AFC East Preview: A Division In Flux

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AFC East Preview: A Division In Flux
(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
The 2009 AFC East, in many ways, resembles the recent Kentucky Derby—no clear favorite.

Now, I know, fans from New England are jumping up and down, preparing to draft hateful letters to my home. But the truth is, every team in the AFC East has significant question marks going into the 2009 campaign including the Patriots. And picking a winner may be more or less artful than choosing the 50-1 long shot that won the Derby.

That is, unless Brady, a true thoroughbred amongst players, is healthy.

Without further adieu, a preview of the AFC East—in order of predicted finish.

 

 

New England Patriots (Prediction 13-3)

Player to Watch: Darius Butler, CB (Legitimate cover corner athleticism—teams never threw at him in college)

Team MVP: Tom Brady, QB (a return to health is a return to the playoffs)

The Patriots are clearly the class of this division, irrespective of what the Dolphins accomplished last season. With a healthy Tom Brady at the helm there is no reason to assume this team won’t once again challenge for both division and league supremacy.

While the Patriots offense is best known for its passing game (both Moss and Welker once again exceeded 1,000 yards in the 2008 season) their three-headed running attack (Morris, Faulk and Jordan) was sixth in the league, averaging 142.2 yards per game.

With a healthy Laurence Maroney and the newly acquired Fred Taylor, the running game should only improve, leading to a more balanced attack that relies less on the arm of Brady.

The obvious concern for the Patriots is keeping Brady healthy through the entire season. He has been pronounced completely healed but one can only wonder how long that will be the case if the offensive line doesn’t protect him. Last season, the O-line allowed a league high 47 sacks of Matt Cassel, a number that must be reduced if the Patriots hope to contend this season.

The team lacks sufficient quarterback depth and another injury to Brady would severely dampen their postseason chances. It will be interesting to see if the departure of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel’s affects this group.

I suspect that as has been the case with the departure of past coordinators from the comfortable confines of Gillette Field, the Patriots will continue to roll along offensively.

On the defensive side of the ball, the team needs to get younger and faster. They were often exposed by speedier teams with explosive playmakers and turned in uneven defensive performances throughout the season—see my previous article, The 2009 New England Patriots: The Four Biggest Questions for an in-depth look at the defensive unit.

The team will need to integrate younger players, such as early round selections Patrick Chung (safety), DT Ron Brace (defensive tackle) and Darius Butler (cornerback) in order to infuse youth and consistency into a veteran defense.

Another thing to watch is defensive injuries. As with any team that relies on players advancing in age, the potential for long-term injuries is significant. If any of the core defensive players are injured, the Patriots may find themselves short-handed on defense.

Fortunately for the Pats, their best defense is the offense. A consistent offense led by Brady will provide a veteran defense ample opportunity to regroup on the sideline and not leave them on the playing field exhausted for forty minutes a game.

The Patriots have a truly favorable schedule in 2009 with their toughest games a home matchup against the Ravens and a road test against Indianapolis.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see them end up with two losses on the season and a number one seed in the AFC.

 

Buffalo Bills (Prediction 9-7)

Player to Watch: Leodis McKelvin (averaged 28.2 yards/per KO return)

Team MVP: Lee Evans (the addition of Owens could turn him into an elite wide receiver)

I will give the Bills some credit—they are making an effort as an organization to achieve legitimacy. While the means to the end may ultimately be misguided you cannot fault an organization that has been deemed irrelevant since Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas hung up their cleats for taking a chance on the lightning rod that is Terrell Owens.

With Owens in the fold, the Bills will sport a fairly impressive offense in 2009 with an up-and-coming quarterback in Trent Edwards, workhorse running back Marshawn Lynch and receivers Lee Evans and Josh Reed to compliment TO.

An argument can be made that Evans, and not Owens, is the best receiver on the Bills given Owens’ advancing age and habit of dropping catchable balls. With the swirling winds and subzero temperatures in Buffalo it will be interesting to see whether Owens can adjust to his conditions and his new quarterback.

While he will certainly be on his best behavior out of the gate, one can’t help but notice that Edwards and Tony Romo had eerily similar statistics a season a go, leaving hopeful Bills fans holding their collective breath.

The Bills offense may take a step back with the loss of Pro-Bowl offense lineman Jason Peters but will be a unit worth taking note of in 2009.

On the defensive side of the ball the Bills were much improved in 2008, finishing 14th  overall in team defense, a jump of 17 spots from the previous season. Despite the overall improvement in team defense there were some glaring shortcoming overall: Only 10 interceptions as a team for the entire season and allowing seven first possession touchdowns, a total surpassed by only the Lions and the Rams.

Overall, the defense improved over the course of the season but was largely uneven, due in part to the high number of offensive turnovers committed by the Bills offense which left the defense on the field far too long. With the 2009 offense improved, we may see an improved defense as a result.

Finally, while the offense should be improved as should the defense the coaching staff of the Bills is still largely inept. Dick Jauron, from all accounts, is a very nice guy. However, his decision-making as a coach has been suspect and he has together one winning team between Buffalo and Chicago (career coaching record of 57-76).

In Week 15 last season, the Bills were two minutes from a victory at the New York Jets. In fact, they were two running plays away from the clock winding down. Jauron instead called a roll-out pass with J.P. Losman at quarterback which resulting in a fumble and a Jets victory.

The play selection left me and many Bills fans staring at the screen incredulously, wondering if we could summarily fire Jauron on the spot. It was assumed that after three losing campaigns in a row, Jauron would be fired.

For whatever reason Buffalo ownership saw fit to bring him back for a fourth season, a decision that will be scrutinized if Buffalo stumbles out of the gate.

The 2009 schedule is a favorable one for the Bills with the most difficult games coming on the road against Carolina, Tennessee, Jacksonville and Atlanta and at home against Tampa, New Orleans and Indianapolis—all warm weather or dome teams.

New England doesn’t come to Buffalo until late December as well. The favorable schedule should help the Bills out of the cellar of the AFC East.

While I would be hard pressed to predict playoffs for this group I expect they will be improved.

 

Miami Dolphins (prediction 7-9)

Player to Watch: Joey Porter (loud and obnoxious but backs it up on the field)

Team MVP: Bill Parcells (his track record speaks for itself)

Let’s be honest for a minute. Raise your hand if you predicted the Miami Dolphins, the 1-15 Miami Dolphins, would go 11-5 in 2008 and win the AFC East.

If you have your hand up you are a liar.

The 2008 Dolphins, and their “wildcat offense” came out of nowhere to win the AFC East behind first year coach Tony Sparano and a quarterback cast aside by the division rival Jets in Chad Pennington. In his 10th season out of Marshall, Pennington turned in a career year, finishing second in the MVP voting with Ted Ginn and Greg Camarillo as his primary receiving targets.

The lack of a significant receiving threat and a quarterback that seemingly put together a season with smoke and mirrors is a concern going into 2009—a concern that came to fruition with Pennington’s four interception debacle against the Ravens in the 2008 playoffs.

There are some within the organization that believe the reigns of the offense should be handed to second year man Chad Henne in 2009, irrespective of Pennington’s 2008 contributions. While I do not see that happening out of the gate this season, it wouldn’t be a Bill Parcells team without every player looking over their shoulders.

On offense, the question marks are many: Which Chad Pennington will emerge in 2009, the one who could barely complete a pass with the Jets or the strong armed MVP of 2008?

Will Ronnie Brown stay healthy and effective? Will Ricky Williams stay focused? And finally, will the wildcat offense continue to succeed or will other teams, having an offseason to study the various formations, be prepared to defend it in 2009?

The 2009 Dolphins defense was fun to watch though not entirely effective. With a pair of young, aggressive tacklers in Yeremiah Bell (120 tackles) and Channing Crowder (113 tackles) the Dolphins weren’t afraid to get after people.

The heart and soul of the defense was the seemingly washed up Joey Porter who recorded an astounding 17.5 sacks between his verbal assaults on the opposition. At 32, its unclear how many more 17.5 sack seasons Porter has in the tank.

The return of Jason Taylor to the team may reduce the pressure on Porter and Crowder, allowing both more opportunities to excel. Despite these individual success the team defense was not ranked highly overall, allowing 28 or more points four times.

The 2008 Dolphins were also helped by a favorable schedule, playing 11 of their 16 games against non-playoff teams. In 2009, 11 of the Dolphins games come against playoff quality opponents including road games at Atlanta, San Diego, Carolina, Jacksonville and Tennessee and home tilts against Indianapolis, New Orleans, Tampa and Pittsburgh.

In 2008 everything had to go right for this Dolphins team to succeed and everything did. A repeat performance will be extremely difficult. I believe the slipper will come off this Cinderella in 2009 with the Dolphins slipping back towards mediocrity.

 

New York Jets (Prediction: 6-10)

Co-Players to Watch: Darrelle Revis (will he take the next step and become an elite corner); Mark Sanchez (all eyes will be on the newly anointed king of New York)

Team MVP: Leon Washington (an explosive, game changing jack-of-all trades)

The New York Jets have undergone a significant offseason overhaul, beginning with their new coach Rex Ryan. Ryan is known for his defensive savvy and aggressiveness, characteristics one might argue are a function of having Ray Lewis and Ed Reed rather than his personal traits.

We will see in New York where Ryan inherits a defense ranked 18th overall and 29th against the run. The Jets offseason acquisitions focused on shoring up this abysmal defense, bringing in ex-Ravens Bart Scott and Jim Leonard and trading for Eagles cornerback Lito Shephard. The combination of Shephard and Darelle Revis should improve the Jets secondary. Additions aside, this Jets defense has neither the talent nor the skill level to become a feared defensive unit, a point that will undoubtedly frustrate Ryan and Jets fans.

On the offensive side of the ball, no conversation about the Jets can begin without mentioning their Hollywood quarterback Mark Sanchez. The newly anointed golden boy has rolled into New York with a mere 16 college games under his belt, all of which took place in weather far superior to what he will see on the east coast in January.

While Jets fans will point to the meteoric rise of the Atlanta Falcons with their fresh-faced quarterback I do not see a similar renaissance under Sanchez in his first season.

Here’s why: First, Sanchez does not have a legitimate first or even second receiver – Jerricho Cotchery? Chansi Stuckey? There is not a single receiver Sanchez will be able to rely on week in and week out to bail him out, to make the grab when the pass is a little off.

Anyone watching Eli Manning without Plaxico Burress can tell you just how lost a quarterback can be without a big play receiver. The lack of a significant receiving threat will allow teams to pressure the run which is what led to Thomas Jones average 3.6 yds/per carry in 2007.

Second, the Jets do not play in Southern California. While I am certain Sanchez will inevitably adjust, his fluttering, light as feather passes through the Coliseum sun won’t fly in a nor’easter come December. Snow, sleet, rain and most importantly wind will reek havoc on his throws, leaving the Jets as a one-dimensional squad dependent on the run.

If I were the Jets, and I thank my lucky stars I am not, I would be on the phone with Vinny Testaverde right now and bring him in to teach Sanchez how to be an NFL quarterback.

As it stands right now there is not a single veteran quarterback on the Jets roster that Sanchez can learn anything from. When do the Patriots like to blitz? Ask Kellon Clemons? What throws are effective against the Dolphins pass rush? Better ask Erik Ainge. I predict that by midseason the Jets will regret not bringing in a veteran presence to work with their young star.

The result of the Jets offensive limitations will be increased pressure on a suspect but hopefully improved defense. Once the weather turns from bad to worse, teams will stack the line, daring Sanchez to beat them with his mediocre receiving core. My money says that as an initial matter he won’t be up to the task.

The schedule makers didn’t do the Jets any favors either with road games against Baltimore, Tampa and Indianapolis and home affairs with the Giants, Philly and Carolina.

The Jets will be hard pressed to overcome a difficult schedule, a new regime and a rookie quarterback and will, at best, be a middle of the pack team in 2009.

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