When sizing up the AFC East for the upcoming season, one thing is clear: there is no overwhelming favorite.
In years past, the New England Patriots were penciled in as division champions before teams even kicked off training camp.
Not this year.
The Dolphins underwent a ten game improvement behind Bill Parcells, Tony Sparano, and former Jets' quarterback Chad Pennington, while the aforementioned Patriots are fresh off their first non-playoff season since that '02 campaign, not to mention they have a quarterback coming off major knee surgery.
Obviously there are questions to be answered.
The good ol' Buffalo Bills had some major juice injected into their offseason with the signing of WR Terrell Owens. He could be the missing piece for a team that started 2008 with a 5-1 record and seemed destined for a division title.
First thing's first though.
New England Patriots
While my allegiance is to the Jets, I'm not naive enough to think the Patriots will stink it up in 2009. Yes, they were on the outside looking in last postseason, but they did win 11 games with their backup quarterback.
This is still an extremely talented and well-coached team that rarely beats themselves. Throughout the Belichick era, their strength has always been the guys up front. New England was ranked fifth in total offense in 2008 and sixth in rushing yards.
On defense, they ranked tenth overall despite having a depleted secondary for most of the season. They also surrendered just 19.3 points per game, good for eighth in the NFL.
When Tom Brady went down in Week One, Matt Cassel gave the team more than they could have ever dreamt of—throwing for 3,693 yards, 21 touchdowns, and just 11 interceptions.
However, the one thing he failed to provide was the consistent threat of a deep passing attack. With Brady returning, New England looks to have that element back in their offense.
The Jets are a paltry 4-12 against the Patriots since 2001 mainly because they get manhandled in the trenches year in and year out, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Last year they seemed to have more success up front with the addition of Kris Jenkins. Now, mix in a little of Rex Ryan's aggressive, attacking style and the Jets just may have the formula to finally stop the Brady-led offense on a consistent basis—something they have failed to do during the quarterback's reign.
Offensively, we know the Jets will most likely be a bit more conservative than in years past with a less-experienced quarterback taking snaps.
However, if they manage to run the ball effectively against the likes of Seymour and Wilfork, then it's going to open up play-action and the down-field passing attack for whoever it calling signals.
Case in point: Week 11 of last season. The Jets ran for 140 yards as a team (104 for Thomas Jones), opening up the passing game for Favre (258 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs) en route to a 34-31 victory.
The Dolphins are probably the toughest team to gauge heading into the 2009 season. Mainly because most pundits believe '08 to be a fluke and the result of an easy schedule.
While I can't argue with the schedule theory, I can say that they were a solid football team last season and they will be even better this year.
For one thing, they have a winner at the quarterback position in Chad Pennington. Pennington has a career 43-35 record as a starter, rarely makes mistakes, and always seems to elevate the level of play around him.
The reason why they were so successful with him last season was that they knew his limitations and tailored the offense around what he does best. The implementation of the "Wildcat" was brilliant and kept defenses off balance all year.
Adding WR Pat White was a great pickup and instantly makes their offense more dynamic. He's a guy that can wear multiple hats on offense and take it the distance on any given play.
The selection of CB Vontae Davis in the first round addressed a big need for them as well—a legitimate number one cornerback. And, they also improved the offensive line by signing 6'4", 300-pound C Jake Grove to a three-year contract.
The Jets lost to the Dolphins in the final week of 2008 because they turned the ball over and failed to generate consistent pressure on Pennington. The key for next year (and in years to come) will be to create havoc on defense, especially with a rhythm passer like Pennington and the threat of the "Wildcat."
Rex Ryan's "organized chaos" will aim to do just that.
Things took a turn for the worse in 2008 when Trent Edwards left the team's Week Five game with a concussion.
At that point, the Bills were 4-0 and looking down on the rest of the AFC East. However, after Edwards went down, the team went on to lose that game and eight of their last 11.
Offensively, they really didn't have a guy that defensive coordinators had to plan for. Lee Evans and Marshawn Lynch are excellent players but they aren't as dynamic as, say, a Terrell Owens.
That's why GM Russ Brandon went out and signed the star receiver to a one-year deal. He's hoping Owens will command attention and open up opportunities for the rest of the offense.
Last year, the Bills were 25th in total offense and 22nd in passing.
The Patriots have Wilfork and Seymour, the Jets' middle is plugged by Kris Jenkins, and the Dolphins have Jason Ferguson and the emerging Philip Merling.
My point is that teams in this division are geared up to stop the run. So when that happens, you have to have some viable options to throw to.
With Owens, it now seems like the Bills have addressed that.
On defense, the Bills were ranked a respectable 14th in the NFL last season. They added talented rookie DE Aaron Maybin to a mix that already includes Aaron Schobel, Marcus Stroud, and Kawika Mitchell.
Even with the addition of Owens, the strength of this team under Dick Jauron (and even before that with Gregg Williams) has been their defense.
The Jets were picked off three times by the Bills' defense in two games last season, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Buffalo also returned a pick for a touchdown against Gang Green in 2007 and in 2006.
Like the Patriots, the Bills' defensive line has always been a bad match-up for Gang Green. Combine that with a talented, ball-hawking secondary and you get a "pick-six."
The Patriots, Dolphins and Bills are all better teams than they were last season.
But so are the Jets.
The Jets have four divisional games before their Week Nine bye, including two against Miami. This works in Gang Green's favor because opposing offenses will have less of a body of work to refer to when doing their film study.
With that said, the division will come down to who can get the opposing quarterback out of rhythm the most effectively.
Brady, Pennington and Edwards are all pocket passers who drop back, sit on a spot, and find the open receiver. The defense that can disrupt that timing the best on a consistent basis, will have the best chance at winning the division.
Yes, the Jets will have the least experienced quarterback in the division. However, they'll probably have the most mobile one. They also will not ask their quarterback (Sanchez or Clemens) to do as much with the coaches set on establishing strong rushing attack.
We saw what Rex Ryan's defense did to Chad Pennington twice last season, including the AFC Wild Card Game.
The year before, Ryan's boys nearly spoiled the Pats' perfect season, narrowing losing 27-24 in a Week 13 game. In that game, Tom Brady was just 18 for 38 with two touchdowns and an interception.
Jets' fans have to be confident that they are modeling their defense after a unit like Baltimore's—one that has a proven track record and one that carried a team and a rookie quarterback all the way to the AFC Championship game last season.
In a division that will be as closely contested as the AFC East, it could be the very thing that puts Gang Green over the top.