It already was a hot topic in this area last week and only will be a hotter topic this week now that the New York Jets have advanced to play the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game on Sunday: Are the Jets better positioned on defense going forward -- defense, of course, being the bread and butter of Bill Belichick -- than the Patriots?
A position-by-position breakdown seems to indicate that, yes, the Jets had a significantly more talented defense this season and will have a significantly more talented defense going forward, especially as the Patriots grapple with the uncertain situation surrounding Vince Wilfork and the Jets anticipating the return of their defense almost intact next season:
(In parentheses are the regular-season performance rankings by the film analysts at ProFootballFocus.com.)
Jets: Sione Pouha (plus-15.2)
Patriots: Vince Wilfork (plus-9.6)
Rex Ryan's defense appears not to have lost much since the injury to Kris Jenkins. Pouha is a terrific run-stopper who can shed blocks quickly enough to make tackles. Wilfork, however, still is a Pro Bowler and one of the top nose tackles in the NFL. Edge: Patriots.
Jets: Shaun Ellis (minus-0.7), Marques Douglas (minus-2.7)
Patriots: Jarvis Green (minus-14.1), Ty Warren (plus-3.9)
Green had a chance to seize control of the job at defensive end upon the trade of Richard Seymour but too often found himself pushed off the line on running plays and unable to get close to the quarterback on passing plays. When Wilfork moved to end in the Patriots' playoff game, it was Green who went to the bench with Mike Wright playing the nose. In a 3-4 defense, the defensive linemen first and foremost must occupy blockers to give the linebackers a chance to make plays, and Douglas and Ellis did that better than Green and Warren. Edge: Jets.
Jets: Calvin Pace (plus-6.9), Bryan Thomas (plus-11.8)
Patriots: Tully Banta-Cain (plus-21.8), Adalius Thomas (minus-8.5)
As disappointing as Thomas was, that's how surprising Banta-Cain was. Pace, on the other hand, played a well-rounded game against both the run and the pass, even finishing with eight sacks, while Thomas thrived as a run-stopper off the edge, finishing the regular season with more than 50 tackles for the third time in four seasons. Edge: Jets.
Jets: David Harris (plus-6.8), Bart Scott (plus-4.7)
Patriots: Gary Guyton (minus-2.2), Jerod Mayo (minus-3.5)
No contest. While Mayo endured something of a disappointing second season, Harris emerged as a star alongside the veteran Scott, an import from Ryan's Baltimore Ravens defenses. Scott plugged the middle of the line on runs and Harris thrived both in blitzes and in pass coverage, finishing with 5 1/2 sacks, three pass break-ups and two interceptions. Edge: Jets.
Jets: Darrelle Revis (plus-29.1), Lito Sheppard (minus-1.7)
Patriots: Leigh Bodden (plus-6.8), Shawn Springs (plus-1.7)
Quarterbacks just don't throw at Revis. The Patriots haven't had anyone like that since the departure of Ty Law. Edge: Jets.
Jets: Jim Leonhard (plus-5.1)
Patriots: James Sanders (minus-1.4)
Leonhard, another Ryan import from Baltimore, had an uneven season against the run but broke up five passes and thrived in deep pass coverage. Sanders lost his job to Brandon McGowan early in the season and won it back down the stretch, finishing with his lowest tackle total (48) in three seasons. Edge: Jets.
Jets: Kerry Rhodes (plus-11.0)
Patriots: Brandon Meriweather (plus-5.0)
Despite Meriweather's selection to the Pro Bowl, the last memory one will take into the offseason will be the way Ray Rice blew past him on his 83-yard run on the first play from scrimmage in the first round of the playoffs. Meriweather intercepted five passes and forced two fumbles, but his play generally was more inconsistent than it should have been. Rhodes, on the other hand, didn't have a particularly bad game all season, and he broke up 13 passes in his center-field role for the Jets. Edge: Push.
Let's revisit the question: Of the Jets' and Patriots' top 11 defenders, who would you take? In other words, if the rosters were combined, who of the Patriots' defenders would start?
Wilfork would start at nose. Warren would start at end with either Douglas or Ellis at the other end. Banta-Cain would be a third-down pass-rusher behind Pace, probably. Bodden would start at corner opposite Revis. Meriweather might -- might -- start at free safety instead of Rhodes, but that's a toss-up at best.
The Jets' top-ranked defense wasn't a fluke, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon. If quarterback Mark Sanchez takes a reasonable step forward in his second season, the Patriots are going to have some serious trouble hanging onto the AFC East title.