The AFC East was one of the least suspenseful divisions in the NFL last season as the New England Patriots won the division handily with a 13-3 record. The New York Jets were the only team within striking distance of the Patriots, but dropped their final three games of the season and missed the playoffs. The Buffalo Bills started the season 4-2 but fell apart. The Bills lost eight of their last 10 games, including a seven game losing streak to finish 6-10. The Miami Dolphins struggled throughout the season and finished 6-10. Miami drafted quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who they hope will give the Dolphins some much needed firepower.
The team that made the most offseason story lines was the New York Jets when they traded for Tim Tebow. The Bills might have made the biggest splash of the offseason by getting Mario Williams in free agency. The Patriots drafted defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower to try and fix their defense, which was one of the worst in the league last season. The Dolphins and new head coach Joe Philbin decided to go under the Hard Knocks spotlight and will rely on Tannehill to be the answer at quarterback.
Can new additions to their defense help the Patriots get back to the Super Bowl? Can the Bills build off their hot start last season and get themselves into the playoffs for the first time since 1999? Will it be Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow starting for the Jets by Week 16. Can rookie quarterback Tannehill be good enough to succeed immediately in Miami? Let's delve into these questions and more in the AFC East preview.
The Buffalo Bills started last season as one of the big surprises through Week 6. The Bills were 4-2 and everybody was learning about their quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. After splitting games against the Giants and Redskins, the Bills began what would be a seven game losing streak with a loss to the Jets.
Two weeks later, they lost Fred Jackson for the rest of the season and things fell apart. The loss of Jackson killed the offense, especially Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick threw eight touchdowns and tossed 11 interceptions in the games without Jackson.
C.J. Spiller filled in nicely for Jackson, but it wasn't enough to overcome Fitzpatrick's numerous mistakes. The Bills defense struggled to shut teams down throughout the season. The Bills gave up an average of 371.1 yards per game and gave up just over 27 points per game.
The Bills had a productive offseason on the defensive side of the ball. Buffalo added defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to help a pass rush that only had 29 sacks last year. They also drafted defensive back Stephon Gilmore with the 10th pick in the draft.
Offense: The Buffalo offense went as far as Jackson could take them last season. Before his injury, Jackson had 934 rushing yards and six touchdowns. He was one of the most dynamic players in the league and defenses were forced to plan for him, which allowed Fitzpatrick to flourish. Fitzpatrick's favorite target is Steve Johnson and the two connected for seven touchdowns last season. Johnson's stats were slightly worse last season and he barely got over the one thousand yard mark.
C.J. Spiller filled in tremendously for Jackson. Spiller rushed for 446 yards and three touchdowns in Jackson's absence, and emerged as a great weapon.
Jackson will start next season but I expect Spiller to get at least 10 touches a game and also some receptions out of the backfield. Outside of Johnson, the wide receiving core is very thin. Donald Jones is the second option in the passing game and he only caught 23 passes last season. Look out for tight end Scott Chandler to become a very good option for Fitzpatrick. Chandler caught 38 passes for 389 yards and six touchdowns, and will get his targets when Johnson is covered.
Defense: The Bills defense was very mediocre last year. They gave up a ton of yardage and surrendered almost 30 points a game. Nick Barnett returns as the team's leading tackler from last season but the Bills will be without Drayton Florence, who was second on the team in interceptions a year ago.
The Bills biggest strength was their turnover ability. The Bills generated 31 turnovers last year, which ranked second in the AFC. Jairus Byrd, George Wilson, and Barnett combined for 10 of the Bills' 20 interceptions last season.
The Bills will be one of the most improved defensive units in the league with the additions of Williams and Anderson to the pass rush. Those two will wreak havoc in the backfield and will free up Marcell Dareus up the middle. Stephon Gilmore will start at cornerback and could develop into a shutdown player in the future. Look for the Bills defense to not only improve, but possibly become one of the better defenses in the AFC.
Prediction: The Bills will be the most improved team in the league this season. I expect Fitzpatrick to have a pretty good season as long as Jackson stays healthy. Jackson and Spiller could be a lethal combination in the backfield, and I like Scott Chandler to emerge as a nice option along with Johnson. The Bills schedule is quite easy, with only four games against playoff teams from last season.
The Bills' defense will greatly improve with Williams, Anderson and Gilmore. They should be able to rush the quarterback exceptionally well and will continue to generate turnovers.
The Bills will have a great chance to clinch their first playoff spot since 1999 with a 10-6 record.
The Miami Dolphins struggled to find any consistency on offense last season. The Dolphins finished the season 6-10 and parted ways with head coach Tony Sparano. The Dolphins hired Joe Philbin as their head coach and Philbin put the Dolphins into the spotlight right away by allowing the HBO cameras to come inside the locker room.
The Dolphins are hoping that rookie Ryan Tannehill can provide some much needed stability at the quarterback position. Reggie Bush had a resurgent season with over 1,300 all-purpose yards and only missed one game last year.
The Dolphins' defense was the strength of the team last season and were one of eight teams to give up less than 20 points per game. Linebackers Kevin Burnett and Karlos Dansby anchored the defense last season but they will have to adjust without Yeremiah Bell and Vontae Davis, who were two of the team's best defensive backs last season.
Offense: The Dolphins were one of the weaker offenses in the AFC last season. Chad Henne started at quarterback, but was replaced by Matt Moore in Week 5. Moore played well as the starter, throwing for almost 2,500 yards and 16 touchdowns. Moore will now be backing up Tannehill, who was awarded the starting position a couple of weeks ago.
Reggie Bush was one of the few bright spots for the Miami offense. Bush rushed for over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career and could have won the Comeback Player of the Year award. The Dolphins will need Bush to stay healthy and carry the offense if Tannehill goes through some early growing pains.
The biggest reason why Tannehill may have some early struggles is because he does not have anyone to throw the ball to. The Dolphins traded their top option Brandon Marshall to Chicago and Philbin cut Chad Johnson after he was arrested for an altercation with his wife.
Davone Bess and Legedu Naanee are now Tannehill's primary options. Bess and Naanee combined for 95 receptions, 1,004 yards and just four touchdowns last season. Bess and Naanee need to step up their play and give their rookie quarterback a reliable option to throw to.
Defense: The Dolphins' defense was an average unit last season. They ranked in the middle of the league in average yards per game allowed but only gave up 19.6 points per game. Kevin Burnett and Karlos Dansby both recorded over 100 tackles last season, but the loss of Yeremiah Bell and Vontae Davis will hurt the secondary. Davis and Bell recorded six of Miami's 19 turnovers, and their presence will be missed on the defensive side of the ball.
One thing Miami excelled at was bringing down the quarterback. Miami was third in the league with 52 sacks. Cameron Wake and Jared Odrick are fearsome defensive linemen who are only getting better.
Miami's biggest issue on defense is that they only accumulated 19 turnovers last season. The Dolphins had an AFC-worst three takeaway fumbles, and if Miami expects to be a contender this season they will need to generate more turnovers.
Prediction: Other than Tannehill, the Dolphins did not gain much during the offseason. Philbin will have a very difficult job trying to get this team into the playoffs. A healthy Bush will be a great asset to the offense with his play-making ability. Tannehill could be a very good quarterback, but unless Naanee or Bess emerge as a reliable target, Tannehill will struggle.
The defense is very good at rushing the passer. Wake and Odrick are young and only getting better. Wake, Odrick, Dansby and Burnett will have to carry the defense as new starters Reshad Jones and Richard Marshall try to replace Davis and Bell in the secondary.
The Dolphins play just five games against playoff teams from last season, but they do play a lot of games against teams who are probably better than them.
Tannehill could be a great quarterback in the future, but until the Dolphins answer their questions at wide receiver, Tannehill's success will be limited. Reggie Bush is a great weapon on the offense but I question his durability. Although the defense was one of the best at sacking the quarterback, the losses of Bell and Davis plus their lack of play-making ability will hold them back.
Joe Philbin's first year with the Dolphins will not be a pretty one, and I see the Dolphins finishing 4-12.
The New England Patriots had another incredible season offensively. Brady threw for over 5,200 yards and 39 touchdowns. Wes Welker led the entire league in receptions with 122 grabs. Rob Gronkowski emerged as a fantasy monster at tight end with 90 catches, 1,327 yards and an astounding 17 touchdowns. The Patriots added Brandon Lloyd to the mix to add to their plethora of targets.
Defensively, the Patriots were one of the worst teams in the league. The Pats allowed an average of 411.1 yards per game, which was only half a yard worse than the Green Bay Packers for worst in the league. The Patriots took defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower with their first two picks in the draft with the hope of addressing their porous defense.
Offense: If you look up the word "offense" in a thesaurus, you would most likely see a picture of Tom Brady. The Patriots were once again one of the strongest offenses in the league. Brady spread most of the wealth amongst Gronkowski, Welker, tight end Aaron Hernandez and wide receiver Deion Branch.
Branch was one of the final cuts of the preseason, but Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez all return coming off of excellent seasons. The addition of Brandon Lloyd gives Brady another weapon on the outside and it may be impossible to cover all four when they are on the field at once.
As good as the Patriots aerial attack is, their running game seems to always be neglected. The Patriots only rushed for an average of 110 yards per game, which was 20th in the league. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who was their leading rusher with 667 yards and 11 touchdowns, left for Cincinnati in the offseason. Stevan Ridley is expected to start on Week 1. The Patriots running game isn't very good but it does not really matter as long as Brady is slinging the ball around the field.
Defense: The Patriots' defense let opponents have their way with them last season. They were in the bottom half in the league in both average passing and rushing yardage allowed per game. Despite the staggering amount of yards they allowed, they only gave up an average of 21.4 points per game. The Patriots led the AFC with 34 forced turnovers, which was the saving grace of their defense.
The Patriots defense was led by Jerod Mayo and Kyle Arrington. Mayo led the team with 95 tackles and Arrington led the team with seven interceptions. New England will have to cope without their two leaders in sacks, Mark Anderson and Andre Carter. Anderson left to play for division rival Buffalo, and Carter is a free agent trying to recover from a torn quadriceps muscle.
The Patriots used their first two draft picks on Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower in an attempt to help beef up their front seven. They also added safeties Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson to a secondary that desperately needs help. If these new faces can make an impact, it will be the first step towards the New England defense becoming respectable.
Prediction: The Patriots are still the class of the AFC East. They have the best quarterback and the most explosive offense in the AFC. If Ridley, or whoever Belichick puts in, produces at running back then that is a big bonus. Gronkowski probably won't repeat the numbers he had last season, but as long as he stays healthy, there is no doubt he can have another 1,000-yard and double digit-touchdown season. The Patriots offense will continue to give defensive coordinators headaches over how to shutdown their passing game.
Despite the additions of Hightower and Jones, I don't see this defense making great strides in 2012. New England did not make any improvements to their secondary. They are young and getting better but they still have a long way to go. They must continue to force turnovers if they want to hold opponents under 28 points a game.
As horrible as the defense was last season, it didnt't really matter. The Pats still won 13 games and went to the Super Bowl. The Patriots have tough out of division games against Baltimore, Denver, Houston and San Francisco, but outside of that their schedule is easy.
I expect Brady and his offense to lead the Patriots to a 13-3 season.
The New York Jets failed to make the postseason last year and finished their season with a three game losing streak. The losing streak culminated in Santonio Holmes taking himself out of the final game of the year against Miami. Ever since then, the Jets have made more offseason headlines than their in-state rival Giants, who happened to be Super Bowl champions.
First, the Jets gave Mark Sanchez a three-year contract extension. Next, they shocked the league by trading for Tim Tebow. The Jets also fired offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, and replaced him with former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano with hopes of revitalizing the "ground and pound" mentality on offense.
The Jets defense continued to be the backbone for the team last season. Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie anchored the Jets secondary. David Harris is one of the league's best linebackers and along with Bart Scott and Calvin Pace, the Jets have one of the better linebacker units in the NFL.
Offense: There are a lot of question marks that the Jets have yet to answer offensively. The first one is Mark Sanchez. Sanchez threw for 3,474 yards and 26 touchdowns but failed to find much consistency throughout the season. The big difference between this season and Sanchez's first three seasons are that he never had a quality backup behind him. This year is the complete opposite as Tim Tebow will be gunning for Sanchez's spot. If things get ugly early, fans could be clamoring for Sanchez's benching.
The next question is whether Tony Sparano can get the running game back to what it used to be a couple of seasons ago. Shonn Greene rushed for just over 1,000 yards last season but hasn't convinced many people that he can handle the starting job.
Outside of Santonio Holmes, the Jets have little firepower at the wide receiver position. The Jets drafted Stephen Hill out of Georgia Tech and hope that he can provide a play-making ability that the Jets desperately need. The Jets also will rely on Dustin Keller to build off of a good season and be a nice weapon up the middle for Sanchez.
Defense: The Jets defense is still one of the strongest in the league. The Jets ranked fifth in the league in average yardage per game given up. They did give up about 22 points per game but some of that can be blamed on the offense. David Harris anchors the front seven and Sione Pouha provides a big plug up the middle on the line.
The Jets were fifth in the league in sacks and although not one player had more than 90 tackles, the Jets did have 10 players with over 40 tackles. The Jets also were excellent in the turnover department, forcing 31 turnovers which ranked tied for second-best in the league with Buffalo.
The Jets' biggest advantage on defense is their excellent cornerback play. Darrelle Revis is the best shutdown corner in the league, and Antonio Cromartie is in the top 25 if not higher.
These two defensive backs allow Rex Ryan to blitz, and blitz often. Ryan's schemes are some of the most ingenius in the sport and the Jets defense almost always keeps the offense within striking distance.
The Jets made some improvements to their defense by drafting defensive end Quinton Coples and by acquiring safeties Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry. Bell recorded 107 tackles and an interception for Miami last season, while Landry missed half the season due to injury. If Landry can stay healthy, he can provide a hard-hitting component to the Jets secondary and I'm sure Ryan has come up with some schemes that involve Landry rushing the quarterback.
Prediction: The Jets will be one of the most interesting teams to follow this season. The defense will be just as good if not better with the additions of Coples, Landry, and Bell. The offense is what stops me from giving this team a better record.
I don't trust Sanchez, or Tebow for that matter, to carry this offense week after week. The receiving core is bad, and unless Stephen Hill or Jeremy Kerley becomes a threat, then Holmes and Keller's production will decrease. The running game is questionable but I think Shonn Greene will have a solid year as the starter.
The Jets' schedule is favorable and they only have five games against playoff teams from last season. If Sanchez can play exceptionally well, then this team is much better than the record I am about to give them. But I just don't see it happening.
The Jets will have an up and down season but will finish the year 7-9.
Here is how I see the AFC East playing out.
1. New England Patriots: 13-3
2. Buffalo Bills: 10-6
3. New York Jets: 7-9
4. Miami Dolphins: 4-12
Once again it is the Patriots' division to lose. They are the class of this division, if not the league, and Brady should have another incredible year with his excellent weapons. The defense isn't very good, but it can only get better, and Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower should have pretty good rookie seasons. The Pats definitely have the tools for another Super Bowl run.
The Bills are a very good team. The offense will go through Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller but I expect Ryan Fitzpatrick to break out this season. Steve Johnson is a very good primary target and if Scott Chandler emerges, this offense could be very hard to handle. The difference will be the defense. They will be noticeably better with Mario Williams, Mark Anderson and Stephon Gilmore. Look out for the Bills in 2012.
The Jets are one of the most intriguing teams to discuss this season because there are so many different ways that the season could play out. Will Sanchez hold onto the starting job or will Tebow take over? Is Stephen Hill a big play threat or a bust? Can Shonn Greene become a top back in the league? One thing that is for certain is that Rex Ryan's defense will show up and will be excellent. As long as Revis is out there, opposing wide receivers will have fits trying to break his coverage.
Miami is not going to surprise anyone. Tannehill will show signs of greatness,as well as signs of immaturity. His lack of options at receiver is frightening, and I don't know whether Reggie Bush can stay healthy for a full season. The defense is rebuilding, especially in the secondary, and it will be a rough season down in South Beach.
In the end, the Patriots are still the team to beat. The Bills might be better, the Jets might have Tebow, but the Patriots still have Brady.
Until he's gone, it's always his division to lose.