2009 AFC East Outlook:The Struggle for Power

Vincent JacksonCorrespondent IMay 21, 2009

FOXBORO, MA - JUNE 7:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots  passes the football during Mini Camp at Gillette Stadium on June 7, 2008 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

When you look at the AFC East division heading into the 2009 season, every team has a chance to not only win the division title but possibly wrestle the AFC crown from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Even with backup Matt Cassel, the New England Patriots finished 11-5 but failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002, only the second team in NFL history since the 1985 Broncos. 

New England has gone 33-9 in the division since Brady took over in Week Three of the 2001 season and is eager to get back to the playoffs to finish what they started against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII where they were denied a perfect season.

For the first time since 2000, the Miami Dolphins were crowned division champions after being left for dead during a 1-17 stretch that that went all the way back to the 2007 season.

The unveiling of the Wildcat (single wing) formation in week three began their 11-3 turnaround and the run to the division title.

After a sizzling 8-3 start the New York Jets faded to a 9-7 finish. This offseason, they have almost doubled their spending spree efforts in hiring a new head coach in Rex Ryan and reloading their defense.

The closest the Jets have gotten to the Super Bowl was the 1998 AFC Championship Game, falling to the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos.

The Buffalo Bills also enjoyed a nice 5-1 start but faded to a dismal 7-9 finish.

Each team has improved in almost all fronts which makes the AFC East one of the "Fantastic Four" to watch heading into 2009, including the NFC East, AFC and NFC South.

This breakdown will focus on the offseasons of each team and how their acquisitions will impact both sides of the ball as well as their chances at the division and conference titles.

NOTE: Draft choices will be in parentheses with the letter D, round number and pick.

Buffalo Bills (2008: 7-9; 0-6 in division)

2008 in review: After a collapse following a 5-1 start, head coach Dick Jauron was given a contract extension.  Buffalo lacked the big play on both sides of the ball, even with the progression (or off-field regression) of second year RB Marshawn Lynch.

The Bills finished near the bottom in all offensive categories and even though QB Trent Edwards started hot (5 TD, 2 INT in first six games) he faded quickly (6 TD, 9 INT.) Playcalling by offensive coordinator Turk Schonert was also put under fire.

Key Additions: WR Terrell Owens (FA/Dallas), DE Aaron Maybin (D1/11/Penn State), C Eric Wood (D1/28/Louisville)

Key Losses: OT Jason Peters (trade w/PHI)

When offense has the ball: Though he did ruin three different franchises and three different quarterbacks, Terrell Owens was brought in for his playmaking ability. At 36, we all believe this is his last chance at glory, so Schonert will have to use him properly.

The Bills offense finished 22nd in passing yards per game (190.0) and 23rd in points per game (21.0) so the acquisition of Owens gives Buffalo some instant credibility, just check out the reception he got at the airport.

Litte fun fact: Owens had 10 receiving touchdowns last season, Bills wide receivers had six combined between Lee Evans, Josh Reed and James Hardy.

Owens gives third year QB Trent Edwards a vertical deep threat, although we know Owens has a propensity for not going over the middle unlike Larry Fitzgerald or Randy Moss.

His height and speed (or diminishing speed, according to Skip Bayless) will also open up passing lanes off of play-action for Josh Reed, Lee Evans and James Hardy as it will be difficult to double team Owens with a ton of speed coming from both the slot and the outside.

Re-signed RB Fred Jackson will also be key in certain situations as the backup to Marshawn Lynch who has proved to be a powerful runner between the tackles. Jackson was very serviceable in both the running game as well as the passing game, racking up 37 catches.

The loss of left tackle Jason Peters could ultimately hurt Edwards more than help him, although the drafting of Eric Wood is a very good start to rebuilding the offensive line.

Look for TE Shawn Nelson to be a possible wild-card in the Bills offense down the road.

When the defense is on the field: Though much maligned, the Buffalo defense finished in the middle of the pack in most major categories: 14th in points allowed, 14th in yards allowed per games and 13th in passing yards per game allowed.

The biggest thing going against them is that they could not generate enough turnovers via pass rush, finishing third worst in the AFC with 22 total takeaways (10 INT, 12 recovered fumbles) and 24 sacks.

Their defense could get much better with the drafting of hybrid DE/OLB Aaron Maybin out of Penn State. The 3-4 defense is coming back to more NFL teams and Maybin's presence along with the return of former teammate Paul Posluszny from a knee injury could help a dreadful pass rush.

Though he may not be what Patrick Willis or Jerod Mayo were in their rookie seasons, Maybin's size and quickness off the edge is something that defensive coordinator Perry Fewell needs to use as a weapon in certain situations.

The secondary also gets a boost with the drafting of Hawaii CB Jarius Byrd, whom is very physical at the line of scrimmage with good hands and explosive hip rotation technique which is desperately needed in the AFC with the caliber of receivers in the conference.

Biggest concern(s): Is Trent Edwards the answer at quarterback?

The Bills have not had a real capable signal caller since Doug Flutie in 1999 and even with Flutie's production, Buffalo still lost to Tennessee in that postseaon. 

Edwards still has trouble with his "mental clock" in knowing when to get rid of the ball under pressure and the loss of Jason Peters could add to his troubles.

Injuries as well as the lack of the big play really hurt the Bills down the stretch of last season but the addition of Owens on offense as well as a two-headed monster at running back should make Buffalo's offense more productive in 2009.  

You also have to factor in Owens' tendency to split up the locker room so Edwards must take more of a leadership role in year three if he wants to get on T.O.'s good side.

2009 prediction: Buffalo has made a lot of nice additions but as long the football gods continue to make the rich richer, Bills fans can only hope for a wild card berth.

Again, Trent Edwards must be more of a leader if Buffalo is to take the next step.

2009 record: 8-8

Miami Dolphins (2008: 11-5, division winner)

2008 in review: Apparently, Bill Parcells didn't get the memo that he was supposed to "stay down" in 2008. Instead, he cleaned house and brought in the Coach of the Year in Tony Sporano and plucked QB Chad Pennington from the scrap heap who was dumped from the Jets like a bad prom date.

No one saw the "Wildcat" coming (just ask New England) and with the drafting of OT Jake Long with the first overall pick in 2008 combined with Pennington's precision passing and leadership, the Dolphins engineered the greatest single season turnaround in NFL history.

Key Additions: DE Jason Taylor (FA/Washington), C Jake Grove (FA/Oakland), CB Vontae Davis (D1/25/Illinois), QB/WR Pat White (D2/44/West Virginia), WR Patrick Turner (D3/81/USC), WR Brian Hartline (D4/108/Ohio State)

Key Losses: none

When the offense is on the field: The Wildcat formation was key to Miami's turnaround last season as they could run or throw out of many different variations of it.

To expect another big season out of Chad Pennington is asking a little much as he has had trouble piecing good seasons back to back. The drafting of Pat White gives the Wildcat a new, dangerous element to it in addition to the slash and dash backfield of Ronnie Brown and a rejuvenated Ricky Williams.

The biggest weakness in this offense is the wide receiving corps and their ability to stretch the field given Pennington's limited arm strength.

Though that part of the offense was addressed through the draft, none of them really scare opposing defenses so offensive coordinator Dan Henning will have to gameplan week to week as to how to attack down the field if the Wildcat is ineffective.

Miami also set an NFL record by committing only 10 total turnovers (7 INT, 3 fumbles lost) so they are fundamentally sound on this side of the ball.

Defenses were more prepared for the Wildcat so if that fails as well as Pennington's production, could we see second year QB Chad Henne who is slated to be the 2010 starter?

The offensive line is still solid and gets a true veteran presence in former Raiders center Jake Grove while Long gives them toughness on the outside edge.

When the defense is on the field: Do not adjust your sets, Jason Taylor is indeed back but he will not be his usual Pro-Bowl form. He will be used in certain situations, mostly on third down.

The biggest holes were at the secondary and drafting Vontae Davis and Sean Smith gives them toughness at the line of scrimmage, a Parcells specialty.

If Davis can control his off field issues, he has the potential to be a true shutdown corner like Ty Law.

Biggest concern(s): The lack of an elite wide receiver and Pennington's possible (or imminent) mechanical breakdowns could deter Miami's progress. Their receiving corps will consist of Davonne Bess and Ted Ginn Jr., throwing in Turner and Hartline through the draft. 

Not scary, but the coaching staff will have to maximize the talent they are given on a weekly basis.

If Miami had a true No. 1 receiver, defensive game-planning would be much harder (regardless of Pennington's arm) as they would have to account for both the receivers and the wizardry of the Wildcat.

Defenses having seen film of the Wildcat must concern the Dolphins as new wrinkles will need to be thrown in order to possibly hide the problems in the passing game.

2009 prediction: They took everyone by surprise in 2008 but no one will be caught off-guard in 2009, especially Bill Belichick who was the first victim of the Wildcat. They are making good progress with Bill Parcells in the front office but they will be tested more this season especially with the Jets and Patriots reloaded and heading on a collision course.

2009 record: 9-7

New England Patriots (2008: 11-5, divisional runner-up)

2008 in review: When Tom Brady's knee was torn in two places in the opening minutes of Week One, many fans considered the Patriots dead and gone. That was before Matt Cassel stepped in and almost took the same route Brady did in 2001 en route to Super Bowl XXXVI.

New England lost out on the playoffs via tiebreakers but could have easily gone 13-3 if certain things went their way—Gaffney drop vs. Indianapolis, third and 15 stop vs. Jets.  Many considered 2008 to be Bill Belichick's greatest coaching job in the face of losing one of the top players in NFL history.

Key Additions: QB Tom Brady (injury), RB Fred Taylor (FA/Jacksonville), TE Chris Baker (FA/NY Jets), CB Shawn Springs (FA/Washington), CB Leigh Bodden (FA/Detroit), WR Joey Galloway (FA/Tampa Bay), WR Greg Lewis (FA/Philadelphia), FS Patrick Chung (D2/34/Oregon), CB Darius Butler (D2/41/Connecticut), DT Ron Brace (D2/40/Boston College)

Key Losses: WR Jabar Gaffney, LB Mike Vrabel (trade w/KC), QB Matt Cassel (trade w/KC), FS Rodney Harrison (retirement), CB Ellis Hobbs (trade w/PHI)

When offense is on the field: Defenses will have to do their homework. If Tom Brady is back to his old ways, life will be hell for the rest of this division (remember he's 33-9 against the other three teams) in addition to adding a powerful running game to go along with one of the most explosive receiving corps in the NFL.

Picture this formation: Brady under center, Taylor in the backfield, Moss and Galloway on the outside, Welker and Lewis in the slots.

Try to stop that.

Taylor's presence will make Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris even more dangerous in the running and receiving game with Faulk being one of the better running backs in the screen game. If Laurence Maroney can duplicate somewhat of he did in year one, New England will be hard to stop.

What will concern many fans is if Brady is not at 100 percent or better and the depth behind him must be put to the test with Kevin O'Connell or Brian Hoyer.

When the defense is on the field: Bill Belichick is usually a master of maximizing talent through his 3-4 scheme, not so much through pass rush but disguising of coverages while maintaining pressure on the quarterback.

Last season, this was not the case as both the linebacking corps and patchwork secondary were both exposed.  The Patriots gave up 27 touchdown passes last season, second worst in the NFL to the Arizona Cardinals.

Injuries and age ended up hurting the Patriots more than ever. But, they get Adalius Thomas back, pairing him with reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Jerod Mayo who was gold in the top 10 in last year's draft.

The defense should be much better with the signings in the secondary of Bodden and Springs and the drafting of Butler out of Connecticut who steps in immediately.

Patrick Chung should also play from the first snap in replacing Rodney Harrison alongside re-signed James Sanders.

The sleeper of this group could be Ron Brace on the defensive line, drafted out of Boston College. If the Patriots do not re-sign either Vince Wilfork or Richard Seymour after 2009 , look for Brace to be an impact player.

Overall, Belichick will have a faster, younger, hungrier and more explosive defense to tinker with in addition to his All-Pro defensive line of Seymour, Wilfork, Ty Warren and Jarvis Green.

Biggest concern(s): Tom Brady will have the most watched knee ligaments throughout Boston as training camp approaches. The depth behind him will need to learn the playbook if he goes down at any point either in camp or during the season.

The secondary is another thing to look out for as New England brought in good, veteran players and addressed it through the draft but it will be interesting to see how they mix and work together against the more dangerous passing games in the NFL.

2009 prediction: Assuming Brady stays healthy all season, New England will be one of the few teams to compete for the AFC crown along with Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and San Diego. They are too good on offense, defense and coaching to slip up again this season.

Don't be shocked if they are vying for home-field throughout the AFC playoffs.

2009 record: 13-3

New York Jets (2008: 9-7)

2008 in review: Brett Favre was brought in to be the savior yet he ended up being the pariah. 

After an 8-3 start, New York was buzzing about a Big Apple Super Bowl but Gang Green fizzled to a 9-7 finish including a regular season humiliation at the hands of ex-QB Chad Pennington and the Cinderella Miami Dolphins on the season's final day.

Favre's arm went dead and the defense pretty much went with him. The dream season turned into a nightmare and just added to a list of agonizing moments for Jets fans.

Key Additions: new head coach Rex Ryan, LB Bart Scott (FA/Baltimore), QB Mark Sanchez (D1/5/USC), RB Shonn Greene (D3/65/Iowa), S Jim Leonhard (FA/Baltimore), CB Lito Sheppard (trade w/PHI)

Key Losses: QB Brett Favre (released), WR Laveranues Coles (trade w/CIN)

When offense has the ball: This offense will go one of two ways: Either Rex Ryan will implement Mark Sanchez from day one or he will give Kellen Clemens his chance and let Sanchez sit for a season like Carson Palmer.

Regardless of who is under center, the Jets still lack a big play threat wide receiver with a corps consisting of Jerricho Cotchery, Chansi Stuckey and David Clowney. Dustin Keller is an emerging stud at tight end but he cannot do it alone.

What the Jets will be confident in is a three-headed attack at running back consisting of Thomas Jones, slasher Leon Washington and rookie Shonn Greene. Though Jones and Washington enter camp without finalized deals, the Jets feature a ground attack that could prove to be very difficult to stop.

The three backs will run behind one of the better constructed offensive lines in the NFL but quarterback play will be key as well as establishing chemistry between the presumed franchise quarterback and his receivers, explosive or not.

When defense has the ball: Rex Ryan was brought to New York for not only a change of attitude in coaching but a change of attitude on the field, especially on defense where the Jets' pass rush was almost non-existent down the stretch last season.

Ryan brought linebacker Bart Scott and unheralded safety Jim Leonhard with him from Baltimore to bolster a mediocre secondary and a woeful pass rush, the former of which struggled against tight ends.

Pro-Bowl nose tackle Kris Jenkins should plug holes to open up gaps in opposing offensive lines for many blitzing opportunities with Scott as well as Calvin Pace who enjoyed a nice first season in New York.

The key player in that corps is Vernon Gholston, the much heralded hybrid DE/OLB from Ohio State whom the Jets took with the sixth pick in the 2008 draft. His production never emerged, racking up only 13 tackles.

How Gholston will be used in the defense will be content on Ryan's teaching and execution of the gameplan but for him to avoid the "bust" label, he will need to have a huge bounce back sophomore season.

Biggest concern(s): Obviously, the decision for Ryan is the simple "damned if he does, damned if he doesn't" when it comes to his starting quarterback. Whether it be Clemens or Sanchez, the Jets will be under heavy assault when it comes to the passing game as they lack a true No. 1 receiver.

Also, keep an eye on the contract situations regarding Thomas Jones and Leon Washington.

2009 prediction: The Jets spent a lot of money fixing their defense and addressing their quarterback but they did not do enough to address the wide receiver concerns which will unfortunately lead to Adrian Peterson-like treatment from opposing defenses (stacking the box, blitzing, etc.)

Also, considering the Jets play in the AFC and will be playing foes within their own division and the explosive AFC and NFC South divisions, their defense could be asked to do more than it is asked for because the offenses they will face can score almost at will.

The Jets have added good pieces and should compete for a wild-card berth.

2009 record: 10-6

Overall opinion: The AFC East for the first time will be balanced and very tough to win in 2009. New England is projected to win but their foes will not lay down and give them a fight to the bitter end.


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