough to avoid Seattle's pass-rushers. Bruce Irvin, Chris Clemons and Jason Jones could have big games against the Patriots' offensive front if Brady holds the ball. But Welker should have a big advantage against nickel corner Marcus Trufant. Welker leads the NFL with 24 receptions from the slot over the past three games. Seattle's opponents haven't gone after Trufant all that much, but St. Louis slot receiver Danny Amendola did give him some problems. Welker is a tough matchup for everyone and should be a tough one for the Seahawks.

Walker: Seattle’s pass rush is the biggest concern for New England. Brady’s sack totals have gone up each of the past three seasons, and he already has been sacked 12 times in five games. Brady is not a young pup anymore and only has so many hits left in his 35-year-old body. New England’s pass protection hasn’t been the same after losing left tackle Matt Light and Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters in the offseason. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and guard Logan Mankins also have played hurt this year. The Patriots have done things schematically to counter their shaky pass protection. New England is running the ball more, and the no-huddle has slowed down opponents. But you wonder whether the inconsistent pass protection eventually will catch up to New England this season, especially this weekend against a good Seattle defense.

Sando: Seattle's defense was good last season, and it's better in 2012. This is a legitimate top-five defense with big, pressing cornerbacks and the potential for a strong pass rush, particularly at home. The Seahawks are allowing 3.2 yards per carry overall and 3.0 when we remove quarterback scrambles (Brady isn't exactly a running threat). There's speed at every level of the defense. Holding the Patriots' offense to a reasonable level -- say, somewhere in the 20-point range -- should be realistic as long as Seattle fares OK against Welker. The bigger question is whether Seattle's offense can score enough points to win the game. Russell Wilson is coming off his best game, but the offense isn't putting up enough points.

Walker: New England’s defense has improved in a lot of areas. The front seven is more physical and the pass rush is better, specifically with the addition of first-round pick Chandler Jones. However, New England is still 30th against the pass and continues to give up chunks of yards through the air. The safety play has been horrific at times. I think Seattle’s best chance to win is using play-action over the top. Patriots coach Bill Belichick usually tries to take one thing away, and I assume the focus this week will be Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. There will be plenty of opportunities in the passing game if Wilson can take advantage. Speaking of taking advantage, your NFC West division has crushed the AFC East at nearly every turn. What is going on here? Is this a special year for the NFC West, and will Seattle repeat what the Cardinals did by knocking off the top dog in the AFC East?

Sando: I've gone into several of these nondivision games a little skeptical about whether the NFC West team would score enough to win. The offenses in Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis lag in the rankings. But the defenses and special teams have more than made up the difference. I think Seattle has a winning formula and a good shot at pulling it off, but I still think Brady is more likely than Wilson to reach 20-plus points.

I've had similar thoughts before and been wrong. I really thought some of these top opposing quarterbacks would enjoy greater success against the NFC West. Brady, Jay Cutler, Rodgers, Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III, Romo, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford are a combined 2-8 against the division, and both victories were against St. Louis. Those quarterbacks have seven touchdown passes and nine picks against the division. Outside the division, NFC West teams have gone 10-0 at home and 11-3 regardless of venue.

I'll probably wind up picking the Patriots, but Seattle's defense gives the Seahawks a good chance.

Walker: It looks as if the AFC East is having a second consecutive down year, and the arrow is certainly pointing up for the NFC West. But the Patriots are a legit team. Barring significant injuries, I expect New England to carry the banner for the division all season. I’m 15-2 predicting AFC East games this year, so I feel pretty confident in my picks. I think New England will pull this one out. The Patriots’ offense is very balanced, and their tempo puts a lot of pressure on teams. If they score points early, it could put too much pressure on Wilson to answer. Wilson has beaten Rodgers, Romo and Newton this year. But I don’t think Wilson will add Brady to that list.
We have another interesting poll this week in the AFC East, and it's on one of the hottest topics in the division.

SportsNation

What is QB Ryan Tannehill's NFL future?

  •  
    32%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    16%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,065)

The question: What kind of career will Miami Dolphins first-round pick Ryan Tannehill have in the NFL? Tell us what you see for Miami's newest franchise quarterback.

Is Tannehill a future bust? Many scouts wondered about his lack of experience and just 19 career starts. His stock skyrocketed in the offseason after showing his physical abilities in workouts. But that's always dangerous. Miami's track record drafting quarterbacks hasn't been great. They haven't had a franchise player at the position since Dan Marino retired.

Will Tannehill be an average starter? The AFC East already has two average starting quarterbacks in Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets and Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Buffalo Bills. Will Tannehill have a career comparable to those two?

Or Will Tannehill rise above that level and become a solid franchise quarterback? That would be great for Miami to have their long-term solution and a player who can hold the position for the next seven years. This is for quarterbacks like Tony Romo, Joe Flacco and Jay Cutler, who are all solid starters at the position.

Finally, will Tannehill become an elite quarterback? Is he a future Pro Bowler at the position?

Using our SportsNation poll, vote on Tannehill's NFL future. You can also share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Dolphins should pass on Kyle Orton

November, 22, 2011
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Don't be greedy, Miami Dolphins.

Let one of the playoff contenders with injured quarterbacks claim Kyle Orton and the $2.5 million remaining on his contract.

The Dolphins may have been interested in Orton at one time before the season. But they certainly don't need Orton now. Orton can't get Miami to the playoffs and Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore is doing just fine in the starting role.

Moore has won three straight games for the Dolphins and posted the highest Total Quarterback Rating in the NFL last week. You can't bench a player who is performing that well.

Therefore, if Orton can't start for the 3-7 Dolphins, there's no point in claiming him. Teams like the Chicago Bears (7-3) and Houston Texans (7-3) would love to have Orton down the stretch. Quarterbacks Matt Schaub (foot) and Jay Cutler (thumb) are out indefinitely for Houston and Chicago, respectively. Even the Kansas City Chiefs (4-6), without starting quarterback Matt Cassel (hand), could use Orton with still an outside chance of making a run at the AFC West division.

Because of record, Miami has waiver priority over all these teams. But the Dolphins making such a move would be out of greed, not need. That wouldn't be wise.

Cromartie threatens to bash QB's face in

January, 27, 2011
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The New York Jets' season ended five days ago, but that hasn't stopped Antonio Cromartie from calling out anybody who irritates him.

Cromartie ripped NFL and union leaders on Monday over the looming labor confrontation that threatens to put the game in mothballs for an extended period. He dusted off his Tom Brady insult, referring to league and union bosses alike as "ass-----."

Players have rallied around their union leaders by condemning Cromartie's biting remarks, and one of them drew his ire in particular.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck reportedly tweeted on his verified account, "Somebody ask Cromartie if he knows what CBA stands for." The tweet was deleted quickly.

But Cromartie heard about it and fired off a response:

  1. Antonio Cromartie

    A_Cromartie31 @Hasselbeck hey Matt if u have something to then say it be a man about it. Don't erase it. I will smash ur face in.
-- this quote was brought to you by quoteurl


Hasselbeck tried to laugh off the exchange with an apology:

  1. Matthew Hasselbeck

    Hasselbeck @A_Cromartie31 Sorry for the joke man. No hard feelings. DB's & QB's have a hard time getting along I guess sometimes. lol
-- this quote was brought to you by quoteurl


Nothing forges union brotherhood better than Twitter, apparently.

Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo ripped players who ridiculed quarterback Jay Cutler on Twitter.

"I think it's crap," Angelo said. "I thought they were a union. If that's the way the unionize themselves, they have bigger issues than the ones they have with the owners. I'm very disappointed in that.

"That, to me, is dirty pool. It is what it is. People are allowed to say what they want to say but that doesn't mean that it's right. It's certainly not grounded."

Cromartie also threatened violence on Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward a couple days before the AFC Championship Game. Cromartie said the best remedy for dealing with Ward's reputed dirty play was "Grab his ass by the throat and choke the s--- out of him."

A plan of attack against Sanchez, Big Ben

January, 22, 2011
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Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson examined the best way to attack all four quarterbacks in Sunday's conference championship games.

For a detailed examination, be sure to click on the link.

Here are highlights from Williamson's rundown of leading men in Sunday night's AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field ...

Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers


Strengths: "His playmaking skills are off the charts, and his mental makeup is superb for these endeavors. And Roethlisberger just might have the best physical skill set in the NFL. He is a big, strong quarterback who plays big and strong in everything he does. That goes for the way he throws the football, how he is as a runner and the degree of difficulty needed to put him on the ground within the pocket. He can make plays that few others can even dream of because of his overall physical gifts."

Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger
Plan of attack: "Roethlisberger is greatly improved in the pre-snap phases, but he still can be had mentally. There always will be a playground aspect to the way he plays the position, which can be a positive and a negative. The Steelers' pass-protection blitz pickup is a problem area. That is exactly what Jets coach Rex Ryan wants to hear; few teams can disguise and alter their pressures as well as the Jets."

Mark Sanchez, New York Jets


Strengths: "He is fearless in the clutch and often plays his best football when it matters most. His mental makeup is impressive, especially considering his age (24). Sanchez also has confidence in his talented receiving corps and isn't bashful about putting the ball up for the receivers to make a play. He is a pretty decent deep passer. But Sanchez runs hot and cold. The Jets' coaching staff does a good job of giving him easy throws and using the running game to build his confidence."

Sanchez
Sanchez
Plan of attack: "His accuracy is a major problem, and he is the least physically impressive QB of these four by a large margin. To make life toughest on Sanchez and the Jets, eliminating the running game has to be the top priority. Pittsburgh is the best team in the league against the run. Second, you want Sanchez to throw outside the numbers and really test his arm strength. He isn't the type of passer who can consistently drive the ball into tight areas, especially in poor weather."

Double Coverage: Jets at Steelers II

January, 19, 2011
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Troy Polamalu, Darrell RevisGetty ImagesThe AFC Championship Game should be a hard-fought grudge match featuring two of the league's best defenses, led by Troy Polamalu and Darrelle Revis.
We have an AFC East versus AFC North showdown at Heinz Field to determine who will represent the conference in Super Bowl XLV. The New York Jets (13-5) will visit the Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4) in a rematch of the Jets' 22-17 victory in Week 15.

But this time we're going to narrow our focus to the heart and soul of both teams: the defense. That is what brought the Jets and Steelers this far. The better defense Sunday likely will make the difference in the AFC Championship Game.

So which defense has the best chance to dominate? ESPN.com AFC North blogger James Walker and AFC East blogger Tim Graham break it down.

James Walker: I like the fact that both of these defenses attack first and often can dictate to the opposing offenses the tempo of the game. But when you start comparing the two teams by the numbers, New York's defense doesn't stack up to Pittsburgh's. The Steelers have the advantage over the Jets in every major statistical regular-season category, including average total yards allowed (276.8 to 291.5), points allowed (14.5 to 19), total sacks (48 to 40) and forced turnovers (35 to 30). Pittsburgh's run defense also was fifth best all-time since the start of the Super Bowl era in 1966, allowing just 62.8 yards per game. The Jets allowed an average of 90.9 rushing yards per game. New York also gave up 72 more points than Pittsburgh in the regular season. And based on their average, that's about five games' worth of points for the Steelers. If you want to compare current numbers in the playoffs, the Steelers are also No. 1 in postseason defense, allowing just 126 total yards in a divisional win over Baltimore. The Jets played in two playoff games and are not in the top six. New York has allowed an average of 342 total yards in the postseason, which is a very big discrepancy of 216 total yards per game.

[+] EnlargeNew York Jets head coach Rex Ryan
AP Photo/Tom E. PuskarNew York Jets head coach Rex Ryan disrupted Hall of Fame quarterbacks in back-to-back weeks.
Tim Graham: No, I don't want to compare postseason stats because the Steelers have played one game at home against a wild-card team. The Jets have played two road games against future Hall of Fame quarterbacks and snuffed them both -- in two of the most intimidating stadiums for a visitor to escape in any sport. What the Jets have done the past two weeks would be a remarkable feat even for the "Steel Curtain." The Jets held Peyton Manning to 16 points and made inevitable MVP Tom Brady appear lost. The Patriots scored 21 points, but the last touchdown came against the Jets' prevent defense in garbage time. But even more significant? The Jets won in Pittsburgh five weeks ago. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took his shots against the Jets and posted a passer rating almost 20 points lower than his season average. The Jets forced more fumbles than the Steelers that night, had more sacks and even recorded a safety. As for that sterling run defense ranking you quoted, in that contest the Jets' running game surpassed the Steelers' average by 44 yards -- an increase of 59 percent.

JW: If you want to throw away the Jets' postseason statistics, then Pittsburgh's superior regular-season numbers over 16 games still apply. There is no way to ignore both, Tim, because Pittsburgh's defense was better no matter how you cut it. In terms of Week 15, I think you're conveniently leaving out that the game was won on special teams. Brad Smith's 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was the difference. The Steelers' defense allowed just one touchdown, while Pittsburgh's offense outscored New York's offense 17-13. The Steelers also racked up 377 yards against the Jets' defense, which is worse than the 342-yard postseason average I mentioned earlier. In terms of which defense can dominate the AFC title game, you have to take into account the offenses these two teams are facing. There is zero debate that Roethlisberger is a superior quarterback to New York's Mark Sanchez. In fact, if I were ranking the four remaining playoff quarterbacks, Sanchez would be dead last behind Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and even Jay Cutler. Credit Sanchez for having some success against the Colts and Patriots, but those defenses were ranked in the 20s this season. Even Jets linebacker Bart Scott admitted New England's defense "couldn't stop a nosebleed," and he's right. Sanchez has yet to face a defense in the playoffs like Pittsburgh's once it's at full strength with a healthy Troy Polamalu, who missed the first meeting. Sanchez threw for just 170 yards in Week 15, and even then Polamalu’s absence limited what Pittsburgh could do defensively. The Pro Bowl safety makes a huge difference in coverage, stopping the run and freeing up others to pressure the quarterback. The "Polamalu factor" cannot be overlooked with the Steelers' defense, and I think he's going to be a huge headache for Sanchez, especially since Sanchez didn’t get to face Polamalu in the first meeting.

TG: I didn't ignore either the Jets' regular-season or postseason statistics. We simply cannot compare the Jets' postseason numbers to the Steelers'. The sample size is too small, they haven't played the same number of games, and they've played a different caliber of opponent so far in the tournament. The Jets were road underdogs for both of their games, while the Steelers were a home favorite coming off a bye week. You cannot compare them that way. It's apples and grapefruits. You're right when you say Sanchez has yet to face a defense like the Steelers' with Polamalu on the field. But Polamalu didn't exactly look like a superstar against the Ravens -- two tackles, no passes defensed and a whiffed tackle or two. I'll grant that nobody can expect Polamalu to have two straight subpar games, but he just showed there are no guarantees he's going to take over Sunday's game. Maybe the injury is hampering him. But let me ask you: How is Roethlisberger going to solve a mystifying, multilook defense that Manning and Brady couldn't master in the past two weeks? Oh, and one Roethlisberger couldn't defeat five weeks ago? And if you're thinking about replying with "He's had five weeks to figure it out," remember that Brady had no idea what he was looking at last Sunday, and he played the Jets twice this year.

JW: Roethlisberger threw for 264 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting with the Jets and the offense notched 25 first downs, compared to New York's 17. Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall led the game in rushing with 99 yards, one touchdown and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. It's safe to say the Steelers were not mystified in the first meeting after gaining 377 total yards of offense. If anything, I think the Jets' defense needs to make more adjustments to stop what Pittsburgh's offense was able to do well in Week 15. Roethlisberger has played against Rex Ryan's defenses plenty of times when Ryan was the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. This will have the familiarity of a division game for Roethlisberger, where Sanchez is seeing Dick LeBeau's defense for only the second time in his entire career and the first time with Polamalu in the lineup, which is a huge difference. Plus, here is the key advantage Roethlisberger has over Manning and Brady: Pittsburgh's elite defense. The Colts and Patriots need their quarterbacks to play lights out and take more risks to beat the Jets because they have shoddy defenses. This game isn't nearly as much on Roethlisberger's shoulders. He can simply play sound, complementary football with the Steel Curtain defense, which will do much better holding down the Jets' offense compared to New York's previous two playoff opponents.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
Jason Bridge/US PresswireSteelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger averaged just 6 yards per attempt in Week 15 versus the Jets.
TG: If the roles were reversed on this debate and I were asked to state a case for the Steelers' defense, the first words I would've written would be "Troy" and "Polamalu," and then I would have made the point that the last time the Jets played the Steelers, the Jets' offense scored one touchdown -- a fourth-down Sanchez bootleg that totally fooled the Steelers' defense. The rest was a kickoff return for a touchdown, a safety and some field goals. One touchdown surrendered would seem to support the Steelers, right? Well, it does. I'm guessing you hadn't gotten around to making that point yet. But that fact also goes to show that a dominant defense doesn't mean a team will win. The Jets did surrender more yardage, but you omitted that the Jets ran 15 fewer offensive plays and spent the fourth quarter in a prevent defense, giving the Steelers the entire middle of the field. The Steelers had the better defense in terms of yardage and still lost because the Jets' defense kept them out of the end zone when it counted. Last time I checked, a game never has been decided by yardage or league rankings.

JW: Tim, I really appreciate you repeating my points from earlier about the "Polamalu factor," the Steelers allowing just one touchdown and New York winning the first meeting via special teams on Smith's 97-yard kickoff return. I think you're finally seeing things my way. At this stage of the season the old saying still applies that "Defense wins championships." That is why both teams are here. Since the Steelers have the better defense in the regular season, the better defense in their previous meeting and the better defense in the playoffs, it's safe to say Pittsburgh's defense will be better on Sunday -- and that will be the difference in the Steelers advancing to their third Super Bowl in six seasons.

Marshall on Henne: 'We have to evaluate'

December, 30, 2010
12/30/10
8:15
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The blockbuster acquisition of star receiver Brandon Marshall failed to make the Miami Dolphins better.

In fact, they got worse. The Dolphins won the AFC East two years ago. They went 7-9 last season but still had playoff hopes entering their finale.

Marshall

Marshall


The best they can do this year is 8-8. They were eliminated from playoff contention two weeks ago.

At his weekly news conference, Marshall was asked for his thoughts on the team's direction. He didn't hesitate to endorse head coach Tony Sparano's return for next year, but withheld any praise for quarterback Chad Henne or offensive coordinator Dan Henning.

Marshall said he came to Miami with aspirations he and Henne would achieve greatness.

"I'm not sure," Marshall said. "We had some opportunities this year to do that, and we didn't get it done. I guess we have to evaluate what we've done this year and see if we can improve and see if can become good before we become great."

Marshall joined the Dolphins with three straight 100-reception campaigns and 10 touchdowns last year.

With one game left, he has 81 catches and three touchdowns.

Marshall advised Henne to chuck the ball around more often and trust him to make the catch. In talking about Marshall's previous quarterbacks, he said "Jay Cutler was my guy. He threw it up."

"Just got to let it go, you know?" Marshall said in a story by South Florida Sun-Sentinel reporter Mike Berardino. "Don't worry about the consequences. Just throw it up and see what happens. Throw a pick or whatever. Let's live and die by it.

"We want to play smart football, and we want to be consistent, but at the same time if you look at what teams do with Roddy White, Calvin Johnson, that's something I'm used to in the past, just guys believing in me.

"You make plays like that, you build confidence in each other. You get a little snowball effect. We didn't get that this year, and it's disappointing."

Rapid Reaction: Bears 38, Jets 34

December, 26, 2010
12/26/10
4:33
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CHICAGO -- A look at the New York Jets' loss against the Chicago Bears.

What it means: The New York Jets lucked out -- just like last season. They played Arena League defense and fell to the Chicago Bears 38-34, but they backed into the playoffs because the Jacksonville Jaguars lost to the Washington Redskins. It was a hollow way to make it for the second straight year, but Rex Ryan, no doubt, will say defiantly, “We’ll take it. We’re not apologizing to anyone.” Right.

The shoulder: Mark Sanchez, he of the ballyhooed sore throwing shoulder, played remarkably well under the circumstances -- until his final throw. At his own 33 with just under a minute to play, he broke a cardinal rule, trying to throw down the sideline against a Cover 2 defense. It was intercepted by Chris Harris, ending the game. His throws lacked some zip, perhaps because of his shoulder.

Too bad, because Sanchez had played wonderfully until then. He opened by hitting his first nine passes, and he finished 24-for-37 for 269 yards and one touchdown. He should’ve had two touchdown passes, but tight end Dustin Keller dropped a pass in the end zone.

Sanchez showed patience against the Bears’ Cover 2 defense, throwing short passes and finding seams in their zone scheme. The slant routes and in-cuts were there all day, and he consistently found Braylon Edwards (6 catches for 78 yards).

If Sanchez’s shoulder was bothering him -- he has minor cartilage damage -- it didn’t show. His improved play over the past two weeks is a positive for the Jets.

Weird call: The Jets got cute with a seven-point halftime lead, trying a fake punt from their 40 on the opening possession of the third quarter. Sanchez, the up-back in punt formation, rolled right and threw an incompletion to Brad Smith. It was a strange decision, to be sure, but it should’ve worked. Smith was open and had enough for the first down -- three yards -- but he dropped it. It was a huge momentum shift.

Where’s the D? Facing the league’s 30th-rated offense, the Jets’ defense sprung leaks everywhere -- no pass rush, porous coverage in the secondary and shoddy tackling. The Bears opened the second half by scoring on three straight possessions. The Jets made offensive coordinator Mike Martz look like the genius he thinks he is.

In the past two games, the Jets have allowed 700 total yards -- a major concern as they head into a likely postseason appearance. They prepared to stop the Bears’ running game, but the Bears adjusted and put the ball in Jay Cutler’s hands.

Cutler shredded them in the third quarter, throwing three touchdowns and passing for 117 yards. Naturally, he stayed away from cornerback Darrelle Revis and picked on everybody else, burning safety Dwight Lowery, cornerback Antonio Cromartie and nickel back Drew Coleman for touchdowns.

Greene day: Shonn Greene, not LaDainian Tomlinson, was the feature back. Very interesting. Tomlinson didn’t appear on the injury report, so this had to be a coach’s decision. Not only did Greene (12 carries for 70 yards) take a lot of reps for Tomlinson in the base offense, but he also replaced him as the third-down back in many situations.

Pick-six, burn-six: Lowery, starting his second game at safety for Eric Smith (concussion), was involved in three scoring plays -- two negative, one positive. He scored on a 20-yard interception return (his second of the season), but he also got torched by receiver Johnny Knox on a 40-yard touchdown and missed a tackle on a 22-yard scoring run by Matt Forte.

Brick wall: Bears defensive end Julius Peppers had a quiet game, and there was a reason for that -- left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson did a fantastic job in pass protection, locking down Sanchez’s blind side.

What’s ahead: The Jets close the regular season with a home game against the Buffalo Bills (4-11). They crushed the Bills in October 38-14, but Chan Gailey’s team has improved -- Sunday’s blowout loss to the New England Patriots notwithstanding.

Video: Jets at Bears 'Field Pass'

December, 25, 2010
12/25/10
9:14
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ESPN analysts Tedy Bruschi, Mark Schlereth and Matthew Berry discuss some key matchups in Sunday's game between the New York Jets and Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

Video: Jets at Bears predictions

December, 24, 2010
12/24/10
1:21
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Mark Schlereth and Marcellus Wiley give their thoughts on Sunday's game between the New York Jets and Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Both ESPN analysts predict the Jets will win because they'll generate plenty of pressure on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

Bears favored over Jets in pick game

December, 23, 2010
12/23/10
9:44
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In a game between quarterbacks with reputations for being careless, you better believe the one who avoids interceptions will give his team a significant advantage Sunday.

That's why AccuScore's report for the New York Jets and Chicago Bears at Soldier Field focuses on Mark Sanchez and Jay Cutler and little else.

The Bears won 59 percent of AccuScore's 10,000 simulations by an average of three points. With that foundation, the trends also favored Cutler when it came to being efficient.

In simulations where Sanchez didn't throw an interception, the Jets' chances increased to just 55 percent. When Cutler didn't throw one, the Bears' chances rose to 72 percent.

In games when the Jets averaged 4 yards per carry against the NFL's third-ranked run defense, they won 51 percent of the time. The Jets averaged 4.8 yards against the top-rated Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend.

Rapid Reaction: Patriots 36, Bears 7

December, 12, 2010
12/12/10
7:13
PM ET
CHICAGO -- Rapid reaction from the Patriots’ stunning 36-7 blowout of the Bears at snowy, windy Soldier Field.

What it means: The Patriots improve to 11-2 and clinch a playoff spot, but this type of convincing effort figures to have analysts thinking about much more than just a playoff spot for this team. The Patriots, who had a 33-0 lead at halftime, look like a well-oiled machine capable of a Super Bowl run.

Impressive burst from Patriots over seven quarters: The Patriots have been on a tear since the fourth quarter of their Thanksgiving win over the Lions. From the fourth quarter of that game, through the second quarter of Sunday’s win over the Bears, the Patriots outscored opponents 99-3.

Brady’s interception streak intact: Quarterback Tom Brady continues his remarkable stretch of error-free football. He has now gone eight games without an interception, his last pick coming Oct. 17 on a Hail Mary at the end of regulation against the Ravens. Brady had a few passes tipped the Bears almost intercepted. His MVP candidacy only grew stronger after this effort.

Guyton steps into Spikes’ role and delivers: With rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes serving the first game of his four-game suspension, Gary Guyton stepped into a full-time role and came up with two big plays -- a 35-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the second quarter and an interception in the third quarter.

McCourty the big injury to watch: Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty, who has been impressive in locking down the left side and totaling six interceptions, left the game in the second quarter with a rib injury and did not return. The potential loss of McCourty would be a big blow to the Patriots, who have been dressing just three corners on game-day. In addition, defensive lineman Ron Brace (head) left the game in the third quarter and did not return.

Bears crash back to earth: Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher had said during the week that “We’re the best team, period.” They didn’t play like it on this day. The Bears were outclassed, with quarterback Jay Cutler turning into the “Cutler of old” with a mistake-filled performance while the defense was shredded by Brady and Co.

What’s next: The Patriots return home to face the Packers in a Sunday night game. Green Bay lost at Detroit and could be without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who left the game against the Lions with a concussion. It is Rodgers’ second concussion of the season.

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