- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- On Day 1 of training camp, they were the Same Old Jets -- chatty and ultra-confident.
The New York Jets were in midseason form, talking up their Super Bowl chances and firing pebbles at the New England Patriots. They believe the AFC East is theirs for the taking.
"I'm pretty sure our coach will tell you what I'll tell you: We are the team to beat," Santonio Holmes said Monday.
Even though the Jets beat the Patriots in two of three meetings last season, including the stunning upset in the playoffs, the Jets finished three games behind Team Belichick in the standings. That's a significant gap. And what exactly have they done to narrow it?
On paper, the Jets have taken a step back. Everybody around the team is excited because they re-signed Holmes and Antonio Cromartie, and because Plaxico Burress arrived with his Super Bowl résumé, but let's not forget the big picture.
They lost two very good football players, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith. So now you're talking about a drop-off at wide receiver, Edwards to Burress, and you can't even quantify the loss of Smith because he did so many things.
The Jets were bound to lose one or two of their key free agents because that's life with a $120 million salary cap. GM Mike Tannenbaum kept the best two and took a worthwhile gamble on Burress, but those moves don't justify this sudden perception that they're the AFC favorites.
"We feel like it's us, they feel like it's them," Mark Sanchez said, naming his team to beat in the AFC East.
Rex Ryan loves tweaking the Patriots, and he couldn't hold back, not even on the first day of a six-month marathon.
"We have to find somebody out there to beat New England besides us," said Ryan, who owns a 3-2 career record against Bill Belichick. "That would help. For anybody out there, are you good enough to beat New England? I'm challenging the league."
Rex being Rex.
Ryan believes this roster, albeit in flux, is the best he's had in three seasons. Reminded that he lost Smith and Edwards, the coach explained why he feels this is his best team:
"I feel so strongly about our roster now, and part of it is based on what I think our leader is going to do," he said, anticipating huge strides from his third-year quarterback.
That is a fair statement. If Sanchez improves -- and he should -- the team will get better. Even Sanchez knows that, saying, "My improvement determines any kind of ceiling this team has. We have all the potential in the world, and now it's time to realize that."
Optimism aside, the Jets still have deficiencies. They could use another pass rusher, an edge player who can get to the quarterback on third down. They never replaced Jason Taylor, who recorded five sacks on his one-year hiatus from the Miami Dolphins. (He announced his return Monday on his Facebook page.) They also could use more speed at receiver.
Tannenbaum is good at what he does, and he's not done tinkering with the roster. Ryan claimed they have their sights on a couple of players who can help (sorry, he didn't share names), and you know the Jets still have at least one big move left in them.
"I know what I feel in my heart: This is going to be our year," Ryan said.
His attitude is contagious.
"We're going to contend. That's what we do," cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "We're going to contend for the Super Bowl. That's our No. 1 goal."
The Jets have reached the past two AFC Championship Games. Or, as Holmes said, "We were wiping our feet at the door to walk into the Super Bowl. Why can't we do it again this year?"
They might. But to say they're the favorites at this juncture with apologies to Bart Scott, that can wait.
2hJohn Keim and Adam Caplan