AFC East Preview: Patriots Continue Their Dominance

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AFC East Preview: Patriots Continue Their Dominance
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Little will change in 2012, as the New England Patriots should continue their stranglehold on the AFC East, a division they have won nine times since 2001.

I pay very little attention to preseason and what it could mean as far as regular season success. The AFC East is very happy to see the preseason come to an end as it wasn't kind to any of its four teams. The Patriots are the only team that won a game (1-3), while the Jets, Dolphins and Bills went a combined 0-12. The Bills' 59 points were the fourth-lowest total in the preseason, while the three teams that finished below them are their divisional opponents (Patriots 55, Dolphins 43 and Jets 31). As we enter the 2012 season, lets start by taking a little trip down memory lane.

Mo Lewis played his final NFL season in 2003, but his legend continues in 2012. If it weren't for a Lewis hit on Drew Bledsoe in Week Two of the 2001 NFL season, this preview could be entirely different.

Let's imagine for a minute that Lewis allowed Bledsoe to run out of bounds without delivering a hit that would start the career of perhaps the greatest QB to ever play. The Jets would have won the AFC East that season, earned a first-round bye, and perhaps they could have upset the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Instead of Bill Bellichick going on to become a Hall of Fame coach, he would have almost certainly had one foot out the door, coming off a 6-10 inaugural season as Patriots Head Coach and trying to recover from an 0-2 start with Bledsoe at the helm.

Who knows just how long it would have been until Tom Brady earned his chance to be the starting QB for New England? Could the Jets have become the dominant team in the AFC East? Could the Bills have broken through and won an AFC East title without the Patriots standing in their way? Could the Dolphins have saved Jimmy Johnson's job and won multiple division titles? No one will ever know.

Instead, a sixth-round QB taken from the University of Michigan in the 2000 NFL Draft (a draft in which the Jets had an NFL record FOUR first round draft picks) made his second appearance in a regular season game and changed NFL history forever.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
If not for a hit by Jets LB Mo Lewis on Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe back on September 23, 2001, the Tom Brady-Bill Bellichick era might never had been born.

 

 

Over a decade later, New England has won nine AFC East titles, appeared in six AFC Championship Games, five Super Bowls and won three World Titles. As Brady enters his 12th season, little will change in 2012 as the Patriots have the talent and drive to continue their dominance in the AFC East, and should win rather easily.

Despite their obvious issues on defense where they ranked 25th in 2010 and 31st last season in yards allowed, they have won 27 of their 32 games. Tom Brady has carried New England on his back at times while his passing numbers have been absurd.

 

Tom Brady Passing Numbers, Last Two Seasons

W-L       27-5

Pass YPG 285.5

Pass Rating  108.0

TD/INT 75/16

The Patriots gave Tom Brady another potent offensive weapon in the offseason when they signed WR Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd, who has averaged 73.5 catches and 1,207 yds receiving in his last two seasons, will make an already immensely powerful offense even better. Lloyd joins Wes Welker (first in the league with 122 receptions for 1,569 yards and 9 TDs), Rob Gronkowski (first in the league with 17 TDs, to go with 90 receptions for 1,327 yards) and Aaron Hernandez (79 receptions for 910 yards and 7 TDs) to give the Patriots the most lethal offense in the AFC.

Nick Laham/Getty Images
Tom Brady has put up incredible numbers in the last two seasons, passing for over 285 YPG, while throwing 75 TD and leading the Patriots to a 27-5 record.

 

After struggling defensively the last two seasons, New England addressed their defense in the 2012 NFL draft, and their two first round selections, DE Chandler Jones and LB Dont'a Hightower, have been very impressive during preseason, as has FA safety Steve Gregory. If the youngsters continue to improve and their defense stops becoming the sieve that it has been the last two seasons, New England could find themselves with another perfect season on their hands.

 

 

Their toughest challenge will come from the rebuilt Buffalo Bills, who added key FA in the offseason. After signing 2006 NFL first overall selection Mario Williams from the Houston Texans, the Bills should have a drastically improved pass rush that will also include DE Mark Anderson, who did a sack dance 10 times playing for division rival New England in 2011. Both should help bolster a lackluster blitz from the Bills. Buffalo recorded just seven sacks when rushing five or more defenders last season, the second-lowest total in the NFL.

 

Most Sacks Per Game Last 5 Seasons, Minimum 20 Sacks

                                  Sacks

Rick Stewart/Getty Images
The Bills hope the addition of Mario Williams will bolster a pass rush that languished in 2011.

DeMarcus Ware   1.00    80.0

 

Jared Allen             0.99    77.5

 

Mario Williams  0.73    48.5

James Harrison  0.73    54.0

Source: ESPN Stats and Info

Offensively, the Bills will go as far as Ryan Fitzpatrick can take them. Will he be the QB that led the Bills to a 5-2 start by throwing 14 TD and just 7 INT while putting together a 83.2 passer rating, or will he be the QB that produced a passer rating of just 66.5 while throwing 10 TD and 16 INT as the Bills won just one of his final eight starts?

 

 

Ryan Fitzpatrick, 2012 Season

 

Rick Stewart/Getty Images
If the Bills can get consistent QB play from Ryan Fitzpatrick like they did the first nine games of the 2011 season, the Bills could make their first postseason appearance since 1999.

First seven games

 

W-L 5-2

Pass YPG 248.4

 

Pass Rating 83.2

TD/INT 14/7

 

 

Last nine games

W-L 1-8

Pass YPG 232.6

Pass Rating 66.5

TD/INT 10/16

 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Ryan Tannehill will become the 18th different QB to start a game for the Dolphins since 1999 when he lines up behind center in week one.

 

The Miami Dolphins have made headlines during the preseason by appearing on HBO's NFL Hard Knocks, which included drama with offseason acquisition Chad Johnson, who was released after being arrested for spousal abuse.

 

After reporting late to training camp, rookie QB Ryan Tannehill was able to win the starting QB job, beating out 2011 starter Matt Moore. The Dolphins have had a difficult time trying to find their next franchise QB since Dan Marino finished his Hall of Fame career. After drafting Tannehill eighth overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Dolphins are hoping he can put an end to the cavalcade of QBs that have paraded in and out of Pro Player/Dolphins/Land Shark/Sun Life Stadium. Tannehill will be the Dolphins' 18th different starting QB since 1999 when he starts at Houston in Week 1, the most in the NFL over that period.

 

 

 

Most Different Starting QBs Since Start of 1999 Season

Miami Dolphins 17>>

Cleveland Browns 16

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Chicago Bears 16

Dallas Cowboys 15

>>Ryan Tannehill will be 18th when he starts week one

Source: ESPN Stats and Info

 

 

Just like replacing Dan Marino hasn't been done yet at QB, replacing Hall of Fame coach Don Shula hasn't been very easy for the Dolphins. Since the legendary coach retired, there has been a coaching carousel in South Beach. Including interim coaches, Joe Philbin is the eighth head coach since 1996. In Shula's 26 seasons at the helm, the Dolphins had just two losing seasons. Since his retirement, they have had six, all of which have come since 2004.

The Dolphins' offense is not as dangerous as the Bills', but they are as far ahead of the Jets as they are behind New England. With Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas, the 'Phins have one of the best backfields in the division, while their offensive line also ranks among the division's best. However, Tannehill might not be able to complete many passes with the no-names he will be looking at once he drops back. While Davone Bess and Brian Hartline produced for the 'Phins last season (each totaling over 500 receiving yards), only Legedu Naanee has caught a regular season pass among the rest of the group.

 

Al Bello/Getty Images
Bill Bellichick and Tim Tebow will see each other twice a year now that Tebow will be the Jets backup QB/offensive specialist.

 

 

Joe Philbin will be looking to repeat the wonderful success he had in Green Bay after taking over as offensive coordinator in 2007. Starting in Philbin's first season going through 2011, the Packers scored on 39.5 percent of their drives (scored a TD or kicked a FG). Philbin and the Packers were especially efficient last season when they finished second to the Saints (51.4 percent), scoring on 48.1 percent of their drives.

 

 

Highest Percentage of Drives Ending in TD or FG, Since 2007

Patriots    46.5

 

Saints      40.9

Chargers    40.8

Packers     39.5<<

Colts       37.2

>>48.1 percent in 2011 (2nd in NFL)

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Quinton Coples should help improve the Jets pass rush and overall speed on defense.

Source: ESPN Stats and Info

 

On defense, the Dolphins are a bit of a mess right now, especially in the secondary. After proclaiming himself and former teammate CB Sean Smith as the best corner tandem in the NFL last preseason, Vontae Davis was shipped off to the Indianapolis Colts, which leaves a huge void in a secondary that was exploited all preseason, even with Davis on the roster. Davis' replacement, FA Richard Marshall, was schooled by the Cowboys' second unit receivers in Miami's final preseason game.

 

 

 

Last but not least are the media darlings, the New York Jets.

After falling apart at the seams, which included locker room feuds and players quitting on the team, GM Mike Tannenbaum and Head Coach Rex Ryan were faced with criticism from the media and their fans heading into the past offseason. However, instead of addressing the many offensive needs the team had, the Jets went for the headlines.

 

They traded for a backup QB, which they needed, but not one with the lack of skills that Tim Tebow has. They failed to replace turnstile Wayne Hunter until it was obvious in the preseason that he needed to go. They failed to provide the offensive line with adequate depth, while also not upgrading at RB and WR. Second round draft choice Stephen Hill would have been perfect for the 2010 Jets that had proven vets to ease his transition, but instead he has enormous pressure to immediately become the 1,000 yd, consistent deep threat the Jets envision him as.

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Mark Sanchez hopes he will have plenty of time to check downfield in 2012 despite the Jets front office not addressing the turnstiles they have at RT.

 

After replacing Brian Schottenheimer with former Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, the Jets insist that they are going back to the "ground and pound" attack they had in Ryan's first two seasons in New York. Tim Tebow was brought in especially to be a power running threat out of the backfield, whether as a RB or QB. The Jets called designed runs just over 41 percent of the time last season, down from 48 and 57 percent the previous two seasons. Only the Texans called more designed runs than the Broncos from Week 7 on last season, when Tim Tebow became the starter. Tebow should have a major impact running the Wildcat; something the Jets had run successfully before Brad Smith left for Buffalo last season. In Ryan's first two seasons with Smith running the Wildcat, the Jets ran for 6.5 YPR. Without Smith last season, that number fell to 4.1

 

 

 

Jets' Called Rush Percentages, Last 3 Seasons               

NFL Rank

2011    41.5    13th

 

2010    48.4    2nd

2009    57.5    1st

>>Designed runs don't include scrambles

 

 

Entering his fourth season with the team, the Jets inked Mark Sanchez to a three-year extension in the offseason, thus solidifying his role as starting QB. However, after showing signs of improvement his first two seasons, Sanchez struggled behind an inconsistent offensive line last season. Sanchez's QBR last season was just 33.6, the fifth worst in the NFL.

Despite Sanchez's poor passing numbers last season, Jets fans shouldn't feel any more confident in Tebow's passing abilities. While Tebow can be extremely effective in the Wildcat and other run-oriented packages, he was also one of the worst passers in the NFL last season. Tebow finished last in the NFL among 34 qualifying QBs in completion percentage in the regular season, completing 46.5 percent of his passes. His completion percentage was the lowest for any qualifying QB since Akili Smith in 2000 and the fourth-lowest for a qualifying QB since 1990. Tebow and Sanchez both did a poor job taking care of the ball towards the end of the season combining for 20 turnovers over the last five weeks of the 2011 regular season (10 each). Only two other players in the NFL had that many turnovers over that stretch (Ryan Fitzpatrick & Josh Freeman, also with 10 each).

 

 

 

Lowest Total QBR Last Season, Among Qualified Quarterbacks

 

Blaine Gabbert    21.1

 

Curtis Painter    23.4

 

Tim Tebow         27.2

Sam Bradford      27.3

Mark Sanchez      33.6 

* Total Quarterback Rating (abbreviated as Total QBR or simply QBR) is a measure of the performance of quarterbacks or any other passers in the NFL developed by ESPN in 2011. 

 

While the Jets might be one of the worst teams in the NFL offensively, their defense will keep them in most games. Despite ignoring their many offensive issues in the offseason, Mike Tannenbaum did a masterful job upgrading the depth and speed on the defensive side of the ball. Yeremiah Bell and Laron Landry will take over at safety, replacing Jim Leonard and Brodney Pool, while draft picks Demario Davis and Quinton Coples will vastly improve much needed speed at LB and DE. While the defense is good enough to be in the top five and is possibly the most talented unit the Jets have ever put on the field, this will be an exhausted group that could see many leads evaporate in the final minutes, a familiar trait of the Jets defense under Ryan. Four times since taking over as head coach in 2009, the Jets' defense has allowed a game-winning TD in the final minute. 

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