There are really only two things you can ask of your favorite NFL team: Be interesting and be special.
The Jets and Giants can check off the first, because they’re both highly interesting — in their own way. As for being special, that’s what we’re about to find out in the coming months as two teams with sufficient talent play out a regular season filled with possibilities.
“It’s championship or nothing” is how Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie describes what’s set to unfold. It’s not an uncommon theme among the players, because general manager Jerry Reese’s $200 million-plus infusion of talent to a defense that was the worst in the NFL last season has created giant expectations.
Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick spoke not only for himself, but also for his team, when he proclaimed upon signing a one-year prove-it deal that he was willing to “bet on myself and see what happens.” After all, this is a team brimming with talent on both sides of the ball, with newly acquired running back Matt Forte and wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker leading the way on offense, and Darrelle Revis, Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Calvin Pryor headlining a potentially dominant defense.
It is interesting, for sure. And it can be special, too.
The Jets and Giants haven’t made the playoffs in the same year in a decade. It was 2006 when the Tom Coughlin-Eli Manning partnership got to the postseason for only the second time, and Eric Mangini appeared to have a bright future when he led the Jets to the playoffs in his first year.
Both teams lost to divisional rivals in the wild-card round that year and their paths diverged from there. A year later, Manning won the first of two Super Bowl titles, and Mangini’s replacement, Rex Ryan, got his team to back-to-back AFC Championship Games in the 2009-10 seasons.
But it appears there’s a realistic chance that both teams could be playing in January, although we’ll give a slight edge to the Giants.
Even in a year in which Tom Brady will spend the first four games serving time for the Deflategate controversy, you still can’t dismiss the Patriots as the favorites to win the division and leave the Jets, Bills and Dolphins knocking on the door for a wild-card spot.
Brady may be gone, but the greatest coach of our generation — or maybe any generation — is still there. And we’ve learned time and time again that you don’t underestimate Bill Belichick. Jimmy Garoppolo hasn’t started a game in his NFL career, but then again, neither had Matt Cassel when Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2008. But Cassel nearly got the Patriots to the playoffs that year, going 10-5 as the starter.
Combine that with the Jets’ challenging schedule in the first six games, as they face five teams that made the playoffs in 2015 and a Bills team that beat the Jets twice last year. It’s not an impossible task, but it could be a season-defining stretch nevertheless. If the Jets come out of this any worse than 3-3, and if the Patriots can thrive despite the absence of Brady, then it will be a difficult, albeit not impossible task to make this a race.
Remember, too, that the Jets’ offensive line is in transition, with Ryan Clady replacing D’Brickashaw Ferguson at left tackle and right tackle Breno Giacomini missing at least the first six games with back problems. Forte is at an age — 30 — when most running backs begin a steady, and sometimes steep decline. And defensive coordinators have had plenty of time to dissect ways to prevent Fitzpatrick from duplicating last year’s career stats, which included a team-record 31 touchdown passes.
No pressure here, but Fitzpatrick is the single biggest factor in whether the Jets get back to the postseason since 2010.
There are no such questions about the Giants’ quarterback, and Manning is still in his prime at age 35. He has thrown a combined 65 touchdown passes in his last two seasons, the best two-year stretch of his career. And with Ben McAdoo’s promotion from offensive coordinator to head coach, the continuity bodes well for another fine season.
The big issue, of course, is what happens on the other side of the ball. The Giants had one of the worst defenses in NFL history last season, and their five blown leads in the final two minutes of regulation attests to the lack of talent. But coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has what appears to be a full deck this year with the addition of linemen Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Leon Hall. And it looks as if first-round cornerback Eli Apple could have a major role.
There is a clear path to the divisional title. The Eagles risked taking a step back by trading Sam Bradford and going with rookie Carson Wentz. The Cowboys start rookie Dak Prescott because of another injury to Tony Romo. And Washington goes with a quarterback in Kirk Cousins who has only one solid year under his belt.
Interesting? Yes, for both New York teams. Special? We’re about to find out.