In recent years, the Patriots have had the good fortune of playing in the AFC East, one of the least competitive divisions in football.
But something changed last season.
The Miami Dolphins turned their abysmal 2007 season into an 11-5 2008 campaign that crowned them AFC East Champions for the first time since 2000.
The New York Jets made the biggest splash in the 2008 offseason by signing Quarterback Brett Favre, who led them to an 8-3 start, only to see them wither down the stretch, missing out on a playoff spot in Week 17.
The Buffalo Bills shocked most people by starting the season 5-1 before predictably bungling the rest of the season and finishing 7-9 in the process.
All three division foes have made significant changes and roster upgrades that could potentially serve as speed bumps on the Patriots road back to the playoffs. Here is a breakdown of the other three AFC East teams, starting with the 2008 AFC East Champions, the Miami Dolphins:
The Dolphins revolutionized the pro offense last season with their hit-or-miss "Wildcat Offense," which was developed by Quarterback's coach David Lee. Lee had run the scheme while at Arkansas, and it worked well, most notably against the Patriots in their 38-13 victory last September.
Thanks to the Wildcat, the outstanding play of RB Ronnie Brown, and the resurgence of Jets castoff Chad Pennington, the Dolphins managed to put up 21.6 points per game, while staking claim to the 12th best offense in the NFL.
Defensively, the Dolphins didn’t allow opponents to score much, as they only gave up 19.8 points per game, good for ninth in the NFL. However, their production from their defensive backfield was not as sharp, allowing 227.8 yards per game through the air, putting them 25th in the league in this category.
With this in mind, Head Coach Tony Sparano added DB Gabril Wilson from the Oakland Raiders, bringing with him solid experience and 129 tackles in 2008.
Miami also addressed this problem via the draft, like all good franchises should, selecting CB Vontae Davis from Illinois with the 25th overall pick. Davis was viewed as arguably the best corner in the draft, but questions about his personal demeanor may have made him unattractive to some teams. Luckily for the Dolphins they have a guy named Bill Parcells who is pretty well versed in dealing with players with "character issues."
Miami also selected CB Sean Smith from Utah with the 61st overall pick. A converted receiver, Smith has amazing athletic ability that he will bring with him to Miami. More of a finesse player than a big hitter, Smith will bring speed and youth to a defensive backfield that desperately needs it. Smith may also be used in the Wildcat formation, increasing his appeal to the Dolphins and using his athleticism to create match up problems for opposing defenses.
Selecting Pat White in the draft will also allow the Dolphins more freedom when it comes to the Wildcat formation, as it seems tailor made for a player like White. A quick player who will line up under center in the Wildcat, White brings much more versatility to an already explosive offense.
I expect the Dolphins to carry over some momentum from last season, and while on paper they may not blow people away, their creativeness, speed, and versatility will be enough to prove that last season was not a fluke. I expect them to earn a wild card birth.
New York Jets
After squandering their shot at the playoffs, the Jets realized that they had to shake things up this offseason, so they went out and signed former Ravens Defensive Coordinator Rex Ryan as their new Head Coach.
Ryan will bring a new toughness to the franchise, as stingy defense has been the hallmark of the Ravens success over the past decade. Running the football and playing smashmouth D will be of the utmost importance in order for the Jets to have a winning team this year.
The Jets ran the ball extremely well last season, going for 125 yards a game, ninth in the NFL. Thomas Jones had an all-pro caliber season, and was supplemented by the speedy Leon Washington. Favre led the Jets to a pedestrian 206 yards per game through the air, good for 16th in the NFL.
On the Defensive side, the Jets were much more inconsistent allowing 22.2 points per game, 18th in the league.
While they were tenacious against the run, their defensive backfield was a disappointment, much like the Dolphins. The Jets D allowed 234.4 pass yards per game last season, placing them 29th in the league overall.
Rex Ryan brought in his old linebacker Bart Scott and his 82 tackles to the new look Jets, as well as veteran Cornerback Lito Sheppard to help quell the pass defense issue.
The Jets also lost a ton of contributors that will be hard to find replacements for, as Brett Favre retired (I hope), Laveraneus Coles was signed by the Bengals, and LB Eric Barton was picked up by Cleveland.
The Jets' success this year will be determined by the results of this year’s draft as they traded away a load of picks to move up and draft USC QB Mark Sanchez with the fifth overall pick.
The early word is that Kellen Clemens is the favorite to start the season, but there will surely be an intense battle in training camp and in their preseason contests. Sanchez will get his shot this year; it’s only a matter of time as to when.
The Sanchez trade left them with only two more draft picks, which they used for RB Shonn Greene and OG Matt Slauson.
This was a huge gamble by the Jets and if they are counting on Sanchez to be the franchise, he better produce early, or else the brutal New York media will be second guessing their draft picks, again.
However if the Jets can play tougher D and run the ball effectively, it shouldn’t matter who is under center as long as he can minimize mistakes and let his team do the work for him. I expect this to work out for the Jets to some degree, and they should be in the mix for a wildcard spot.
The Bills are an interesting team to watch. They looked extremely strong in the first few games last year, riding the momentum of RB Marshawn Lynch. However, their offense was painfully bad for the rest of the season, eliminating them from the playoff race.
The Buffalo offense managed just 21 points per game and amassed only 305.1 yards per game, 25th in the league.
Their defense wasn’t that bad last season, although they struggled against the run and gave up 121.6 yards per game on the ground, 22nd in the NFL.
The Bills took an absolute stud with the 11th overall pick in the draft, Defensive End Aaron Maybin. Maybin, an first team All-Big Ten selection from Penn State will be able to use his quickness for the pass rush, and hopefully for the Bills, to stop the opposing running attack.
Clearly the biggest move the Bills made this offseason was a one year rental of embattled WR Terrell Owens. Owens, Lee Evans, and Roscoe Parrish will electrify upstate New York if they can all get along, not complain about play calling, and focus on building chemistry with QB Trent Edwards.
The Bills also picked up RB Dominic Rhodes from the Indianapolis Colts, as Marshawn Lynch is suspended for the first three games of the season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
The Bills will be interesting to watch as they have some dynamic talent on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately for Bills fans, it might be their sometimes incompetent coaching staff that could spell doom for the franchise. I don’t see them being any better than 8-8 this year.
What this means for the Patriots
The Patriots are still the most talented, experienced, and best coached team in the division. However, the Dolphins are out to prove that they can repeat as division champions and the Jets are establishing a new franchise identity.
The Patriots open up the 2009 season with two consecutive division games, against the Bills on Monday night and at the Jets in Week Two. It will be extremely important for the Patriots to take these two games to start the season, as division wins will likely determine playoff seeding.
I expect the level of competition to be similar to last season, but with a healthy Brady and a revamped defense, the Patriots will return to the top of the heap and once again will be crowned AFC East Champions.