AFC: AGAIN IN THE EAST, IT'S 11 WINS OR BUST

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AFC: AGAIN IN THE EAST, IT'S 11 WINS OR BUST
(Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

When the Dolphins topped off their fifth-straight road win on December 28th against the Jets, one thing was apparent.  There is no more rhyme or reason to the madness of talent erupting out of the AFC.  Eleven wins will not guarantee you anything, as the Patriots found out the hard way, despite a 4-2 record in division.  

So, we move along to 2009.  The AFC East, in particular, should be just as competitive, thus raising the bar for Wild Card hopefuls from other divisions.  All four East teams went into the off-season with different strains along their proverbial Achilles heels.  The Patriots are rebounding from the loss of two veteran defensive leaders in Mike Vrabel (traded to KC) and Ellis Hobbs (traded to Phi).  The Bills are trying to bolster their 25th-ranked offense by instituting Terrell Owens into their spread, lined up opposite deep ball specialist, Lee Evans.  In addition, they've taken the initiative of spending a first-round draft pick and utilizing the free agent market to improve their much sluggish o-line of a year ago.  In fact, the Bills official depth chart currently has five new starters slated there.  

The New York Jets have leadership issues as they try to assimilate a new quarterback (Mark Sanchez) amidst the departure of Brett Favre, a situation they handled with composure by trading up in the draft right before round one began.  Lastly, the division's defending champion Miami Dolphins used the draft to upgrade weak areas at wide receiver and in the secondary.

Let's scroll the magnifying glass over the popularly conceived weak link in the AFC East, the Buffalo Bills.  There is a strong case for them being underrated.  Maybe people just like to pick on whoever has T.O.  Either way, the team was arguably a mid-season Trent Edwards' injury away from going to the playoffs.  Remember when they were 5-1?  The Toronto Bills... oops, I mean the soon to be Toronto Bills (don't you just despise the sound of that?), spent the off-season re-tooling their offensive line (most notably by drafting C/G Eric Wood from Louisville and signing free agent G Geoff Hangartner away from the Panthers) to make sure Edwards doesn't end up on the pine again.  Even if Owens has hit his physical peak, he will certainly draw shadowing safeties away from the post and corner-route destinations of Lee Evans, opening up many more home run options for the team's playbook.  

Defensively, where the Bills already ranked in the top half of the league (14th, to be exact), they added three potential starters in free agent pickups CB Drayton Florence (Jax), LB Pat Thomas (KC), plus rookie DE Aaron Maybin (11th pick of the draft).  The Bills schedule is top and bottom heavy, so how this, again, physically undersized team deals with injuries and player vacancies will be the deciding factor.  Did the team re-vamp the passing game enough to make up for HB Marshawn Lynch's three game absence (drug suspension) during a stretch where they play teams of a combined 28-20 record from a year ago?  Variables like this will go a long way in deciding the Bills season.

The New York Jets are sporting new identities across the board.  Quite frankly, Brett Favre would not enjoy playing for this team.  This year's Jets will be about tenacious defense, field position, and game clock management.  They're 3-4 defense is looking scary good, with a front-seven anchored by DE Shaun Ellis, LILB Bart Scott (FA, Bal) and RILB Calvin Pace.  The secondary already boasted 2008's first round pick, CB Darrelle Revis, and 2008's most improved Jet, FS Kerry Rhodes.  New coach, Rex Ryan, continued the trend of bringing over defensive players he coordinated while in Baltimore, by signing SS Jim Leonhard to replace the ineffective Hank Poteat (who followed ex-Jet head coach, Eric Mangini, to Cleveland).  

In the most under-publicized move of the off-season, the Jets also traded draft picks to the Eagles for veteran corner, Lito Sheppard, rounding out one of the most complete starting defenses in all of football.  With a rookie quarterback (Sanchez), only one proven receiver (Jerricho Cotchery), but two explosive RBs (Thomas Jones and Leon Washington) and a Pro Bowl FB (Tony Richardson) to block for them, the Jets have positioned themselves to play a militaristic game of slow, but steady field progress this season. Expect a lot of I-formations and small packages that get both tight ends (Dustin Keller and Bubba Franks) involved.  Unlike Buffalo, the size of the Jets is one of their strengths. They can be extremely dangerous this season with their defense, alone.  New York should be considered a serious candidate for ten wins, especially considering they tallied nine last year with a fatigued QB and flustered coaching staff.

The New England Patriots are the perennial division favorite, despite finishing second to Miami, last year, in a Tom Brady-less season that saw Matt Cassel (traded to KC) as the starting quarterback for 15 games.  The Pats, uncharacteristically, lost home games to the Jets and 'Fins, last year.  However, they really just simply ran out of time, after finally gelling a four-game winning streak together in December.  This year, they lost Mike Vrabel (traded to KC) at the LILB position, and are replacing him with Jerod Mayo, whom they drafted in 2008.  He's an athletic pass specialist from the Tennessee Vols.  That's quite a change-up from Vrabel, who was used in many blitz and run blocking packages.  Jerod Mayo is certainly one variable to regard this year up in Boston.  

Starting cornerbacks Ellis Hobbs and Deltha O'Neal are both gone, but the Pats have done a respectable job replacing them with veterans Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs. Granted, Springs' best days are behind him, he still tallied 36 tackles in 9 games, last year.  So, the bottom line is that Belichick's defense is still pretty good, and his fifth ranked offense is getting its QB (Brady) and short yardage HB (Sammy Morris) back.  I'd be very surprised if New England misses the playoffs again this season, based on what transpired with an essential split-squad on offense in 2008.  They will most certainly compete respectfully (no, that's not a pun on "Spy Gate"... per se).

Let's sum up by talking about the Dolphins.  Are they the consensus division favorite? Well, no, they're not.  But who had them winning the conference's 3-seed last year?  As I mentioned earlier, the Wild Card Round-demise of the 2008 Dolphins left a clear blue-print for how to perfect this year's team.  They need more talent to stretch out the field for the two-headed running back machine of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, plus more athleticism and physicality in the secondary.  Tony Sparano and company were active this off-season in addressing these two issues.  

However, in order of staying as finely tuned as New York and New England, they're new ingredients will have to blossom quickly.  Are Greg Camarillo and Davonne Bess adequate enough supporting stars at receiver, to Ted Ginn, Jr.?  Keep in mind, the caveat of QB Chad Pennington is that he predictably relies heavily on possession receivers, not speed guys who try to burn corners on the flanks. That's why the Jets got Lavernues Coles back two years ago, and why Miami tight end, Anthony Fasano, suddenly became an impact player on short yardage situations in '08.

The bottom line is Miami doesn't have a wide receiver who can rely on his size.  Rumor is that Ted Ginn has bulked up a lot.  That is a start to the remedy.  Fantasy owners should expect a lot of touches out of Brown and Fasano this year.  Defensively, Miami's first and late-second round picks in DBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith should not be ready to start yet this season, but given the short chain that Jason Allen is on, who really knows.  Vontae Davis was a turnover specialist at Illinois with 'grade A' speed, and Sean Smith (who they're projecting now will likely compete for the SS job) is a known rushing cog.  It may not be long until we see these guys.  Former New York Giants, CB Will Allen and FS Gibril Wilson, are reprising their 2008 starting roles.  Miami's 3-4 front-seven is still anchored by LBs Joey Porter and Akin Ayodele.  Channing Crowder's 113 tackles alongside Porter were much appreciated last year, as he continues his ascent to the league's elite.

The focal point for opposing offenses will be defensive ends, Kendall Langford and Phillip Merling, who combined for under 60 tackles and just three sacks, to boot, in '08 during off-starter duty.  After last season's frequent spell time on the bench and modest stats compared to his last full season in '06, many think NT Jason Ferguson left his best days in Dallas.  Optimists just say he was still recovering from that torn right bicep he sustained in 2007.  We'll see what happens this season.  All in all, Miami has the same advantages on their side (dynamic running game; staunch run defense supported by vicious linebacker core; fine special teams) that could plausibly dictate another 11-win season and playoff appearance.  However, a tough schedule (something all division winners have to accommodate) and a noticeably improved division around them make the Dolphins one of the tougher teams to project this season.

So the AFC East is loaded with talent once again this year.  It's quite likely that the teams will all hold each other down in the Wild Card race.  It really depends on the other divisions.  The elite team here should isolate itself with at least 11 wins again, while the others will have to watch, à la New England last year, and hope there are enough upsets in the other AFC ranks.  The South, North and West all seem to have rented their mules (Jax, Cin/Cle, and Den/Oak, respectively).  This is glaringly not so the case in the East.  Therefore, for the four teams competing here, consider this the NFL pre-1970... no wild card option and no cushion in your schedule.  Win your division, or else, leave your future up to chance.

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