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Monday, November 14, 2011
AFC East still the Brady-Belichick division

By James Walker

Tom Brady
With good protection from New England's offensive line, Tom Brady picked the Jets apart Sunday.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For everyone who wrote off the New England Patriots after a rare, two-game losing streak, shame on you.

For those who thought Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was no longer capable of winning big games, shame on you, too.

For those who thought Patriots coach Bill Belichick couldn't find a way to improve the NFL's worst defense, how could you do such a thing?

I tried to warn you. Until further notice, the AFC East remains the "Brady and Belichick division." It's been that way for the past decade, as New England's power pair led the Patriots to eight division titles the past 10 seasons.

New England is well on its way to clinching its ninth division title in 11 seasons following Sunday night's convincing 37-16 victory over the New York Jets.

The Patriots essentially hold a two-game lead with seven games remaining. New England also has the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL. Barring an unexpected collapse, the Patriots will be adding another AFC East title to their collection and hosting a playoff game in January.

Even Jets coach Rex Ryan was willing to concede the division afterward.

"It looks doubtful right now," Ryan said candidly. "What am I going to say? Maybe I should guarantee the fact that we’re out of it. The last time I did that, we made the playoffs. Yeah, we don't have a chance."

Surprised? You shouldn't be. All you have to do is remember your history.

The Belichick and Brady-led Patriots always respond well to adversity. They like being the underdogs. They thrive on it.

New England also is a great team late in the season. The Patriots improved to 54-13 in the second half of the regular season since 2003.

This was the first time in years New England was being counted out. The Patriots had lost two straight, the defense was awful, and the Jets were the hot team and 4-0 at home.

The Patriots were being written off as has-beens, a relic of the past.

“That doesn't matter, people can say whatever they want," Patriots left tackle Matt Light said. “[The media] can keep writing bad things or good things, it won't affect us. We will be all right."

The Patriots are more than all right, especially when Brady is playing at his usually Pro Bowl form.

Brady was stellar against New York's talented pass defense. He made all the key throws when the Patriots needed it, particularly in the second half. Brady threw for 329 yards, three touchdowns and had a 118.4 passer rating.

New England's offensive line didn't allow a sack, and a comfortable Brady picked the Jets apart. He spread his 26 completions among six receivers. Even Chad Ochocinco got into the act with two catches for 65 yards, including a 53-yard play in the second quarter.

Brady continually put pressure on the Jets' offense to respond. Eventually, New York and quarterback Mark Sanchez couldn't keep pace.

Belichick drew up a great scheme on defense. New England entered the game ranked last in total defense and pass defense. But the Patriots came hard after Sanchez.

New England registered five sacks -- 4.5 by defensive end Andre Carter -- and hit Sanchez nine times total. The pressure eventually forced Sanchez into costly errors, such as his pick-six to Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich in the fourth quarter to seal the game.

The Patriots' defensive performance provides momentum for the second half of the season. Sixteen points is tied for the fewest points allowed by New England this season.

"Any given Sunday we have a chance to showcase what you're about defensively," Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington said. "This was one of the biggest stages -- Sunday night football -- and for us to come out and play relatively well, it's monumental. It speaks volumes."

Belichick's explanation for New England's improved defense was simple, as usual.

"We did a good job of winning one-on-one matchups," Belichick said. "There's no magic wand or anything."

The Patriots aren't perfect. But they are significantly better than the rest of the AFC East.

New York is a very flawed team. The offense has a leaky line and is inconsistent in both the running and passing games. Sanchez also has a lot left to prove. The Jets' strength is defense. But even that unit fails to show up every week. The Jets often looked confused and disorganized against the Patriots.

The third-place Bills are 2-4 in their last six games and sinking fast. Buffalo was trounced Sunday by the Dallas Cowboys, 44-7. The Bills’ defense needs a lot of work, and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is too streaky for Buffalo to be considered a legitimate threat to win the AFC East. The Bills beat New England in the first meeting. But Buffalo has a lot of work to do to remain in contention by the time these two teams meet again in Week 17.

Jets players, like their head coach, were talking in the locker room as though the AFC East race is over.

"Obviously, there is a lot of frustration," Jets safety Jim Leonhard said. "It was a big goal of ours to go ahead and win this division and we put ourselves in a hole again. I'm not saying it can't happen, but it's unlikely to happen at this point."

The Jets have seen this story unfold before. The Patriots -- thanks to Brady and Belichick -- still own the AFC East.