- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Credibility and job security are on the line. Also at stake is the philosophical debate of the right way to catch the Patriots, long the dominant team in the AFC East. Naturally, no AFC East team went into this past offseason believing the division title was open for competition. The Patriots were coming off a 16-0 season and a last-minute loss to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
Should the Jets beat the Patriots and eventually win the division, general manager Mike Tannenbaum could be the early leader for executive of the year. Whether you like the Brett Favre trade or not, Tannenbaum aggressively took advantage of the veterans available in free agency and trades, and he now has the Jets in excellent position.
This is the season for an AFC East team to steal a trip to the playoffs. The schedule offers eight games against potentially easy marks in the AFC West and NFC West. During the offseason, that schedule offered hope for the Jets, coming off a 4-12 campaign, that they could make a playoff run if they made the right moves.
Tannenbaum might have pulled off the best trade of the offseason by acquiring nose tackle Kris Jenkins from the Carolina Panthers for third- and fifth-round choices. Cleveland Browns nose tackle Shaun Rogers might be having a better season individually, but the Browns rank 26th against the run. The Jets have gone from allowing 134.8 yards per game to allowing 76.4 in run defense. In a victory Nov. 2 at the Buffalo Bills, Jenkins had a bigger effect than Favre because his play at nose tackle helped make the Bills one-dimensional on offense, taking away the run.
Linebacker Calvin Pace cost $42 million, but he has helped the Jets' pass rush. Pace has only four sacks, but the Jets are second in the league with 31.
Guard Alan Faneca has brought the type of leadership and toughness to the offense that was expected. Favre has been sacked only 16 times, and the rushing offense is averaging 4.6 yards a carry. Fullback Tony Richardson was signed for the minimum salary, but he has opened enough holes for halfback Thomas Jones that Jones is on pace for a 1,300-yard season.
Finally, the Favre trade has put the Jets atop the division in scoring at 28.3 points per game. The 103 points scored against the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams naturally bloated that number, but Favre gives the offense the ability to win with last-minute drives and in big games.
Naturally, the moves came with a big price tag. Tannenbaum added about $185 million worth of contracts to the payroll, and the roster got older. And who knows what will happen at quarterback after the season; Favre still could retire.
The pressure will be on the Jets on Thursday night because they played all their cards to catch the Patriots, who made only minor patches during the offseason and have lost Tom Brady, Rodney Harrison, Laurence Maroney and Adalius Thomas since the start of the regular season.
Still, if the Jets win, it will make Tannebaum look good.
Let's dive into the mailbag:
From the inbox
Q: Most writers have elevated Giants QB Eli Manning to elite status, and that has happened less than a year after the same people were correctly saying he was a letdown as a franchise QB. Isn't his success due to the rest of the team, especially the running game and defense? Please lead the charge in exposing him for what he is and not just elevate him to that status just because he's Manning.
Rob in Baltimore
A: To say Manning isn't a franchise quarterback is to say Ben Roethlisberger isn't a franchise quarterback in Pittsburgh. Admittedly, Manning isn't perfect. Roethlisberger, in my opinion, is more talented than Manning. You'll notice -- whether it's right or wrong -- that Manning doesn't seem to be getting a lot of Pro Bowl consideration even though his team has the best record in the NFC. All I know is, before 2007, he was getting his team into the playoffs even though he wasn't completing 60 percent of his passes. Now, he's won a Super Bowl ring and the Giants are 8-1. He's not Peyton Manning. He's not Tom Brady. But he definitely deserves to be called a franchise quarterback.
Tommy in Alabama
A: You can argue they need two, but top receivers are hard to find. Only six Pro Bowl receivers have been developed since 2002, so sometimes it takes years to find good ones. The Ravens made a good signing a few years ago with Derrick Mason. He's more of a possession receiver, but a very, very dependable possession receiver. Teams also need a receiver to stretch the field. The problem the Ravens and all teams face is too many receivers have come out as underclassmen and failed to become top NFL receivers. The argument for having at least two good receivers is evident in Buffalo. Lee Evans is a Pro Bowl talent, but defenses can double-cover him and limit the Bills' passing offense. What will be interesting to see is how the four NFC East teams handle Flacco in the second half of the season.
Q: What in the world is wrong with the Saints' defense? I know there have been some injury issues, but New Orleans can't stop anyone. What's the problem?
A: My biggest issue with the Saints this season is they haven't pressured quarterbacks enough and the corners can't stay on coverage long enough to stop passing attacks. That baffles me, too. Charles Grant and Will Smith are two of the highest-paid defensive ends in football. Grant is out for the season, but Smith has developed into a pass-rusher who uses the bull rush more than the outside rush. The Saints love to use man-to-man coverage, but the corners are giving up 12.8 yards a completion. That's a lot. They have only 14 sacks and no one with more than three. The loss of CB Mike McKenzie for the season will make things worse. The Saints obviously made a bad signing last year with Jason David, and now he will have to play more because of McKenzie's injury. Injuries have played a big factor, but the Saints' defense clearly has underachieved.
Q: Why are cornerbacks measured so much by interceptions? Corners such as Antonio Cromartie continually take risks, get out of position, and ultimately hurt their teams -- yet they are considered elite because they have a few INTs to show for their efforts. Meanwhile, dominant cornerbacks who help their teams, such as Ike Taylor, are ignored because they play solid football instead of focusing solely on interceptions.
Travis in Atlanta
A: You are so correct in your evaluation, Travis. The best cornerback in football is Nnamdi Asomugha, and he had his first interception in Week 10 against the Panthers. Opponents have thrown on him only a dozen times in nine games, and after that interception, Carolina QB Jake Delhomme didn't throw to his side again. Cornerbacks tend to go to the Pro Bowl when they lead the league in interceptions, and defensive ends do the same when they are among the league leaders in sacks. Fortunately, there are stats that evaluate burned defenders and those who aren't picked on. And, fortunately, there are fans like you who study the game to know who does the best at shutting down receivers.
Q: Keep an eye on that Giants-Cardinals game in Week 12. The Cardinals should be 7-3 after playing the 49ers and Seahawks. What are the chances of this game being "flexed" to Sunday night?
Jeff in Phoenix
A: I think the game is safe because Indianapolis-San Diego, which still has plenty of intrigue, is scheduled for that night. I think the first flexed game on Sunday night will be New England-Seattle (Week 14) because the Seahawks are 2-7. The Giants have been pretty well maxed out in prime time anyway. Giants-Cards should be a really good one regardless. The Giants will be coming off a very tough stretch. The Cardinals can set their sights on getting a bye week in the playoffs now that they have a four-game lead in the NFC West. The interesting part of that game will be how the Giants' defense will try to blitz Cardinals QB Kurt Warner.
Q: Here and there we see the effectiveness of the no-huddle offense. Why isn't it as popular as it probably should be?
Steve from Brighton, Mich.
A: Steve, you are seeing more no-huddle. You're seeing it with a rookie like Matt Ryan. A no-huddle can tire out defenses because they can't make substitutions during long drives. One of the problems is the shotgun formation, which limits the type of running plays a team can use. Another problem is finding a quarterback who can run the no-huddle and not screw it up.
Q: Hi John: I am a die-hard Browns fan. Correction, was a die-hard. How does Romeo Crennel still have a job? Is it possible we will have to live with him for another year?
Bill in Columbus, Ohio
A: I think Crennel is a good coach, but I think there will be a coaching change after the season. It didn't help that Jamal Lewis said he thinks some players quit late in the Denver game. Lewis is a great leader on that team. He's also a big believer in Crennel. But if players are quitting, that falls on the coach, even though those players should be cleaned out. Until Bill Cowher is hired for any job other than the Browns', his shadow will hang over this franchise and over Crennel. I saw six Browns games last season and witnessed how the players responded to Crennel positively during that 10-6 campaign. But the drop-off this season could cost him his job. Hang in there, Bill. The Browns might be bad this season, but they do have talent. Better days are ahead.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
7hBy Tom Friend
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