For most of the decade, the AFC East has been comprised of the New England Patriots and three other teams. And while the Bills, Jets and Dolphins are starting to close the gap on New England, the Pats enter the 2009 season as heavy favorites to capture yet another division title.
So while many predict the Patriots will reign as Beasts of the East once again, it won't be a walk in the park for New England as in years past. The three other teams in this division are at the very least, serious playoff contenders.
Here is an early breakdown of the AFC East:
Why the Bills Will Win the Division: Buffalo looks like a team on the brink of breaking out. They did a good job of filling holes this offseason and say what you want about Terrell Owens but for one year, he makes the Bills a much better team on the field. Owens teams up with Lee Evans to give the Bills an explosive receiving tandem the likes the team hasn't seen in years.
Trent Edwards is quietly becoming one of the best young quarterbacks in the league and now with some weapons surrounding him, he's primed for a breakout season. The defense always seems to keep the Bills close and if Buffalo can find another pass rusher to help out Aaron Schobel, they could have a big year on that side of the ball as well.
Why the Bills Won't Win the Division: The offensive line. If the Bills want to accomplish all of their goals this season, the reshuffled offensive line needs to come together quickly.
The team believes it will but the Bills are asking a lot. Buffalo is moving Brad Butler from guard to right tackle, Langston Walker from right to left tackle and probably starting two rookies at guard. The Bills are rolling the dice that these moves will pay off. Time will tell.
Also, Buffalo needs 21-year old rookie pass rusher Aaron Maybin to contribute right away. Maybin probably won't do much against the run in his rookie year but if he can come in on passing downs and get 8-10 sacks, the Bills will be ecstatic.
Bottom Line: The Bills haven't been to the playoffs since 1999 but they made a big splash this offseason to end that drought. A team doesn't sign Terrell Owens to build for the future.
The Bills want to win now and if the offensive line and pass rush steps up, Buffalo should be a factor in the division race. Everything sets up for Buffalo to make a serious run in 2009. Now they just need to go out and make it happen.
Why the Dolphins Will Win the Division: Miami is well coached and doesn't beat themselves. Tony Sporano really impressed people around the NFL in his first season at the helm in Miami with how disciplined his team played.
The Dolphins aren't always the most talented team on the field but they play smart, they cause turnovers and they aren't afraid to be aggressive on both sides of the ball. In today's NFL with so many games being decided by seven points or less, well-coached teams like the Dolphins are going to win more often than they lose.
Why the Dolphins Won't Win the Division: Miami won this division last year but it took them until the final hours of the season and that was with the Patriots using a quarterback who hadn't started in seven years. Chad Pennington is a guy who can win you 10 games and get a team into the playoffs but is that it?
The knock on Pennington has always been although he's very intelligent and a great leader, he can only get a team so far. With all three teams in the division possibly being better than a year ago, Miami could take a step back in 2009.
Bottom Line: Miami is a tough team to call because this is the season they are between quarterbacks, Chad Henne is penciled in for 2010 and Pennington was signed for last year. Sporano will have his team ready to play every week but in what is all of a sudden a very tough division, an 8-8 finish seems more likely for the Fish than back-to-back division titles.
New England Patriots
Why the Patriots Will Win the Division: On paper, the Patriots are still the most talented team in the division. Randy Moss is still one of the most explosive receivers in the NFL.
Wes Welker can't be stopped in the slot. Jerod Mayo turned into a beast at inside linebacker after just one year. Vince Wilfork is the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL, bar none.
The additions of WR Joey Galloway, RB Fred Taylor, CB's Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs may not be earth shattering but all are perfect fits for New England and fill holes. By all reports Tom Brady appears to be ahead of schedule and will be at full strength to start the season.
And then there is some guy named Belichick who won 11 games last year with a quarterback who never started a game in college or the NFL. That's pretty good.
Why the Patriots Won't Win the Division: Defense. While Bill Belichick does a tremendous job of masking his defensive weaknesses, this is the area where opponents can exploit the Patriots.
Other than Wilfork and Mayo, the Patriots don't have any superstars on the defensive side of the ball. And if you think Adalius Thomas has been a superstar since signing in New England, you are obviously a bias Patriots homer. He has been average at best.
Ellis Hobbs was arguably the worst starting corner in the NFL, so that's addition by subtraction. The Patriots defense won't be terrible but good offenses will be able to score points on them all year long.
Bottom Line: Like it or not, as long as Brady is healthy and Belichick is roaming the sidelines, the road to the AFC East goes through Foxborough. It's that simple.
New York Jets
Why the Jets Will Win the Division: An aggressive defense and the perfect coach to run it. If the Jets are going to make the playoffs this year, it's going to be because of a defense that forces a lot of turnovers.
Meanwhile, with a rookie quarterback, the Jets will want to play conservative on offense. Who better to run a team like that than a coach from the Baltimore Ravens staff? Rex Ryan has a lot to work with on this defense.
Corners Darrelle Revis and Dwight Lowery, safety Kerry Rhodes, along with linebackers Bart Scott, Calvin Pace and David Harris are all studs and should thrive in Ryan's system. The Jets will have one of the best defenses in the NFL this season.
Why the Jets Won't Win the Division: Despite what happened in the NFL last season, teams usually don't go to the playoffs with rookie quarterbacks. And no teams go to the playoffs by starting Kellen Clemens, so expect Mark Sanchez to be under center from Day One.
The Jets have one of the league's top run-blocking lines and two very good backs in Thomas Jones and Leon Washington. Toss in rookie Shonn Greene, and Sanchez may not have to worry that he has very few options in the passing game other than WR Jerricho Cotchery and TE Dustin Keller.
The Jets need a lot of things to go right because Sanchez is much closer to Joe Flacco than he is Matt Ryan.
Bottom Line: The Jets are going to play a whole lot of 13-10 games this year. They will rely on their defense and ground game to get them into the playoffs. Still, whether or not the Jets are serious contenders will come down to Sanchez and that's a lot of pressure to put on a rookie.
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