New York Jets: New England Patriots
Did the AFC East's best keep on getting better?
The perennial division champion New England Patriots signed elite cornerback Darrelle Revis, which could offset significant free-agency gains by the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.
The Buffalo Bills are in good position to improve through this week's NFL draft. EJ Manuel, the Bills' top pick last season, returns as the starting quarterback and is one of three second-year players facing intense scrutiny in 2014.
Who finishes atop the AFC East in 2014 could depend largely on which team best handles the stretch run, as December features five inter-division matchups -- including three in a row for the Patriots to end the season.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East offseason and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East team has had the best offseason to date?
Rich Cimini: I'm all about the stars, which is why I'm picking the Patriots, who landed the best free agent of them all: Darrelle Revis. He's one of the top two cornerbacks in the league, a legitimate game-changer. His presence will allow Bill Belichick to play more press-man coverage, which will help their pass rush and create headaches for opponents. Once Brandon Browner serves his suspension, they'll have two physical corners. The Jets and Dolphins helped themselves in free agency, addressing need areas, but neither team acquired a player as good as Revis. The Patriots lost a terrific corner in Aqib Talib and actually upgraded. How often does that happen in free agency?
Mike Rodak: Comparing gains and losses in free agency, the Patriots have fared the best. The season is never won in March, but the Patriots were able to upgrade even after losing cornerback Aqib Talib. Signing Darrelle Revis was the most significant free-agent move in the division, while Brandon Browner adds another quality player to the secondary. The Jets aren't too far behind. Eric Decker and Chris Johnson add firepower where the Jets have struggled in recent years -- at their skill positions. Neither player, though, is on the same level as Revis, which is why I give the Patriots the edge. Honorable mentions go to the Dolphins for signing Branden Albert and the Bills for signing Brandon Spikes.
James Walker: I like what the Jets have done this offseason. It has been offense, offense and more offense in free agency for New York. The Jets went out and signed wide receiver Eric Decker, former Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson and veteran quarterback Michael Vick. All three have a chance to make an impact on New York's weakest side of the football. Jets head coach Rex Ryan is a great defensive mind and has that side taken care of. It's just a matter of New York scoring more points this year. If the Jets can add a receiving threat such as Marqise Lee or Brandin Cooks in the first round Thursday, look out for "Gang Green."
Will an AFC East team select a quarterback in the first three rounds of the draft?
Cimini: No one will pick a quarterback in the first two days of the draft. The most likely candidate is the Dolphins, who have a new offensive coordinator and might be looking to acquire some Ryan Tannehill insurance after two so-so seasons -- but it won't happen before the fourth round, not this year. Neither Geno Smith nor EJ Manuel is entrenched with the Jets and Bills, respectively, but their teams have too many other needs to start doubling down on quarterbacks. The Patriots made headlines by hosting Johnny Manziel on a pre-draft visit, but I'm not buying it. It's still too early to start looking for an heir to the Tom Brady throne.
Rodak: The Patriots are the most likely to select a quarterback in the first three rounds. Their backup since 2011, Ryan Mallett, enters the final season of his rookie contract and hasn't proved in limited playing time that he's capable of being a starter. Mallett was a third-round selection and that could be the sweet spot for the Patriots again, although I wouldn't put it past them to take a quarterback in the second round if one of the top signal-callers falls. The Bills might also pluck a quarterback off the board by Friday night. EJ Manuel, a first-round pick last year, is their starter but they could use an upgrade over Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel as their backup. If the right quarterback falls, Buffalo might pounce.
Walker: The third round seems like the best possibility; it's the safest round of the three for avoiding a quarterback controversy. The Bills would have the best case for drafting a quarterback fairly early. The team has said several times that it's behind 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel, but I don't see any reason for the Bills to avoid adding depth at the position behind Manuel in the middle of the draft. Backup quarterbacks Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel are not the answers. Manuel had injury issues last year, as well. It makes sense for the Bills to consider a capable backup.
@RichCimini Pats and Mettenberger is a match made in heaven. Strong arm? Statue in pocket? Tall? Character/Injury concern? All check marks.- Bob (@Bobister) May 6, 2014
What stands out about the NFL schedule for each AFC East team?
Cimini: Prepare for the missiles of October. The Jets face Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in a 12-day span, Weeks 5 to 7. Before that, they meet up with a few other top quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. The Jets' suspect pass defense, which allowed nearly 4,000 yards last season, will be seriously tested. This is the main reason they need to prioritize cornerback in the draft.
Rodak: I've harped on this point before, but the Bills might have the NFL's toughest December schedule. Who knows where they'll be by Thanksgiving -- they could be in the playoff hunt or fading -- but their final month is brutal. The Bills must travel to face Peyton Manning and the Broncos, return home to host Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, make a cross-country trip to face the Raiders and then head back East to finish their regular season on the road against Brady and the Patriots. Ouch. Perhaps it's better that this four-game stretch comes at the end of the season rather than the beginning -- the Bills could be staring down an 0-4 start if it did -- but if they have any hope at the playoffs, they're going to need to win a couple of those games.
Walker: The Dolphins must bring their A-game on the road because they do not have back-to-back home games until the final two weeks. The Dolphins were a respectable 4-4 on the road last season, but it will be challenging for them to put together any significant winning streaks away from Sun Life Stadium. Miami's regular-season opener at home against the Patriots also stands out. We will find out immediately whether the Dolphins are a legitimate threat to New England in the AFC East.
@JamesWalkerNFL the 4 game stretch playing the broncos jets ravens and pats. ultimately make or break us- Michael Broyles (@mikesdolphins) May 7, 2014
Which AFC East second-year player has the most to prove?
Cimini: My first inclination is to say Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who could lose his starting job to Michael Vick, but that's the Jets beat writer in me talking. The better answer is Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. Why him? Unlike Smith, Manuel was a first-round pick, which means greater expectations -- and those expectations were heightened when the Bills anointed him as The Guy. Smith has yet to receive that kind of endorsement from the Jets. The Bills have hitched their franchise to Manuel, who is coming off a mediocre-at-best rookie season in which he went 4-6 as the starter. He was hampered by injuries, but part of being a franchise quarterback is being on the field.
Rodak: It has to be EJ Manuel. Geno Smith is a close second, but the Jets have Michael Vick to lean on. The Bills decided not to add an experienced backup quarterback this offseason, clearing the way for Manuel to be their unquestioned starter. Manuel needs to be more consistent. He showed flashes last season but also had some downright horrid games, including a four-interception afternoon against the Buccaneers. Manuel must also stay healthy. His three knee injuries last season limited him to 10 games and set back his development. Another injury this season will cloud the picture and keep the Bills from knowing exactly what they have. That could give him more leeway if he isn't progressing as quickly as the team would like, but it could also cause the Bills to look elsewhere.
Walker: It's easy to point to the quarterback position and say New York's Geno Smith and Buffalo's EJ Manuel have the most to prove. But neither player was drafted higher in 2013 than Miami's Dion Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick. The Dolphins traded up nine spots to get Jordan last year, only to use him as a backup defensive end and special-teamer. It was head-scratching to figure out why such a dynamic talent couldn't find his way onto the field. Jordan's usage actually was one point of contention between Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin and former general manager Jeff Ireland, who had a falling out last season. Was Jordan not ready for the NFL level? Was Miami's coaching staff holding him back? This is a big Year 2 to answer those questions.
@MikeReiss. Dion Jordan his lack of production as a #3 pick especially when Miami drafted him to put pressure on Brady...gives him the nod- paul (@kurtzfam4) May 6, 2014
"We don't coach pushing or anything along those lines," said Kotwica, adding: "I don't know what they were trying to do. I just know this: We teach a technique and a scheme on how to block field goals and it's within the regulations of the game."
Kotwica echoed Rex Ryan, who fired back at Belichick Wednesday by saying the allegation is "not true." It appeared that Quinton Coples gave teammate Muhammad Wilkerson a one-armed push on Stephen Gostkowski's field goal at the end of regulation. It was "incidental contact," according to Kotwica.
Kotwica said he took no offense to Belichick calling out the Jets.
"No, I don't take it personally," he said. "I've got a lot of respect for Coach Belichick and what he's done for the game. That's his opinion. I wouldn't take it personally."
On Tuesday, ESPN.com reported the Jets' sidelined tipped off the officials during the game. It probably was Kotwica, who routinely speaks with officials during the week and before each game. Publicly, the Jets haven't confirmed that they alerted officials to the Patriots' previous use of the push play.
Kotwica cleverly danced around questions, saying he always communicates with the league office during the week to discuss rules and points of emphasis. He also speaks with the umpire before every game to discuss "different formations you have, different guys that are eligible ... and anything else that might happen during the game."
Asked point-blank if he brought up the subject last Sunday, Kotwica he preferred to keep those conversations private.
Everybody knows what happened. Nick Folk's field-goal miss from 56 yards in overtime was nullified because the Patriots' Chris Jones was penalized 15 yards for pushing a teammate into the Jets' formation. On his second try, from 42 yards, Nick was successful, lifting the Jets to a 30-27 upset.
"My initial reaction (to the penalty) was, 'I hope it's on them,'" said Kotwica, claiming he had no idea it would for pushing.
In each of the past four seasons (i.e. the Rex Ryan era), the Jets lost the second meeting between the two AFC East rivals. That's not a coincidence, it's a trend. When it was mentioned to Ryan, he tried to explain it by saying the Patriots benefitted from having the second game at home. In fact, that applies only to 2009 and 2010.
"Well, there goes that theory," he said, laughing.
Turning serious, Ryan said, "I think when you look at their team, their team historically, in that second half of the season, they don't lose much. Whatever it is, they've obviously done a better job than we have."
A much better job.
In each season, the second meeting was a blowout, including last year's 49-19 debacle on Thanksgiving night -- aka the Butt Fumble Game. In 2011, the Jets lost again in prime time, 37-16, a game best remembered for Ryan cursing out a fan at halftime -- and receiving a hefty fine from the NFL. It was a similar story in 2010, 45-3, except the Jets got the last laugh, stunning the Patriots in the playoffs.
The Patriots' ability to raise their level in the rematch is a testament to Bill Belichick and his coaching staff, their ability to make adjustments and react to the Jets' adjustments.
It certainly doesn't bode well for the Jets on Sunday.
ICYMI: Antonio Cromartie gave a brutally honest self-evaluation of his performance this season: Not good enough. ... In addition to returning kickoffs, newly-acquired Josh Cribbs may get a chance to return punts. And maybe, just maybe he'll be the personal protector on the punt team. ... Santonio Holmes won't play Sunday, as expected, and blamed the media for disrupting his rehab routine. ... Ryan has reached a crossroads in what he could be final season. Enough already, he needs to beat the Patriots.
Colon refused to reveal the exact amount -- "Too much," he said -- but a league source said it was $35,000. Colon said he's planning an appeal.
Colon was relieved he wasn't suspended, but he was clearly taken aback by the amount.
"They got me for contact with an official and I guess I was throwing some jabs when I was in the crowd," he said. "I kind of got the double wammy, so to speak. It sucks, but at this point all I can do is appeal it, put it behind me and get ready for Buffalo."
The melee was sparked when center Nick Mangold tackled Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib on an interception return along the New England sideline. People on the Patriots' sideline thought it was a cheap shot because Mangold dove into the back of his legs, but it happened that way because Talib spun as he went out of bounds. On Wednesday, Talib said he had no problems with Mangold's tackle.
Mangold was penalized for a personal foul, but as of Thursday afternoon, he hadn't heard from the league about a potential fine. Left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson was fined $15,000 for throwing a punch.
Guard Willie Colon and center Nick Mangold said they hadn't heard from the NFL as of Wednesday afternoon. Colon made contact with referee Carl Cheffers and Mangold was penalized for a late hit on cornerback Aqib Talib, who was returning an interception in the final minute. Mangold's tackle triggered the skirmish. Colon and Ferguson, who threw a punch at cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, were ejected from the game.
Some thought Mangold's tackle was a cheap shot, but Talib told ESPN.com Wednesday that he believes it was a clean hit.
UPDATE: A league source said that Ferguson was fined $15,000 for the fight.
Brady, in an interview with WEEI in Boston, told the station he doesn’t understand how the Jets could give up on a player like Danny Woodhead. The running back was cut by Ryan and Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum in 2010. Woodhead was picked up by the Patriots soon after and he's been a valuable contributor.
Brady even pointed out how the Jets misused Woodhead as a receiver when he was clearly a running back in college. It was a subtle way of Brady saying the Jets didn’t know what they were doing.
The irony is that New York could use a change-of-pace running back like Woodhead this season.
The Jets were embarrassed last Nov. 13 by the Patriots, 37-16, falling on their home field before a Sunday night TV audience. It was the most lopsided home loss of the Rex Ryan era -- until this season's 34-0 rout by the 49ers. It was a rough night for Ryan, who was fined $75,000 by the league for cursing at a fan. Bill Belichick, too, used profanity, but it was directed at the Jets.
Walking off the field, Belichick put his arm around his son and, according to the New York Post, told him, "Thirty-seven points on the best defense in the league. Suck my d---."
Darrelle Revis didn't appreciate the comment, telling reporters during the offseason that it was "ignorant" and "disrespectful." Too bad Revis won't face the Patriots tomorrow; that would've been a juicy storyline. How do his teammates feel?
Asked this week if Belichick's remark was disrespectful, LB Calvin Pace told ESPNNewYork.com: "You could say that. Wes Welker made comments about Rex's situation a couple of years ago. I think this is Jets-Patriots, New York-Boston, that's what it brings. I don't want to give them any bulletin-board material. ... At the end of the day, it does play a factor -- their dislike for us, our dislike for them."
The Jets were swept last season by the Patriots, the first time that happened under Ryan. That's a tough setback for a team that, after beating the Patriots in the 2010 playoffs, appeared on the verge of taking control of the rivalry.
"We got our ass whupped," CB Antonio Cromartie said, referring to the 37-16 game. "It's a sour feeling. It's a division rival, you're at home and you get whupped. Honestly, there was nothing you could do about it but sit there and take it."
Sunday, they get a chance to do something about it.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Nothing personal, Cro.
It's just that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been called worse.
Speaking on a Wednesday afternoon conference call with the New York media for the first time since being called an "ass----" by New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, Brady reacted just as he had in the morning when asked about the derogatory remark.
"Just like I told [ESPNBoston.com] earlier, I think I've been called worse," Brady said. "In fact, Bill Belichick's called me that. My offensive coordinator has called me that. And I know they like me, so maybe [Cromartie] really likes me. Because people have called me that a few times."
Joking aside, Brady has been in this situation before -- bulletin-board material included. In 2007, before the Patriots faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in a crucial regular-season matchup, second-year safety Anthony Smith guaranteed victory.
Bad idea, as Smith eventually ate his words.
He was picked on early and often -- biting on a play-action pass that resulted in a 63-yard touchdown by Randy Moss -- as New England went on to roll past Pittsburgh 34-13 to improve to 13-0.
"I don't think it has much impact on the game," Brady said. "I know the way it turned out when we played Pittsburgh that year. I don't think they were plays on the call sheet to go after particular players, but he happened to be there in those situations.
"None of it really means anything. What's most important to us is how we're practicing and how prepared we are for the game. What's going to determine who wins this game is the preparation we put in and, ultimately, how we go out and execute under pressure on Sunday."
On Wednesday afternoon, Cromartie followed up expressing his hatred toward Brady by challenging the likely NFL MVP award winner to throw his way. Of course, that didn't work out too well the last time the two teams met. Cromartie was burned twice by Brady in the Patriots' 45-3 rout of the Jets on Dec. 6. First, Deion Branch got Cromartie for a 25-yard TD strike. Then, Brandon Tate beat him for a 4-yard TD hookup.
And it would only make sense that Brady would throw in Cromartie's direction in this week's divisional playoff game -- especially considering Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis, "the best player in the NFL," according to Jets coach Rex Ryan, is lined up opposite Cromartie.
"I try to just throw to guys that are open," Brady said. "I don't think I pick out players. I look at the matchups that we have and the routes that we have versus the defense that's called. Then I determine where I'm gonna throw it based on the reads. Moreso than anything that's my job as the quarterback is to find the most-open guy. I don't think it's, 'Man I'm not gonna throw at this guy, I'm not gonna throw at this guy.' I've never played that way."
All week long, Jets players -- most notably defensive end Shaun Ellis in comments he made to the New York Post -- have been accusing Brady for pointing his finger at their sideline and taunting them after he completed a 1-yard TD pass to tight end Aaron Hernandez that put the Patriots up 38-3 with 14:57 left in the fourth quarter.
"I don't remember that," Brady said. "I'm very emotional as I play. I don't think I've ever pointed at anybody. That's really not my style.
"I think there's definitely an emotional aspect to the game, sure. I'm excited. Certainly when we score touchdowns. They're a very good defense, and I'm excited when we can score against a very good defense. One of the top defenses in the league and has certainly given us some problems since Rex has been there. And Rex gave us problems when he was at Baltimore. It's a great scheme with some great players.
"I do get excited when we score. It's tough to score against that team, so that gets me more excited than anything."
If his actions were perceived as disrespectful, Brady said, he didn't mean for them to come off that way.
"That's not my intent," Brady said. "I don't remember pointing. I'm sure there's 50,000 cameras on the game. If I was doing that, they would show that. But I have a lot of respect for those players. And for their scheme and coaches and preparation. Maybe that's a source of motivation for them, but I don't feel that way. There's enough for me to worry about. The skill of the players and coaches, that's where my energy is being spent this week."
Nevertheless, Brady expects to see a different Jets team this time around, with both team's seasons hanging in the balance. Granted, the Jets won't be the only team making adjustments. Despite beating Gang Green by 42 points in their last meeting, the Patriots are fine-tuning their game plan as well.
"I'm sure they look at the game and think these are things we need to do better," Brady said. "And we look at that game and see things we can do better as well. So we're gonna make our adjustments from the last game just like they are. We're putting together a plan that takes advantage of some things we can exploit, and they're doing the same. It's gonna be a very different game in many respects. Certainly the stakes are much higher than last time. And how well we're able to play under pressure and execute at a very high level. That's why there's going to be millions of people tuning into the game on Sunday."
Brady, a three-time Super Bowl champion, set the NFL record for passing touchdowns in a season (50) in 2007. But he may have topped that stellar campaign in 2010. The 33-year-old, who amassed 36 touchdowns to just four interceptions in the regular season while tossing for 3,900 yards, has thrown 355 consecutive passes without a pick. And what makes that even more remarkable is the fact that Moss was traded at midseason.
Still, Brady downplayed the way the offense has evolved with the implementation of more two-tight end packages and the emergence of Branch after he was reacquired from the Seattle Seahawks to replace Moss.
"I don't think it's changed a whole lot," Brady said. "I think we've just executed a bit better. We try to run it, we try to throw it, we try to put in play action, we try to throw it quick, we try to throw it deep. We screen people, we draw people, we trap people. We do pretty much everything. We always have. I think we're just executing better. The line's blocking great. They've [been] tremendous all season. And that's where it starts with us: up front. They've been a very consistent group and we rely on them so much to put us in the right direction."
While the Jets were playing the Colts in their wild-card matchup, Brady elected to see "Lombardi" on Broadway in New York City. No surprise, that prompted criticism from Ryan, who said Colts quarterback Peyton Manning would've stayed home to watch and study.
"Maybe he's right," Brady said. "Maybe I should've been watching. Maybe."
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For Randy Moss, his freedom from Revis Island did not mean the Patriots superstar could roam free in the Jets' secondary. Instead, it was almost like Moss never left the island's uncomfortable confines.
Despite catching a 34-yard touchdown pass against Jets corner Darrelle Revis and not having to line up against the Pro Bowler in the second half due to Revis' hamstring injury, Moss had little effect in the Jets' 28-14 win Sunday afternoon at New Meadowlands Stadium.
Moss had just two catches for 38 yards, all of which came in the first half, and couldn't make the big plays needed when lined up against Antonio Cromartie in the second half.
This Antonio Cromartie hit on Randy Moss led to a Brodney Pool interception.
Running routes against Revis in the first half, Moss managed to best his rival on a fade to the back of the end zone with a beautiful one-handed grab that gave the Patriots a 14-7 lead with 53 seconds left in the second quarter. While the beautiful catch made many jaws drop, Moss was stoic about it, saying it was just everyday work and he didn't care that he beat Revis, who has called Moss a "slouch" in the past.
"This game, a lot of people put this game hype on me and Revis," Moss said. "And there's 10 other guys out there with me, and there's 10 other guys out there with him. In order for me to be successful, in order for Revis to be successful, all 11 guys have to be working together. Like I said, we didn't work together in critical situations."
While Revis left the game after that play with a tight, possibly pulled, left hamstring, Moss couldn't insert himself into the action in the second half. Moss and quarterback Tom Brady both said the Jets did not change anything in terms of their coverage with Revis sidelined, but the Jets somehow managed to neutralize Moss with the taller and heavier Cromartie.
"The biggest thing was going in, focusing and trying to do my job the best way I can," Cromartie said. "The guys in the secondary and the defense picked me up and made sure I did the right thing that I needed to do."
Moss was targeted four times in the second half, and on two of those occasions the Jets intercepted the ball. The first time, Brady overthrew a fade down the right sideline and Cromartie picked the ball off early in the third quarter. On the second pick, a tipped throw led to an interception by Brodney Pool to open up the fourth quarter. Just like most of the second half, Cromartie was right on top of Moss on that interception.
On this day, Cromartie -- not Revis -- seemed to be Moss' kryptonite. And that left Moss appearing to be stranded on an island -- albeit a different one -- once again.
"I got to just commend him," Moss said of Cromartie. "Revis, I guess was a little banged up, and Cromartie came in and held his own, held his ground. That's just something as a wide receiver, you go back to the drawing board, keep working. They had a good plan, they executed it right, they executed it better than we did and they won the game."