The 2009 offseason has been one of much drama, many changes, and minimal boredom. All things considered, there are still a lot of loose ends to be tied and plenty of unanswered questions. Heck, the draft hasn't even happened yet! Still, I couldn't resist. Before draft day, I am going to attempt a crack at a mock season for each NFL division, giving my thoughts and analysis on each team and how they will fare during 2009 regular season play. I intend to do a similar mock season immediately following the draft, and another after the preseason as well.
Without further adieu, I will start with what has become one of the most interesting divisions in all of football, the AFC East.
It is incredibly hard to come to any concrete conclusions at this stage in the game for any team, but perhaps more than any other, the AFC East is filled with terribly vexing questions.
What kind of effect will Terrell Owens have on the Bills? What will become of Marshawn Lynch? How will Tom Brady play after coming off a season-ending injury? Will Julius Peppers join the Patriots, and if so, what implications does it have for their pass-rushing? In the absence of Brett Favre, Laveranues Coles, and Eric Mangini, what strategy will the Jets employ to manage yet another rebuilding season? And how will the 2007 disaster gone 2008 division champs and innovators of the chic "Wildcat" offense continue to expand and expound upon new offensive strategies?
The Bills have traditionally been a curious bunch: Four consecutive Super Bowls and no ring to show for it. I mean, who would expect the Bills to give in to convention?
This club is a crew that turned heads at the beginning of last season, boasting a 5-1 record, only to turn it right back around and finish at the bottom of the division, 7-9. Following that fiasco, breakout RB Marshawn Lynch is caught sporting a piece, and out of the blue, the man who is arguably the greatest drama queen in the NFL, (save for maybe Jay Cutler) is announced as the newest addition to the roster.
All that said, I do think the Bills will have the talent to improve their 7-9 record from last season, but to do so, they will have to overcome the burden of a tough schedule.
Terrell Owens. Much of the talk surrounding the Bills this offseason has to do with this Wide Receiver with an attitude who has been known to be a "poison" in the locker room.
Call me crazy, but something about TO in Buffalo does not bother me. It just seems to fit. First off, the tandem of Terrell Owens and Lee Evans is tantalizing, and when the pass game is supplemented by a Pro-Bowl runner like Marshawn Lynch, things can light up. Trent Edwards has had his bleak moments at quarterback, but I attribute it more to the lack of protection he is given against the pass-rush than his incompetence at the position. The offensive playmakers seem to be in place.
However, there are certainly areas lacking on the roster. Defensive shortfalls, such as the complete meltdown against the Jets in week 15 coupled with the aforementioned insufficiencies on the Offensive Line will inevitably mar and contradict the productive efforts of the offense.
Plus, Marshawn Lynch's looming suspension has yet to be resolved. Depending on how much time Lynch will spend on the sideline, the Bills could end up looking like a one-dimensional offense like the pass-heavy Arizona Cardinals boasted against the Minnesota Vikings in week 15, when they were stomped 35-14.
External (Opponent) Analysis:
The AFC East was unique last year in that of the four teams, three had better records on the road than at home. Buffalo fit this description, which could pose a problem, as their away schedule appears to be tougher than the home schedule. The breakdown is as follows:
Looking at the division games, I would venture to say the Bills really only have a fighting chance against the Jets, though they could possibly split games with the Dolphins. As I will elaborate on later, the Patriots seem like the team that will soar to the top of the division this season, and the Bills will succumb to that heat.
The Bills will play against what could have been the strongest division in the NFL last season in the NFC South. The two games that they will play on the road are against the two teams that made the playoffs last season. Neither game will come easy, that is certain, but the Bills may be able to pull one win out of those two.
The home games are against New Orleans and Tampa Bay, who both fell to the bottom of the division last season, barely missing the playoffs. I have Buffalo taking the Buccaneers, who are going through radical changes after the firing of Gruden, releasing a large portion of their receiving core, and giving their quarterback up to the free agency. With New Orleans, it may come down to a battle of who can score the most points the fastest, as both teams will have highly productive offenses, but lack defensive stability. If it comes down to who can pack the largest offensive punch, however, I chose New Orleans.
The remaining home games are against a rising Houston club, a stable Indianapolis, and the ailing Cleveland browns. I pick the the Bills to go 1-2. Who do you think I chose Buffalo to beat?
Conversely, the remaining away games are a different story against Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Kansas City, to which I can only speculate the Bills will win at least one, but not all three.
Optimistic Record: 8-8
Pessimistic Record: 5-11
My Gut Tells Me: 6-10
New York Jets
The Jets surprised the whole football community last season when they came out of the barrel smoking after a 4-12 regular season record in 2007. In fact, they shocked the world and were heralded by many to be the best team in football after clobbering the previously undefeated Tennessee Titans in week 12 by a score of 34-13. The momentum of the Jets lagged near the end of the season, however, as Brett Favre began to feel the harsh reality of his age catching up with him, and ultimately ended second from the bottom of the division sporting a mediocre 9-7 record, completely missing the playoffs.
As for next year, on the other hand, I do not really know where to start with the Jets. How about...not 9-7? The Jets really have not done anything in the offseason to convince me they are ready to seize the day...I mean, season.
As far as I am concerned, the Jets are one time-tested, Super Bowl class quarterback and one solid receiver from where they were last season. Oh, and did I mention they have a new coach? Even with the cast of players they had last season, they were very hot-cold at times when it came to offensive production. Brett Favre waned back and forth between making big plays and throwing critical interceptions, and leaks in the defensive coverage seemed to drag the success of the team down, particularly at the end of the season.
This leaves the Jets with little more going for them than a fresh start—one which may prove to be ineffective in the long run.
As the teams sit right now, the Jets' schedule does not work in their favor. Of their 16 games, 11 are against teams that finished the 2008 season with .500 records or better. Of those 11, six will be played against teams that made the playoffs, and that excludes two games they will play against a New England team that, by some freak cosmic accident, did not make the playoffs in spite of a formidable 11-5 record. Here is the breakdown:
Home - Buffalo, Miami, New England, Cincinnati, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Atlanta, and Carolina
Away - Buffalo, Miami, New England, Indianapolis, Houston, Oakland, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay
I do not see the Jets pulling any upsets against the teams with winning records last season. In fact, games such as Oakland and Buffalo, I could see swinging south as well.
Oakland seemed to be a team that ultimately just could not get their feet under them, but they have untapped potential that could come into play this season. I could see this team pulling a win over a shifty NYJ.
Optimistic Record: 6-10
Pessimistic Record: 2-14
My Gut Tells Me: 4-12
New England Patriots
Bill Belichick is a prince among men. Well, at least in the coaching community.
An injury-plagued Patriots team, led by fourth-year, no-name college backup quarterback Matt Cassel somehow found itself robbed of a playoff berth with an 11-5 regular season record. The team's anchor, Tom Brady, hit the turf and never returned after a Week 1 injury that shocked the entire NFL community.
Yet through the unexpected uncertainty of a slow start to 2008, Belichick kept a level head, and consequently guided his team through the adversity to a commendable record.
In 2009, I expect vengeance from a fully healthy Patriots team, joined once again by superstar Tom Brady.
Speaking of players joining the team, let's talk about Julius Peppers for a second. The NFL community was somewhat puzzled when reports announced Matt Cassel was traded to the Chiefs for merely a second-round draft pick, and if that wasn't enough, linebacker Mike Vrabel was going with him. Little did anyone know that the Patriots had it in the plan all along to free up cap space for defensive end, Julius Peppers.
If the trade is successful and Peppers joins the ranks of an already elite defensive unit, look for more aggression from the pass-rush, the linebacking core in particular, as Peppers would most likely be moved to a linebacker position in New England's new 3-4 setup.
New England has very few changes on the roster, but those that have changed and will change are fundamental to the teams success. Ultimately, I believe those changes are for the better.
Looking solely at 2008 regular season records, the Patriots have a tough road ahead. Formidable opponents include the Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Baltimore Ravens, and Miami Dolphins. Twice.
Yet at the end of the day, the bottom line is that most of the tough opponents faced by the Pats also play against their division rivals. I am normally not one to make rash calls this early in the game, but I bite the bullet as I am calling it right now: the New England Patriots will win the AFC East in 2009. The breakdown:
Home - Miami, Buffalo, New York Jets, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Atlanta, Carolina, and Baltimore
Away - Miami, Buffalo, New York Jets, Houston, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Denver
The ultimate decision maker in this division will come down to which team can most effectively finish games. All teams within the division play tough games this season, and I think the Patriots will have the most efficient and effective tools to do just that.
A proven finisher like Tom Brady coupled with his proven receiving corps in Randy Moss and Wes Welker will be solid. My concern is the running game.
I remember noting the aggressive running style of Laurence Maroney when I watched Super Bowl XLII. Since the Giants rained all over that "indestructible" Patriots team's parade in that game, I have not been able to make a similar remark. Since his injury in Week 2 against the Jets, Moroney has done little to restore confidence in his ability to move the football.
That said, I do believe exceptional defense and stability on offense will be enough to win more tough games than any other team in the division.
On a side note, the game I find most interesting for the Patriots will be against New England's former offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels' Denver Broncos, especially in leu of the controversy surrounding McDaniels' relationship with Denver's Pro Bowl quarterback, Jay Cutler.
I have a feeling that, in spite of all the drama surrounding the Broncos' quarterback position, McDaniels will have more success than most initially anticipate. Regardless of who is starting at quarterback, McDaniels is known to defy odds in that respect. If you need proof, just look at former no-namers Tom Brady and Matt Cassel.
Whoever starts should have a good chance to challenge Belichick's Patriots.
But I digress.
Optimistic Record: 13-3
Pessimistic Record: 9-7
My Gut Tells Me: 11-5
In 2007, the Miami Dolphins were on track to becoming the worst football team ever know to "grace" the National Football League before defeating the Baltimore Ravens in week 15, reserving the "title of shame" for the Detroit Lions in 2008.
Since the 2007 disaster, the Dolphins turned heads in 2008, hiring head coach Tony Sparanos, who responded to crisis by reinventing the term "offense" and leading the team to a commendable 11-5 record and their first division title in over a decade. I expect no less from the Dolphins in 2009.
Chad Pennington restored confidence in his productivity this season with his uncanny ability to protect, protect, protect the football. Though he may not have a cannon of an arm or the scrambling ability reminiscent of a Michael Vick character, his ability to play smart football helps his ability to move the football.
Miami lacks a breakout receiving core, however, (Though Ted Ginn Jr. shows promise as a younger player). While I have tried to avoid draft speculation, as the spirit of this mock season is created void of draft ramifications, I would look for Miami to acquire a receiver in the draft.
Still, what made Miami a success last season had less to do with the amount of raw talent on the team, but on the innovation on the playcalling end. This is what concerns me going into 2009 for the Dolphins. Innovation is only innovation as long as it is unconventional.
It was clear as the season progressed in 2008 that more and more teams not only became deft at stopping Miami's "Wildcat" offense, but many chose to integrate it into their playbooks as well. As teams become more familiar with Miami's strategy, one or both of two things must happen: a) Playcalling must become more innovative, and b) Players must become better at executing conventional playing.
To their credit, I have confidence that Sparanos has the tools to accomplish both relatively effectively.
Miami could very well have a chance at another division title, but they definitely have more variables that could limit their success than do the Patriots. At any rate, Here's the breakdown:
Home - Buffalo, New York Jets, New England, Houston, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburg
Away - Buffalo, New York Jets, New England, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Atlanta, Carolina, and San Diego
The story is essentially the same as New England, with the pivotal question being, "How effective will Miami's innovative playcalling be in 2009?" For that unanswered question, I expect a little less stability and/or consistency on a game-to-game basis.
There really is not much more to it than that.
Optimistic Record: 12-4
Pessimistic Record: 8-8
My Gut Tells Me: 10-6
* * *
The AFC East will prove to be a division full of surprises, though I do not expect the division battle to be as intense as last season, at least from a win-loss standpoint. Look for a battle between New England and Miami at the top with the Jets and Buffalo to fall more by the wayside.