For the past few seasons, the AFC East has been a tale of two halves. The New England Patriots and New York Jets have gone to war in the regular season and Playoffs; while the Miami Dolphins and then Buffalo Bills have served as not much more than filler. However, right now, it’s a division of change through and through.
After leading the league in wins, yet falling to their more physical division rivals out of New York again, the Patriots are rebuilding their image and getting tougher. After hitting the wall in two consecutive Conference Championships, the Jets are looking to get over their own personal hump, and may be running out of time to do. The Dolphins and Bills are headed in different directions, and enter years where major change could loom over them the entire time.
Will it be business as usual? Will there be some shake up in how the division plays out while each team undergoes changes to their identity, or will it stay a battle between Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan’s squads trading blows once more?
QB: Tom Brady RB: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Shonn Greene FB: Lousaka Polite WR: Brandon Marshall, Santonio Holmes, Wes Welker TE: Rob Gronkowski OT: Jake Long, D’Brickashaw Ferguson OG: Logan Mankins, Brandon Moore C: Nick Mangold
DE: Shaun Ellis, Ty Warren DT: Vince Wilfork, Kyle Williams OLB: Calvin Pace, Karlos Dansby MLB: Jerod Mayo, Bart Scott CB: Darrelle Revis, Devin McCourty S: Jarius Byrd, Yeremiah Bell
K: Stephen Gostowski P: Brian Moorman Returner: Davone Bess
BUFFALO BILLS (4-12 in 2010)
Offense: S. Johnson-WR, F. Jackson-RB, R. Fitzpatrick-QB, CJ Spiller-RB (D+)
Defense: J. Byrd-S, K. Williams-DT, M. Dareus-DE, M.Stroud-DE (C)
The Good: The defense should be able to put some pressure on finally. It has taken on a much different look from a year ago, and the pace of the team should be determined by this unit. Kyle Williams is a force up front, but Marcell Dareus will be an instant impact player everywhere across the line. With his athletic ability, he can do it at both tackle and defensive end and in multiple schemes.
The Bad: The offensive line has been a problem for a few years, and it has gotten no better at either tackle. Demetrius Bell and Erik Pears could easily not be in the starting mix by the end of the year after defenses bring all they can at them all year. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a mainstay at quarterback mostly by default, but the receiving corps is among the thinnest in the league. Stevie Johnson will have a lot to prove, as he will be the only Bill worth watching anywhere on the field.
X-Factor-C.J. Spiller: The 2010 first round pick never got started last year in any aspect. After being intended to be a change of pace, all-purpose weapon, he only gained just a shade over 600 yards total on the year. 175 of those yards came in special teams, and that’s where he will have a chance to make his presence felt the most this year initially. However, if he can get on the field in the flow of the regular offense, it could be a much needed boost to this dry offense.
Fearless Prediction: @KC (L), OAK (W), NE (L), @CIN (W), PHI (L), @NYG (L), WSH (L), NYJ (L), @DAL (L), @MIA (L), @NYJ (L), TEN (L), @SD (L), MIA (W), DEN (L), @NE (L)
In The End: There are some building pieces on defense, but there is not a lot to get excited about here overall. Several of the best Bills from a year ago got out-of-town this summer, and that’s not saying much for a team that mustered four wins with them. A mixture of a thin offense and tough division will have the Bills moving up the list towards the number one pick and potential franchise savior Andrew Luck. Record 3-13
MIAMI DOLPHINS (7-9 in 2010)
Offense: J. Long-OT, B. Marshall-WR, R. Bush-RB, D. Bess-WR (C)
Defense: V. Davis-CB, C. Wake-OLB, K. Dansby-OLB, Y. Bell-S (B+)
The Good: The Fins’ defense is the type of unit that can win games without a lot of help from an offense (which is a good thing here). Vontae Davis, Sean Smith and Yeremiah Bell make up a smothering secondary and their linebacker group is tough. Cameron Wake was breakout terror chasing down QBs last winter and Karlos Dansby cleans up everything that comes over the middle. While they tailed off some towards the end of last year, expect this to be among the top 5 defenses non-stop this time around.
The Bad: There’s a lot of wishing on stars on offense. They have been inconsistent the past few years, and now are trying to adjust this in some curious ways. Reggie Bush looks like he will be given the feature role in the running game, and considering he couldn’t handle that job in a New Orleans offense that was perfect for his game, it doesn’t seem likely he has an awakening this year.
X-Factor-Daniel Thomas: He has an opportunity to be the most used rookie running back in the league. How quickly he can make an impact is going to be crucial for this team, as Bush is not the type of back you run 25 times a game and limiting turnovers in the passing game will likely be emphasized this year. By the end of the season, if he is carrying the ball often and well, it would be the best outcome for this offense this year.
Fearless Prediction: NE (L), HOU (W), @CLE (L), @SD (L), @NYJ (L), DEN (W), @NYG (W), @KC (L), WSH (L), BUF (W), @DAL (W), OAK (L), PHI (L), @BUF (W), @NE (W), NYJ
In The End: Half of the equation is set, but how well the offense takes advantage of opportunities created for them by their defensive counterparts will say how far this team goes. It could either spring them as a surprise competitor atop the East or land them in the top 10 of the Draft. Without a strong showing, there could be definite changes at both QB with Henne and head coach before the year is done. Most likely it will just split down the middle and be a solid team that still has questions headed out the year. Record: 8-8
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (14-2 in 2010; Division Champs)
Offense: T. Brady-QB, W. Welker-WR, C. OchoCinco-WR, B. Green-Ellis-RB (A+)
Defense: V. Wilfork-DT, J. Mayo-MLB, D. McCourty-CB, T. Warren-DE (B)
The Good: They’ve got Tom Brady and that makes them better than half the NFL alone. After a record-setting second MVP campaign a year ago, he takes the helm of an offense that actually is in better condition starting this season than last. All-Pro guard Logan Mankins is not holding out this year and is signed long-term. Chad OchoCinco seems hungry and ready to add a new focus target in the secondary. Wes Welker is healthy and a favorite of Brady’s, Deion Branch, will be in the fold the whole year. Also, their outstanding tight end combo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will be better with a year of experience under their belt.
The Bad: The defense is in flux still headed into the season. After a year where they struggled to find a way to stop the pass or get a consistent effort in the pass, they have decided to switch up their scheme towards a 4-3 style, with many pieces that are built for the 3-4 style. In the midst of all of these changes, they cut ties with former Pro Bowl safety Brandon Merriweather at the end of the preseason.
X-Factor-Albert Haynesworth: He was another in a string of surprise moves by the Pats, but it could end up being the biggest difference maker for the team this year. He will get to join a tough, veteran defensive front and get to do it at his natural position at defensive tackle. He will also get to line up next to Vince Wilfork, so he won’t be the sole focus on the front line. With this freedom and a push of playing for a contender in a better environment, a big year could be had here.
Fearless Prediction: @MIA (W), SD (W), @BUF (W), @OAK (W), NYJ (W), @DAL (W), @PIT (L), NYG (W), @NYJ (L), KC (W), @PHI (W), IND (W), @WSH (W), @DEN (W), MIA (L), @BUF
In The End: As usual, this will be one of the most lethal teams in the league. They’ve gotten better everywhere on defense, and the offense will move the ball seamlessly as usual. It’s a matter of Coach Belichick’s club of executing and winning the tough games. At any rate, they’ll be at the top of the East again, and have a chance to stare the Jets down again in the Playoffs to try to get back to their first Super Bowl since 2008. Record: 13-3
NEW YORK JETS (11-5 in 2010; Wild Card)
Offense: S. Holmes-WR, M. Sanchez-QB, S. Greene-RB, N. Mangold-C (B)
Defense: D. Revis-CB, B. Scott-MLB, A. Cromartie-CB, D. Harris-MLB (A-)
The Good: The defense will have to shoulder the load like never before, and there’s no group better suited to do so. They lost Shaun Ellis and Kris Jenkins, but the Bart Scott/Calvin Pace/David Harris linebacker group works like it has one mind, and Darrelle Revis still shuts down half the field just by walking on it. It’s a nasty, non-stop blitzing team, that forces team to play their game, which has landed them in two straight AFC Championships.
The Bad: The offense, never the strength of the team, was forced to go under a major upheaval. Losing Braylon Edwards, Brad Smith and Jericho Cotchery from its deep receiving corps and replacing them with Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason slowed them down tremendously. Surrounding Mark Sanchez with dependable receivers is important, but it remains to be seen if this offense can move the ball enough to stay at the level they have played at the last few seasons.
X-Factor-Shonn Greene: Last season, LaDainian Tomlinson stepped up and had a career revival that left Greene out of the mix, and he didn’t take the momentum he built at the end of his rookie season with him into year two. Now, with LT stepping into a third down role primarily and the passing game being scaled back, much of the team’s potential will fall on Greene and him consistently moving the ball.
Fearless Prediction: DAL (W), JAX (W), @OAK (W), @BAL (L), @NE (L), MIA (W), SD (W), @BUF (W), NE (W), @DEN (L), BUF (W), @WSH (W), KC (W), @PHI (L), NYG (L), MIA (L)
In The End: Rex Ryan’s guys have stayed at the brink of Super Sunday for the last two seasons, but haven’t been able to cross the bridge. With more contract sacrifices hitting the team this season (and on defense this time), this may be the last chance to finish that business. They’ll be tough, and much depends on how the offense evolves, but a second straight year of the Wild Card route is ahead. Record: 10-6
To see how right, wrong or in-between this all works out, and me living with it, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan and @STLSport360.