The AFC East provided NFL fans a rollercoaster ride of excitement from the opening kickoff right down to the week 17 three-way toss up for division champion in 2008.
From Trent Edwards and the Buffalo Bills roaring out of the gate with a 4-0 start, the short lived Favre era in East Rutherford, to the birth of the “Wildcat” in Miami, storylines were easy to come by.
As the 2009 campaign nears, there are plenty of new faces in the division, but one very familiar pre-season favorite.
Miami didn’t achieve much in the off-season to immediately improve their team; another year to work out to the kinks one of the league’s most exciting offensive schemes will help, but the personnel has remained largely unchanged.
And, although the Dolphins were battling for a seat in the playoffs last season, New England has their leader back and the Jets defense should be much improved from its less-than-stellar 2008, making the ‘Fins a long shot to compete for the title.
Rex Ryan taking over the post as Head Coach in New York will certainly bolster the team’s defense.
The mastermind behind the daunted Ravens D of the last nine seasons will surely implement a scheme that turns heads in the AFC, and he has already begun to add his brand of players, starting with Philadelphia deport Lito Sheppard and former Pro-Bowl linebacker Bart Scott.
However, for as improved as the Jets stoppers should be, their scorers have weakened. While good ole’ No. 4 may not have been the solution at QB, neither is Kellen Clemens, who holds a career 59.3 passer rating.
Take away deep threat Lavernues Coles who has since shipped to Cincinnati, and the Jets offense needs more than a little tweaking. New York fans are certainly hoping defense can win them a title the way it has for teams like Pittsburgh and Ryan’s former employers from Baltimore.
Without a doubt the highest profile addition to any team in the East goes to Buffalo and their signing of disgruntled wide-out Terrell Owens. The addition of Dominic Rhodes will lighten the load on troubled back Marshawn Lynch, who will sit out the first few weeks stemming from off-season gun charges.
Still, the Bills are wading in the waters of uncertainty. Will (or more likely, when will) T.O. become a distraction? Can Trent Edwards rebound from a lackluster second half of ’08?
Can the defense perform better than the 14th-ranked squad of last year? Suffice it to say that the Bills are the question mark of the division, with a real chance of making a run should the chips fall favorably.
Rounding out the division and sitting as my pre-season favorites are the New England Patriots. Despite losing their leader and most accomplished player for 2008, the Patriots still managed an 11-win season, narrowly missing the playoffs.
With Brady back and a younger, faster defense than what the Foxboro Boys fielded last year, it’s hard to pick against Belichick’s crew. Realistic expectations for the Pats hover around 11 wins, a number that their divisional foes may struggle to compete with.
It seems apparent that despite the many new faces throughout the division, New England’s steady diet of proven veterans with a scattering of new blood lands them as the division’s strongest squad heading into the summer work outs.