NFL Nation: Mike Wright

Good for you, Jets: Patriots are next

January, 9, 2011
1/09/11
2:20
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 LaDainian TomlinsonJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Jets advanced to play the rival Patriots thanks in part to LaDainian Tomlinson's two scores.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The New York Jets poured out onto the Lucas Oil Stadium turf, many with their helmets raised overhead. Nick Folk's 32-yard field goal flipped through the uprights as the clock expired Saturday night. The Jets beat the Indianapolis Colts 17-16 and advanced to the AFC divisional round of the playoffs.

The sickened crowd was so silent you could hear the Jets whoop and holler like they owned the place. Braylon Edwards did a backflip on his way into the tunnel.

And right about then the Jets remembered what's coming next.

"As soon as the game was over -- I know that all the guys were happy with the win -- but we got the Patriots on our mind," Jets safety Brodney Pool said. "We know we're going back there. We remember what they did to us."

Yes, the New England Patriots.

Congratulations, Jets on your wild-card round victory Saturday. On Jan. 16, you get to return to Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots cudgeled you 45-3 about five weeks ago.

"The way that they beat us up when we were there, it was a butt-kicking," Pool said.

"They dominated us."

Jets defensive back Dwight Lowery interrupted.

"Not going to happen again," Lowery said, pulling a shirt over his head at the adjoining locker stall.

"That wasn't the same group of guys," Pool said, "that showed up today."

The Jets left Lucas Oil Stadium convinced they weren't the same team that the Patriots humiliated on "Monday Night Football." That Dec. 6 game emphatically dropped the Jets out of the AFC East lead. That loss led to questions about them being frauds who fattened their record by feasting on opponents with losing records.

"What happened in the last game definitely is not going to happen again," Lowery said. "We'll be better prepared overall. It's a brand new game."

Saturday night's victory resets the Jets. They beat the great Peyton Manning on his home field, in front of his raucous fans.

And the Jets did it with Manning avoiding blunders. Manning did his thing. He completed 69 percent of his passes for 225 yards. He fired a perfect strike to Pierre Garcon for a 57-yard touchdown. Manning didn't throw an interception and conceded on one garbage sack at the end of the first half. He posted a 108.7 passer rating.

The Jets still won.

Now they feel like they have an honest shot against Tom Brady, whom Rex Ryan took a shot at last week. Ryan knocked Brady, declaring him propped up by Bill Belichick and not as good as Manning.

"To beat an elite Hall of Fame quarterback in his house is huge," Jets right tackle Damien Woody said. "We had the right formula coming in here. The stakes get higher. Brady probably is going to be MVP of the league. That offense is humming.

"But to beat Peyton at home speaks volumes about the guys in this locker room and our coaching staff."

The Jets can't expect to hold the Patriots to 16 points. The Patriots have scored at least 31 points in eight straight games.

So good luck with that.

But the Jets have plenty to build upon.

[+] EnlargeNew York Jets place kicker Nick Folk
AP Photo/Michael ConroyNick Folk's game-winning 32-yard field goal as time expired sent the New York Jets to the divisional round against the Patriots next Sunday.
Perhaps most impressive about their victory was that Mark Sanchez was slipshod -- and that didn't kill them. Sanchez was off target on some plays and threw a boneheaded interception that kept the Jets scoreless at halftime. He didn't have any touchdown passes and finished with a 62.4 rating.

The Jets won with an aggressive ground attack that got better as the game progressed. LaDainian Tomlinson appeared fresh, as he did early in the season. He ran 16 times for 82 yards and two touchdowns. Shonn Greene added 19 carries for 70 yards.

"Really, it was more the mentality our backs took that they were going to run through that door," Ryan said. "Whether it had a lock on it or not, our guys were going to pound it in there.

"Our offensive line did a great job of slugging away. It wasn't going to be that you were going to rip [the Colts] for 8 yards and 8 yards. It usually starts 2, 3, 4 and then all of the sudden you're able to crack them."

The Patriots' run defense might be their biggest weakness heading into the playoffs. They placed defensive linemen Ron Brace and Mike Wright on injured reserve in the past week. They allowed an average of 108 yards a game, which ranked 11th. But a mitigating factor is that teams often are in catch-up mode in the second half and forced to throw.

Patriots inside linebacker Brandon Spikes is coming back from a league suspension. Rookie defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick was briefly suspended by the Patriots this week for an undisclosed reason.

Several Jets refused to discuss the Patriots matchup as Saturday night turned into early Sunday morning. When a reporter asked outside linebacker Calvin Pace about heading back to Gillette Stadium, inside linebacker Bart Scott lashed into a profanity-laced complaint that the Jets deserved time to enjoy beating the Colts.

Jason Taylor, who won his first playoff game in a decade, was one of the Jets who declined to speak specifically about the Patriots.

But the veteran pass-rusher put the victory -- and next week -- into perspective.

"If there was any bit of uncertainty, I think this helps erase it," Taylor said. "But it's one game. We won the playoff round. We've got to go play in the divisional round, and if we win that, we still haven't done anything yet.

"I understand the process. I've been in this spot before, where you win the first round and don't win in the second round. You get nothing for it. You don't even get a hat. Or a T-shirt."

It was so long ago, but the Jets actually did defeat the Patriots 28-14 at the Meadowlands in Week 2.

The trilogy will conclude next Sunday afternoon.

"Couldn't have scripted it better, to get a third opportunity at a team," Woody said. "We split in the regular season, but people don't remember our win. They remember the huge blowout. You're only as good as your last game.

"So Part III is coming up."

Week 17 marquee: Brohm versus Jets JVs

January, 2, 2011
1/02/11
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The NFL frontloaded and backloaded the schedule for divisional games this year to add significance to potentially irrelevant games in Weeks 16 and 17.

The New York Jets sneaked into the playoffs last year because the Indianapolis Colts pulled their starters at halftime in Week 16 and the Cincinnati Bengals did the same in Week 17. The Jets won both games and received a wild-card entry after head coach Rex Ryan declared his team mathematically eliminated.

But the NFL's new approach didn't mean diddly squat for the AFC East.

At the Meadowlands on Sunday, the Buffalo Bills and Jets will play a junior varsity game.

Bills backup quarterback Brian Brohm, once considered by Mel Kiper to be the No. 1 draft prospect of 2008, will start. The Bills have scratched quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick because of a knee injury, giving Brohm the chance to throw his first NFL touchdown, something he hasn't been able to do in 11 preseason games.

Brohm will be throwing into a Jets secondary and the NFL-worst Bills run defense will be trying to stop a lineup that might remind us of the 1987 season.

The Jets have deactivated cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, safeties Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo, running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene and right tackle Damien Woody.

Notable scratches for the New England Patriots include receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch, tight end Aaron Hernandez, defensive lineman Mike Wright and outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain.

Seasons greetings from Orchard Park, N.Y.

December, 26, 2010
12/26/10
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Cold, gray and windy is the forecast for Sunday's matchup between the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills here at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Temperature at kickoff will be about 23 degrees, but it will feel like 9 degrees, with winds gusting up to 23 mph. The chance of snow is 50 percent.

New England could clinch the AFC East title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, while a victory over the Patriots would make Buffalo's season. The Bills have won four out of their past six games, including an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Buffalo has lost 14 straight games to New England and 19 out of 20 in the series.

The inactives:

New England Patriots
Buffalo Bills

Overachievers prevailing in AFC East

December, 9, 2010
12/09/10
6:16
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Fred Jackson and Tom Brady and Davone BessGetty ImagesFred Jackson, Tom Brady and Davone Bess came into the league as unheralded long shots but have made the most of their chances.
It's no mystery why we love underdogs.

Respected football minds who get paid to assemble NFL teams dismissed them out of hand, scratched them from their draft lists, cut them in training camp.

Yet these players survive. They're too driven to give up. Not all of them become stars, but that's not necessary to become a precious asset on a team.

"As a coach, you love those stories," said former New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards. "They don't let you down."

Said Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey: "You have to have them. There's no way to play the game without them."

Overachievers have dominated the AFC East this year. Late-round draft picks, players who weren't drafted at all and castoffs from other teams have starred for every team, including the MVP favorite (Tom Brady), two leading rushers (BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Fred Jackson), three leading receivers (Wes Welker, Steve Johnson, Davone Bess) and three sack leaders (Cameron Wake, Mike Wright and Kyle Williams).

These thriving underdogs are a substantial reason why the AFC East has been so compelling this year.

"It's football," said Jim Jensen, the ultimate survivor with the Miami Dolphins. They drafted the Boston University quarterback in the 11th round in 1980, and he stuck around until 1992 as a receiver/wedge buster/long snapper/third-down fullback/holder/tell me where to go, Coach, and I'll hit them.

"I like to watch guys that are working hard and working for the team," Jensen said. "They're working for a goal. They're not selfish. Wes Welker is a great example. He just loves to win. He's unselfish. Davone Bess is another one who's an inspiration to watch."

There's a reason the conquering underdog is such a common theme in Hollywood.

"These guys have something to prove," said film producer Mark Ciardi. "There's enough of these stories where these guys just survive and climb over players teams have a lot of money invested in. It's just a different thing when you've got to prove people wrong. They know they've got to check way more boxes than other people to succeed."

Ciardi pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers despite being a 15th-round draft choice in 1983.

"I got no money to sign," Ciardi said. "I was the last guy on the pitching squad of 17 guys in rookie ball. I had no chance."

Four years later, Ciardi made it to the majors. He started three games and pitched another in relief. He defied the odds, which is why he finds stories about unlikely heroes so appealing.

Among his true-story films: "Invincible" (about Philadelphia Eagles walk-on Vince Papale), "Miracle" (about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team), "The Rookie" (about 35-year-old rookie pitcher Jim Morris) and "Secretariat."

All of those motion pictures portrayed an undeniable will to win, a theme that has carried Ciardi throughout his career. He sees it in such players as Brady and Patriots running back Danny Woodhead.

"What I realized was you've got to work extra hard," Ciardi said. "Nothing will be given to you, but you have an opportunity. The only way you're going to succeed is to snatch it and force them to keep you. If they don't have money invested in you, chances are you're not going to get the same kind of shot."

But having overachievers on the roster means more than a compelling storyline and increased jersey sales.

They often become team leaders and examples for other players to emulate. Underdogs help manage the salary cap because they're cheaper (at least in the beginning). They make draft mistakes much more bearable. They help a front office sell the team to future free agents.

"They're so coachable," former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick said. "Once they get into it, they realize how tenuous it is to stay in the NFL. Nothing came easy for them. You love having guys like that on your team."

Inquiring about a coach's favorite player is like asking a parent to name his favorite child. But it's easy to guess what type they admire most: the relentless survivors.

"You know what they have done to get to where they are," Gailey said. "As a competitor, you appreciate that. Everybody doesn't end up with a bunch of God-given talent. Guys have to go fight for what they want in life. When those guys get it, it's very satisfying to see it for those guys to make it."

[+] EnlargeJim Leonhard
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesJim Leonhard went from the NFL scrapheap to being a vital player on defense and special teams for the Jets.
Two players New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan identified as critical to his establishing his defense last year were inside linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard. Neither was drafted. Leonhard had been waived by the Bills, re-signed and then cast adrift in free agency because the Bills viewed him as no more than roster filler. When Leonhard suffered a season-ending shin injury last week, Jets fans got nervous because he was integral to the secondary and special teams.

The NFL-leading New England Patriots are loaded with examples of perseverance. Brady has been such a superstar in the league for so long, it's sometimes strange to think of him as an underdog. But as the 199th pick in the 2000 draft, Brady might be the game's greatest overachiever.

Wake, the Miami Dolphins outside linebacker, leads the league with 12 sacks. He wasn't drafted and went five years between his last down at Penn State and his first in the NFL. Pro Bowl safety Yeremiah Bell was a sixth-round pick who got waived as a rookie and placed on the practice squad.

Buffalo's offense features late-round picks or undrafted players at the three marquee spots. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was a seventh-round draft choice and a career backup. Running back Fred Jackson didn't start a game for his high school team and came up through Division III and the arena leagues before emerging in NFL Europa. Top receiver Stevie Johnson was a seventh-round draft choice.

As inspirational as these players are, they also make slackers look that much worse. Those healthy first-, second- and third-round players who can't get on the field unfortunately aren't wired to battle that way.

"A lot of these guys think it's a right that they have to play," Gailey said. Overachievers "realize it's a privilege to play this game.

"When you got a guy who knows how to fight and understands the fight, understands competition, understands working through adversity and he becomes a good player on your team, then that helps set a tone."

Billick and Edwards emphasized the impact of undrafted players and late-round successes on a roster's overall well-being. Edwards, an undrafted player who started for the Philadelphia Eagles from the opening day of his rookie season, said unearthing overlooked gems are "like getting a free draft pick." Billick noted that they're instrumental to managing the salary cap.

"The residual effect is you don't have to spend those resources," Billick said, "whether they be draft choices or a procurement through free agency to go fill that spot.

"You pick Tom Brady up in the sixth round. Are you kidding me? What that does for your organization ... Even the difference between that and having to draft Matt Ryan third in the draft, the resources you have to spend is just a gift from above."

Heaven-sent is how Patriots fans must view a good chunk of their division-leading team. Dolfans can't be more thrilled with Wake or Bess. The Jets will depend on undrafted starters such as right guard Brandon Moore, defensive end Mike Devito and Scott down the home stretch while certainly missing Leonhard.

And about the only pleasure Bills fans have had this season is watching their unlikely stars because they're such gripping characters.

"An underlying factor to all these stories," Ciardi said, "is the will and the heart that makes them extraordinary on the field."

Jets at Patriots inactives

December, 6, 2010
12/06/10
8:23
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are the inactives for Monday night's game between the New York Jets and New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium.

New York Jets
New England Patriots

Were big AFC East offseason needs filled?

August, 31, 2010
8/31/10
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On the day the New Orleans Saints held their Super Bowl parade, long before the free-agency period opened and the draft took place, Scouts Inc. analyst Gary Horton examined the top three needs of every NFL team heading into the offseason.

Now that we've gone through offseason workouts, minicamps, training camps and three preseason games, let's take a look at each AFC East need and determine whether it was addressed.

Buffalo Bills

1. Outside linebacker: At the time of Horton's analysis, he didn't know Aaron Schobel would retire. Schobel would have been Buffalo's best pass-rusher in its new 3-4 defense. The Bills signed free agent Reggie Torbor and are hoping a group that also includes Chris Kelsay, Chris Ellis and Aaron Maybin will suffice. Need addressed? No.

2. Left tackle: The Bills chose to stick with Demetrius Bell. The Bills still haven't drafted a tackle earlier than the fifth round since 2002. Of the two they did draft, fifth-rounder Ed Wang is hurt and seventh-rounder Kyle Calloway already has been released. The Bills did sign Oakland Raiders free agent Cornell Green to play right tackle. Need addressed? No.

3. Quarterback: The Bills did next to nothing at quarterback, drafting long-term project Levi Brown in the seventh round and letting Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Brohm shoot it out. Edwards won a not-so-open competition. Need addressed? No.

[+] EnlargeMarshall
Jonathan Brownfield/US PresswireThe acquisition of Brandon Marshall filled a huge void in the Dolphins' passing game.
Miami Dolphins

1. Wide receiver: Did the Dolphins address this need? Hmmm ... Let's see ... Oh, wait. That's right. They traded for Brandon Marshall, who has recorded triple-digit receptions in three straight seasons. Marshall was one of the most enormous transactions of the offseason. Need addressed? Yes.

2. Free safety: The Dolphins drafted Reshad Jones in the fifth round, but sophomore Chris Clemons has held down the position admirably. It won't be tough to outplay last year's starter, Gibril Wilson. Need addressed? Yes.

3. Nose tackle: The situation actually got worse and worse after Horton formed his analysis. Jason Ferguson was suspended eight games for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. The Dolphins re-signed Ferguson, but then he retired. The Dolphins didn't draft a nose tackle, choosing to convert defensive end Randy Starks instead. Starks is undersized for a traditional 3-4 nose tackle, but Dolphins coach Tony Sparano has claimed Starks' speed has upgraded the position. Need addressed? Yes.

New England Patriots

1. Outside linebacker: Horton wrote "This defense must generate pass-rush pressure from its outside linebackers, but the Pats are devoid of playmakers and have virtually no depth at this position." They've gotten shallower with the release of Adalius Thomas, who started their playoff game. Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess are back and penciled in as the starters. The Patriots drafted pass-rusher Jermaine Cunningham 53rd overall, but he has been too hurt to get on the practice field. Need addressed? No.

2. Wide receiver: Wes Welker was looking at a potentially long rehab at the time Horton wrote his offseason preview. Randy Moss' age also was a concern. But Welker's recovery has been quick. Moss has looked phenomenal. Emerging youngsters Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate and third-round draft pick Taylor Price should be more than enough. Need addressed? Yes.

3. Defensive end: Little did Horton know how badly the Patriots would need help here. Left end Ty Warren is done for the year because of a hip injury. Right end Jarvis Green split for the Denver Broncos. The Patriots signed free agent Gerard Warren and have moved last year's super reserve, Mike Wright, into the starting lineup. Need addressed? No.

New York Jets

1. Defensive end: Horton's concern was with the age of incumbents Shaun Ellis and Marques Douglas. Ellis is back. Douglas was a free agent who departed for the Dolphins. The Jets didn't draft any defensive linemen and didn't sign any notable free agents there. They did move Vernon Gholston from outside linebacker to defensive end. Need addressed? No.

2. Safety: Compared to the Jets' banner acquisitions, Brodney Pool was a blip. The Cleveland Browns gave up on him because of recurring concussions, but the Jets' medical staff found his problem was related to migraine headaches. He's a multifaceted safety with a nose for the ball, interception four passes in 10 games last year. Need addressed? Yes.

3. Wide receiver: The Jets practically stole Santonio Holmes from the Pittsburgh Steelers for a fifth-round draft choice. Holmes was the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII and was coming off a 1,248-yard season. But character issues, underscored by a four-game suspension to start the season, made him a bargain. Need addressed? Yes.

Burgess retirement would weaken Pats

July, 29, 2010
7/29/10
1:47
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ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli, citing multiple unnamed sources, reports New England Patriots outside linebacker Derrick Burgess is mulling retirement.

Burgess did not report for the start of Patriots training camp Thursday at Gillette Stadium. The odd development comes after the 31-year-old Burgess chose to re-sign with the Patriots in June. His one-year contract has a $1.4 million base salary and included a $100,000 signing bonus.

If Burgess decides to quit, his absence would weaken an already uncertain outside linebacking corps. The Patriots ranked 22nd in sacks last year with 31. Burgess was tied for second on the team with five sacks.

Tully Banta-Cain led the way with 10. Defensive lineman Mike Wright also had five, and outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, since released, was fourth on the team with three sacks.

Burgess played all 17 games. He started four games at outside linebacker and two at defensive end.

Undrafted players crucial to rookie classes

April, 25, 2010
4/25/10
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The Miami Dolphins' top two receivers last year. The Buffalo Bills' best running back. The New England Patriots' leading receiver and right guard. The New York Jets' right guard, best inside linebacker and a safety.

None of them were drafted.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIWes Welker was one of seven Patriots to start at least four games last season who came into the league undrafted.
When Mr. Irrelevant was ceremoniously introduced Saturday in Radio City Music Hall and the 2010 NFL draft ended, draft rooms didn't go dark. That's when some of the best work takes place.

Scouts scan the long list of players who weren't among the 255 chosen ones and work the phones, trying to convince the best remaining prospects to sign as free agents.

Undrafted rookies are a critical element to building a team and should produce at least a couple of keepers every year.

"First, you improve your football team, but it's probably the most economical way to put players on your team," Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix said. "There are a lot of good players out there.

"As all of us in here probably remember when there were 12 rounds and then there were 17 at one time. All of those players after seven rounds are still out there."

The AFC East is loaded with great examples.

Seven undrafted players started at least four games for division-champion New England last year: receiver Wes Welker, guards Stephen Neal and Dan Connolly, defensive lineman Mike Wright, inside linebacker Gary Guyton, outside linebacker Pierre Woods and safety Brandon McGowan.

The Dolphins relied on fullback Lousaka Polite, receivers Davone Bess and Greg Camarillo, tight end Joey Haynos and outside linebacker Cameron Wake, none of whom were drafted.

Bills running back Fred Jackson wasn't drafted, but he rushed for over 1,000 yards last year. Strong safety George Wilson evolved into a reliable starter.

The Jets fielded their share of draft-day oversights, including fullback Tony Richardson, right guard Brandon Moore, inside linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard.

That's a lot of quality players who weren't good enough to see their name crawl across the bottom of ESPN's draft telecast.

Still, they were found.

"These scouts bust their tails putting the board together on the back end of the draft board," Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said. "You have to trust what they see, and I am pretty involved in it as well because I have been there before and I want to know what we are signing for. It is a very important aspect of [the process]."

Imagine all those Jets scouting reports that would otherwise go to waste if not for undrafted free agents.

Perhaps no team has relied on them to fill out their 53-man roster, practice squad and training camp roster more than the Jets.

Two straight Aprils, they drafted the fewest prospects in the league -- three last year and four this time. They also drafted only four players in 2007.

"I'm banking on our scouting department that we're going to sign a couple players here in the next couple of hours that will have a good chance of making our team," Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said Saturday night.

AFC East Team Wrap-ups

January, 6, 2010
1/06/10
2:30
PM ET
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South
Clayton: Video | AFC grades ... NFC More: Fantasy MVPs | FB Outsiders | Awards

A team-by-team analysis of the division. The arrow indicates which direction each team is trending.

New England Patriots

Final Power Ranking: 10

Biggest surprise: Tully Banta-Cain largely was considered an afterthought to the Patriots' defense when the season began. Players such as Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Meriweather were the projected stars. But Banta-Cain, back after two years with the 49ers, led the Patriots with 9.5 sacks, four more than his previous career-high. He also had a pair of forced fumbles.

Biggest disappointment: Outside linebacker Adalius Thomas probably won't be back next year. Thomas has two years remaining on a free-agent contract that pays him an average of $7 million, but that didn't stop Bill Belichick from benching him twice. Thomas notched 11 sacks for the Ravens the year before the Patriots signed him. He finished with three this year, tying his worst output since he became a starter in 2001.

Biggest need: Despite unexpected seasons from Banta-Cain and defensive tackle Mike Wright, the Patriots must improve their pass rush. Wright had five sacks. So did Derrick Burgess, acquired with high expectations in a trade with the Raiders in training camp. The Patriots notched a mere 31 sacks, tying them for 23rd in the league. They ranked 12th in pass defense.

Team MVP: Wes Welker won't be around for the playoffs, but he certainly helped the Patriots get there. He led the NFL with a franchise-record 123 receptions for 1,348 yards.

Turning point: On opening night, Bills kick returner Leodis McKelvin fumbled with about minute left in the game to set up Tom Brady's second touchdown pass in the final 2:06 of a stunning victory. Had the Patriots lost that game, the whole trajectory of their season might've changed.


New York Jets

Final Power Ranking: 12

Biggest surprise: When star nose tackle Kris Jenkins suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 6, everyone figured the Jets' 3-4 defense was doomed. But rookie coach Rex Ryan continued to mold his defense into the NFL's best unit. The Jets ranked No. 1 in total defense and passing defense, and gave up the fewest first downs. The Cowboys had to close the season with back-to-back shutouts to nip the Jets by one-tenth of a point for the best scoring defense.

Biggest disappointment: Rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez's lack of progression from the start of the season has been frustrating. He began his career remarkably well, playing beyond his years in helping the Jets open 3-0. But his penchant for giveaways and a failure to grasp team concepts forced the Jets to curb their offense rather than open it up as the season wore on. The best solution has been to marginalize Sanchez. In his past five victories, his attempts were in the teens, and his yardage never surpassed 154.

Biggest need: Aside from accelerated experience at quarterback? Despite the trade for downfield threat Braylon Edwards, the Jets really could use help at receiver. Sanchez would benefit from a reliable slot receiver. The Jets' fourth-leading target was running back Leon Washington, who didn't play the final nine games. You'd have to look even lower on the stat sheet to find their third receiver. David Clowney finished with 14 catches for 191 yards.

Team MVP: Lockdown cornerback Darrelle Revis was the best player on the NFL's best defense. His six interceptions tied him for fifth in the league, and his 37 passes defensed were best by a comfortable margin.

Turning point: The Jets had a miraculous Week 16. All of the teams they needed to lose fell flat, and the undefeated Colts pulled their starters with almost six minutes left in the third quarter to usher the Jets onto the postseason threshold.


Miami Dolphins

Final Power Ranking: 21

Biggest surprise: The Dolphins couldn't have appear more condemned than when they started 0-3 and lost quarterback Chad Pennington to a season-ending shoulder injury. In came sophomore Chad Henne, who had been lackluster in the preseason. The Dolphins preferred to let Henne marinate for another season, but he won seven of his first 10 starts and showed enough to give Dolfans reason to believe they've found a franchise quarterback.

Biggest disappointment: The best compliment head coach Tony Sparano could pay outside linebacker Joey Porter recently was that he had gotten better at stopping the run as the season progressed. Porter led the AFC in sacks last season with 17. He recorded only nine this season, with half coming in two games. A hamstring problem bothered him, and Sparano benched him one game for disciplinary reasons.

Biggest need: The Dolphins need receiving help more than ever. Pennington thrived with their collection of possession receivers because he's a precision passer. But Henne has downfield capabilities that require a reliable deep threat. Ted Ginn certainly has the speed but little else to qualify him as a No. 1 wideout.

Team MVP: Ricky Williams is 32 years old, but he turned back the calendar with his best campaign since 2003, the longest spread between 1,000-yard seasons in NFL history. He became the workhorse, rushing for at least 102 yards in four out of the five games after Ronnie Brown suffered a season-ending broken foot in Week 10.

Turning point: The Dolphins were in control when they were 7-6. Then they lost their last three games to finish out of the playoffs.


Buffalo Bills

Final Power Ranking: 24

Biggest surprise: When it came to this year's draft class, all of the attention was focused on defensive end Aaron Maybin (11th overall) and offensive linemen Eric Wood (28th) and Andy Levitre (51st). But safety Jairus Byrd (42nd) stole the show for much of the season and was selected for the Pro Bowl. Byrd started only 11 games, but his nine interceptions tied for the NFL lead.

Biggest disappointment: Marshawn Lynch appeared ready to break out as an elite running back. He was entering his third season and was a Pro Bowler with a pair of 1,000-yard campaigns. But he opened the season with a three-game suspension for repeated bad behavior. He lost his job as the featured back by Week 11 and finished with 450 yards. He completed four games with 6 or fewer yards.

Biggest need: The Bills are practically naked at both offensive tackle spots. They traded Pro Bowler Jason Peters before the draft and chose not to replace him -- even though they had a crack at young star Michael Oher. The Bills went through a series of unimpressive names, including Demetrius Bell, Brad Butler, Jamon Meredith, Jonathan Scott and Kirk Chambers.

Team MVP: Fred Jackson took over as lead back by thoroughly outperforming Lynch. Jackson rushed for 1,062 yards and two touchdowns, and caught 46 passes for 371 yards and two touchdowns. Jackson also was Buffalo's top kick returner with 1,014 yards.

Turning point: Had McKelvin not coughed up the ball on that fateful kickoff return on opening night, the Bills would have ended a wicked losing skid against the Patriots and probably would have changed the course of their season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Buffalo Bills

Miami Dolphins

New England Patriots

New York Jets

  • Newark Star-Ledger reporter Dave Hutchinson previews the start of the Jets' offseason program under rookie head coach Rex Ryan.
  • New York Daily News reporter Rich Cimini writes the Jets are looking closely at Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Tracking free-agent visits can become a part-time job during the initial rush of free agency. Now that things have settled, I've put together an unofficial list showing where NFC West free agents have visited and which players the division's teams have visited with.

These visits fall into four basic categories:

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Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says receiver Torry Holt has asked the Rams for his release. Thomas: "Holt, 32, is due a roster bonus of $1.25 million March 17, so it's highly unlikely he will be a Ram beyond then. But the Rams could still try to trade him until then, meaning any potential trade partner wouldn't have to compete for his services, as would be the case if he were released."

Bob Young of the Arizona Republic counts three ways Kurt Warner's re-signing helps the Cardinals. He also offers advice on Edgerrin James, Karlos Dansby and Anquan Boldin.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Warner knew early in his trip to San Francisco that Arizona was the best place for him. Somers: "Warner planned to spend a few weeks after the season considering retirement. But two days after the Pro Bowl, he was thinking of football again." Warner: "I told my wife, 'Sorry, honey, it's not time.' I think two years is good. I think I can play at a high level, I think I can help this team continue to build, take the next step over the next couple years, leave them in a good position after that." 

Also from Somers: The Cardinals have about $22 million in salary-cap space remaining after re-signing Warner. They can gain another $5 million by releasing James.

More from Somers: Patriots free-agent nose tackle Mike Wright visited the Cardinals.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Warner's pledge to set aside money to re-sign Boldin never materialized. No surprise there.

Scott Bordow of the East Valley Tribune finds no fault in the Cardinals or Warner for their prolonged negotiations. Meanwhile, Warner's family remains focused on convincing the quarterback to let them have a puppy.

Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says it's surprising more teams haven't pushed for visits with free-agent fullback Leonard Weaver.

Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune quotes Bears general manager Jerry Angelo as suggesting the Seahawks overpaid for T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Something for Houshmandzadeh to keep in mind when the Bears visit Qwest Field in 2009.

John Morgan of Field Gulls expresses doubts about new Seahawks defensive tackle Colin Cole after continuing to watch him with Green Bay last season. Morgan: "Cole wasn't signed to dance with single blockers. He was signed to stand up to the double team and keep blockers out of the second level. I see no evidence that he will."

Also from Morgan: He likes what Jermaine Phillips would offer the Seattle defense.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Terrell Owens would be a horrible fit for the 49ers at this point. Agreed. Barrows: "Yes, they need a No. 1 receiver and yes, Mike Singletary certainly has the guts and the gravitas to stand up to a prima donna. But that's far outweighed by the 49ers relatively youthful locker room, its inexperience at quarterback and its new devotion to the running game. Owens complained mightily that he didn't get the ball enough in the Cowboys' wide-open offense. How would he react in a run-first offense?"

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat confirms a Sporting News report that the 49ers have given safety Mark Roman permission to seek a trade. As expected, the 49ers have penciled in Dashon Goldson as the starter for 2009.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

One of the more interesting questions entering free agency was whether Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson would accelerate his usual plodding approach in order to re-stock the Packers' roster for its transition to a 3-4 defense. The answer has been a resounding no.

Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel offers a good overview of what the Packers have -- and haven't done -- in the first four days of the market. Here it is in a nutshell: "Their strategy appears to be to take their time and make sure they don't overbid for players who would have to compete to become starters."

This has led the Packers to have casual conversations with the agents for defensive ends Igor Olshansky (San Diego), Marques Douglas (Baltimore) and Mike Wright (New England). But no visits are scheduled. It's possible the Packers will schedule a visit soon with free agent safety Michael Adams (Cleveland). None of these players are game-changers but could contribute to a winning team.

Like it or not, that's the approach Thompson has taken once again in 2009.

Continuing around the NFC North on a Tuesday morning:

  • Two Packers free agents, defensive end Mike Montgomery and fullback John Kuhn, are beginning to take visits, according to Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Montgomery is in Atlanta and Kuhn was in Arizona.
  • Judd Zulgad and Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune examine the situation around Denver quarterback Jay Cutler, who would like to be traded.
  • Minnesota special teams ace Heath Farwell has scheduled a visit with New England, according to Zulgad.
  • Vikings defensive end Jared Allen will participate in a USO trip to U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf this week. Allen's younger brother recently joined the Marines, according to Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Detroit has scheduled a visit with free agent offensive lineman Daniel Loper, according to Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press. Meanwhile, the Lions lost fullback Moran Norris to San Francisco.
  • Bob Wojnowksi of the Detroit News would like to see the Lions pursue Cutler: "It's such a no-brainer, I shouldn't even waste your time on it. It's also probably a complete pipe dream, a nasty little tease, an unrealistic notion."

  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune offers a similar sentiment for the Bears: "At some point [returning to the Super Bowl] will require bigger and bolder moves, and prying Cutler away from Denver would be one that could cement [Jerry] Angelo's legacy in Chicago."

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

The Broncos are moving fast in free agency but it's not on the defensive side of the ball. Yet.

The team has  agreed to four-year contracts with running backs J.J. Arrington and Correll Buckhalter. Denver has also agreed to a five-year deal with former New England long-snapper Lonie Paxton.

Paxton signed a $5.3 million deal, making him the second-highest paid long-snapper in the league. This spells the end for steady Mike Leach, who was a staple in the Mike Shanahan era.

The fast signings show two things of the new Josh McDaniels era in Denver. First, he loves his offense.

With gaping holes on the defensive side of the ball, McDaniels first addressed the offense. It also says he is staying with his Patriots roots. In addition to Paxton, Denver has interest in receiver Jabar Gaffney and defensive tackle Mike Wright of New England.

Buckhalter, 30, could be Denver's starting running back but expect Ryan Torain and Peyton Hillis to get a chance to play as well, if they can stay healthy. Arrington will be a third-down back and a returner.

Denver has been very active setting up visits in the early stages of free agency. Most of the players the team is pursuing are bargain-priced players.

However, that could change. The NFL Network is reporting Philadelphia safety Brian Dawkins is on his way for a visit to Denver and the Baltimore Sun is reporting that linebacker Ray Lewis could be on Denver's radar.

Both Dawkins and Lewis would fit in Denver if the team wants to spend. The Broncos have needs at both spots and both players would give a needed dose of leadership to a young defense that is searching for an identity. Also, Lewis played for new Denver defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in Baltimore.

Will Dawkins or Lewis end up in Denver? We know the Broncos are willing to spend. Now, let's see how much.

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