Looking at championship weekend through a New York Jets lens, the most positive takeaway (other than the New England Patriots losing) was the clear and loud message that defense still wins championships.
The Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers are No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in ESPN's defensive efficiency metric, confirmation the Jets are on the right track. Statistically, the Jets fielded one of the best defenses in the NFL, but the difference between them and the Broncos was on full display Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.
They hit Tom Brady a career-high 23 times because of their ability to pressure from the edge. Outside linebacker Von Miller (2.5 sacks) had a career game, including an interception, and bookend rusher DeMarcus Ware (0.5 sacks) generated heat in the fourth quarter. The result: For the first time in 255 career starts, Brady threw multiple interceptions and completed less than 50 percent of his passes.
The Jets -- built for power, not speed -- must evolve into that kind of defense. We knew that before Sunday, but the Broncos provided a real-life case study on how to dismantle Brady.
The challenge for general manager Mike Maccagnan this offseason is to upgrade the speed on defense, adding explosive players on the edge who can complement their power rushers -- as noted by coach Todd Bowles at the end of the season. Imagine how scary they'd be with a Von Miller-type coming around the corner, simultaneously creating opportunities for the big fellas on the interior.
The Jets weren't a terrible pass-rushing outfit last season. They finished fifth in pressure percentage (Denver was first), but they were only 18th in sacks per dropback (5.8 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Yep, you guessed it, Denver (8.1) was No. 1 in that category, too.
The Jets spent the first half of last season with graybeard Calvin Pace and underachiever Quinton Coples as their outside linebackers. Bowles got tired of Coples and sent him packing, integrating rookie Lorenzo Mauldin into some pass-rushing packages.
Mauldin (four sacks) demonstrated raw talent, also showing he has a lot to learn. He will get a chance to become an every-down linebacker next season. By season's end, they were hurting so much at outside linebacker that Sheldon Richardson was moved out there. He did a credible job, but as we saw on Tyrod Taylor's 18-yard touchdown run in the finale, he's no linebacker.
This should be the Jets' No. 1 priority in the offseason -- other than re-signing their own top free agents. The draft includes some intriguing edge rushers who could be available at No. 20, perhaps Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith, a top-5 talent who could slip because of a knee injury.
It will be difficult to solve the issue in free agency. Two reasons: There aren't many good ones available, and the Jets ($10 million to $14 million in cap space) won't have enough money to sign one of the good ones. Miller will be a free agent, but he will get the franchise tag. Bruce Irvin and Courtney Upshaw are second-contract players who will garner considerable interest on the open market, but again: Are they within the Jets' price range? Probably not.
Bowles will have to find his edge rusher in the draft, also hoping he can coach up Mauldin. Make no mistake, the Jets are in better shape that a lot of other teams, but they have to change the formula if they want to beat Brady on a fairly consistent basis.
Brady was 2-for-15 when facing pressure on Sunday, per ESPN Stats. The Broncos found his kryptonite, knocking the pretty-boy smile off his face.
You can bet Bill Belichick already is plotting ways to improve his porous offensive line. The Jets are doing the same with their pass rush. We'll see in eight months who did a better job.