Patriots, Jets to battle for AFC East championship

Morgan Marx

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New York Jets’ Darrelle Revis intercepts a pass intended for New England Patriots’ Randy Moss in the end zone at Giants Stadium. Photo Credit: Courtesy of MCT

A brash, hard-hitting defense.  A matinee-idol quarterback with something to prove.  A defensive-minded head coach who doesn’t care about public perception.

In a division where seven of the last 10 champions have been the same team, one question looms large.

Can the young, upstart New England Patriots defy media projections and defend their AFC East crown?

All right, perhaps that’s wishful thinking.  For better or worse, the New York Jets have dominated the off-season discussion.  From Revis Island to “Hard Knocks,” Gang Green has welcomed the attention.  A surprise 2009 playoff run has Jets fans and players talking Super Bowl.

With all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis signing on the dotted line, the Jets’ defense is expected to be as fearsome as ever.  The offense, buoyed by new additions LaDainian Tomlinson and Santonio Holmes, will determine whether the Jets advance to Cowboys Stadium and Super Bowl XLV.

Quarterback Mark Sanchez faces high expectations in 2010.  Despite throwing 20 interceptions to just 12 touchdowns last season, his play down the stretch inspired confidence.  If Sanchez endures a “sophomore slump,” Jets fans will once again be ruing a season that started with hope but ended in disappointment.

While the Jets are built to win now, the New England Patriots are looking to the future.  Young players will fill key roles on both sides of the ball.  Rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez give the Pats their most depth at tight end since early in the 2000s.  Pro Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather is joined by first-round draft pick Devin McCourty in one of the NFL’s youngest defensive backfields.

For New England to play deep into 2011, stalwarts Tom Brady and Randy Moss must help the offense regain its record-breaking form of 2007.  Statistical analysis website Footballoutsiders.com ranked Brady as the league’s most valuable quarterback last season, when adjusted for defensive schedule.  No quarterback played a tougher group of defenses than Brady, the only passer to face Revis twice last season.

The Miami Dolphins could capture a wild-card spot should either of the favorites slip up.  Mercurial receiver Brandon Marshall is the best pass catcher the Dolphins have had since the days of the “Marks Brothers.”  Through shrewd drafting and free-agency additions, Bill Parcells and Tony Sparano have rebuilt one of the worst rosters in football.  In such a tough division, the Tuna might be golfing come February.

The Buffalo-slash-Toronto Bills may be the only team hoping for a work stoppage in 2011.  Electrifying runner C.J. Spiller should stand out among a bland squad.

Much like last season, the Patriots and Jets will jockey for the top position in the division.  With each team capable of winning more than 10 games, the runner-up will likely snag a playoff spot.  Miami may finish above .500 and miss out on post-season play.

By November, Bills fans will be talking themselves into University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker.