AFC Preview: Can't Beat the East

Benjamin AltsherContributor IMay 11, 2009

FLORHAM PARK, NJ - MAY 02:  Quarterback Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets talks with team owner Woody Johnson during minicamp on May 2, 2009 at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center in Florham Park, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Jets rookie Mark Sanchez is smiling now, meeting team owner Woody Johnson at minicamp.  However, it won't be all smiles come this season, especially in what's shaping up as the toughest division in the NFL

Before the folks in the south start clamoring about the Colts and the Titans, and the NFC fans start screaming about the NFC with the Cowboys, Eagles, and Giants, let's recap how the AFC East broke down last season.

The Bills started 5-1, then finished last in the foursome at 7-9.  The Brett-Favre hyped Jets took control with a Week 11 OT win at New England before promptly choking away a playoff spot down the stretch.  The preseason favorite Patriots lost almost half of their starting roster and just missed a wild card berth.

Meanwhile, the supposedly rebuilding Dolphins turned heads every step of the way and captured their first division crown since 2000.  Needless to say, anything goes again in 2009.

Let's start with the defending champion Dolphins.  Call me a skeptic, but I don't have the faith that Miami can turn the same trick with Chad Pennington under center. 

His best quality is that he doesn't make mistakes, but with his main targets consisting of Ted Ginn Jr. (inconsistent hands), Greg Camarillo and Davone Bess (possession receivers only) there's no real gamebreaker in the passing game. 

There also exists the possiblity that head coach Tony Sparano could fall in love with the hype surrounding the Wildcat offense, likely a reason why they drafted West Virginia QB Pat White in the second round.

If they come out Week One against the Falcons looking to take last year's innovation to the next step, they may find themselves rudely grounded.

As for the Bills, they may have the biggest free agent splash of any team in the division by signing Terrel Owens.  While T.O's track record in his first year with a team is a good one, the talent on Buffalo isn't.

QB Trent Edwards has proven he's better than J.P Losman, but still hasn't shown he has what it takes to hang with the proven teams in the league. 

RB Marshawn Lynch has piled up enough off-the-field issues to make you think he suits up for the Bengals.  Plus, he wasn't happy when Buffalo's second half collapse coincided with his decline in carries per game.  How will his ego mesh with the all-time king of whining about touches?  The answer doesn't turn out to be a pretty sight.

Next up the perennial favorites, at least since capturing their first Super Bowl in 2002, the New England Patriots.  If the Pats can challenge for the division crown sans Tom Brady, Adalius Thomas and a number of other key starters, what can they do healthy? 

Of course, the big question facing New England is if the Tom Brady that's coming back is the Tom Brady that got hurt in the first place.  There's likely no other player in the NFL that's more critical to his team's success this season. 

As for the injury riddled defense, they got younger through the draft and a full offseason to heal.  Plus, they still have the best coach in the game.  Barring another disaster, expect them to be at the top of the AFC East again.

Now for the most intriguing team, not just in the division, but perhaps the whole league.  The Jets lived up to their Broadway stage on draft day acquiring the highly touted Sanchez.  Now it's up to the former SoCal star to live up to the hype.

Whether or not he's the starter, Sanchez will likely take snaps at some point this season and only time will tell if he can handle the tough defenses this division can offer. 

Aside from the new star player, the new coach Rex Ryan wasted no time in bringing in some of his own to play defense.  Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard hope to bring the intensity from the Ravens over to the Jets. 

If Ryan and his players can change the attitude quickly, the talent is certainly there to make New York a big time contender not just for the division, but for the AFC crown as well.

So there you have it, two legit contenders, a defending champion out to prove they're not a fluke, and a subpar team with enough talent to knock off anyone not ready to give them their A-game.  Ladies and gentleman, your 2009 AFC East.