Thursday, September 9, 2010

AFC East Preview

Football season starts tonight (I like the Saints -4.5, for the record), so it's time to take a look at the Jets' immediate competition for this season. The AFC East is perennially one of the top divisions in football, and this season should be no difficult. Just like the Jets, New England and Miami both have Super Bowl aspirations, and while the Bills are clearly in rebuilding mode, no matter how bad they are, they always seem to manage a split with the Jets during the season.

Buffalo Bills
Plain and simple, the Bills are several notches below their divisional counterparts. In a division that features some teams that are dominant in the trenches, Buffalo is sorely lacking in those areas. The offensive line was a mess last season, so Trent Edwards should be running for his life far too often. The runningbacks are talented, and the addition of C.J. Spiller in the draft adds a big play dynamic. But he can't fix the passing game or the run defense enough to take the Bills out of the cellar.

New coach Chan Gailey will bring in some offensive wrinkles to take advantage of the Bills' offensive talent. Lee Evans, Fred Jackson, Spiller, and even Marshawn Lynch can all play, but the other skill position players are completely unproven. They have enough offensively to surprise certain teams with some big plays, but a good defense should still shut them down.

Defensively the Bills were atrocious stopping the run last season. Teams who ran the ball on them all game long were typically rewarded unless the quarterback threw five interceptions (right, Mark Sanchez?). However, the secondary is underrated, with Leodis McKelvin and Jairus Byrd leading the way. They are ballhawks who can frustrate opposing quarterbacks into turning the ball over.

This is clearly a team you want to jump ahead on early because the Bills are going to want to run the ball and stop the pass. If they get behind, double Evans and keep an eye on Spiller, and they should be shut down. The Bills will be better than last season with an upgrade at head coach and a lot of their depth players coming back from injury, but they are too weak at quarterback and in the trenches to make any headway this season.

Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins have high hopes for this upcoming season and for good reason. Quarterback Chad Henne looked good down the stretch and now he actually has a legitimate number one receiver in Brandon Marshall. Marshall should make a big difference in this offense with his ability to make both short and long plays. Of course, if things go badly, he could self-destruct, but the Dolphins are hoping that won't happen.

Ronnie Brown returns from injury to help run the Wildcat offense. Brown certainly has to have the injury-prone tag on him by now, but if he is as healthy as he says he is this season, he will be tough to stop. Despite the surprise cut today of center Jake Grove, the Dolphins' offensive line is still one of the best in the league, and gimmicks aside, a strong group of run blockers with a pair of talented runningbacks in Brown and Williams makes the Wildcat work.

Defensively, the Dolphins are lagging behind a little bit, but there is some talent, particularly in the secondary. Vontae Davis and Sean Smith are a pair of second-year cornerbacks who give Miami a very good foundation. Tackle Randy Starks is also an underrated disruptor in the middle. But the rest of the defense is mediocre at best. Miami's opponents averaged an NFL high 8.2 yards per attempt through the air and a very average 4.2 yards per carry.

The Dolphins have high hopes for this season, but they need a lot of players to step up to reach their potential. Their best hope is for the offense to become one of the better units in the NFL. For that to happen, Henne needs to take major strides, Brown needs to stay healthy, and Marshall needs to stay sane. Defensively, the good players need to become great and the role players need to be effective. There's a chance they put it all together, but it's more likely Miami is a year or two away.

New England Patriots
Despite all the talk coming out of New York and Miami, the defending AFC East champions are Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. And until proven otherwise, Brady and Belichick are the tandem to beat.

Brady has as many weapons as he's ever had. Randy Moss isn't happy, but he's playing for a contract. Wes Welker tore up his knee nine months ago, but miraculously enough, he's playing opening day. His younger clone Julian Edelman is also there to be a slot receiver. Plus, rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have each shown impressive pass-catching ability.

However, while the passing game should be as strong as ever, there are questions everywhere else on the team. Logan Mankins might just be stubborn enough to sit out the entire season looking for a new contract, dealing a major blow to the offensive line. The Patriots may also have the worst runningbacks in the league with 34-year old Fred Taylor and Laurence Maroney leading the way.

And the defense was very vulnerable at the end of last season. You can never count out a Belichick defense, but season-ending injuries to Leigh Bodden and Ty Warren start this season off on the wrong foot. The acquisition of safety Jarrad Page will help, but it also shows the Patriots still are looking for answers. Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo are great, but that's not enough.

Still, Belichick has made it work with less, and Tom Brady is another year removed from his devastating leg injury. New England has had a winning record every year since 2001, so they're definitely going to be a factor. There are a lot of questions on this team, but Brady, Belichick, Moss, and Welker ensure that the Patriots will be there until the end.