Once among the toughest divisions in the league, the AFC East meandered in mediocrity last year. The division’s perennial powerhouse Patriots found themselves without their star. The New York Jets and Buffalo Bills struggled to stay above .500. It all allowed the Miami Dolphins to sneak to the top by a freak set of circumstances.
Despite three out of the four teams improving their lineups for 2009, the AFC East boasts the NFL’s toughest schedules this season, once again keeping it from fielding two playoff teams.
New England Patriots (12-4)
Love him or hate him, Bill Belichick has built a winning system. His machine gets back its most productive cog this season—Tom Brady. Leg surgery and the worries of fatherhood will prevent him from returning to full glory but Brady will remain one of the league’s elite.
Running back Lawrence Maroney also returns following a season-ending shoulder injury. That won’t pose a problem since the addition of the NFL’s 11th all-time leading rusher, Fred Taylor, will help take the load off of Maroney.
Along with the constantly reliable Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris, Maroney will return to his 2006/2007 game-breaking form, making New England’s offense the envy of the league once again.
The Patriots’ defense grew a little younger in the offseason after losing Mike Vrabel and Deltha O’Neal. Solid second round draft picks Patrick Chung, Ron Brace, and Darius Butler add further youth to a perennially old lineup.
Belichick’s ability to make pro bowlers out of nobodies makes this defense even better than last year’s. Look for New England to return to the top of the AFC East.
Miami Dolphins (9-7)
The Dolphins overachieved last year. Miami won’t bottom out in 2009 but the team’s record will be more indicative of their talent level. The injury-prone Chad Pennington put up some of his best numbers last season but won’t have the same MVP-caliber performance.
Besides turning 33 before the season begins, Miami did little to improve Pennington’s already lackluster selection of targets. Pat White, the first wide receiver the Dolphins chose in the draft, played quarterback in college. His viability as an NFL receiver is questionable at best.
Miami tried to shore up its 25th ranked passing defense by drafting CB Vontae Davis, signing Gibril Wilson, and re-signing leading tackler Yeremiah Bell. Davis though merely fills the gap left by the departure of Andre’ Goodman. Without any other key impact player additions (a 34-year-old, post-Dancing With The Stars Jason Taylor does not count), don’t look for much improvement from the Dolphins’ defense.
Tony Sparano and Bill Parcells proved to be a match made in heaven, as did the dynamic backfield of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams in 2008. Those strengths will keep the Dolphins in the playoff hunt late into the season before being eliminated by Pittsburgh in the final week.
Parcells’ notorious intolerance for failure will motivate him to make a big splash in the offseason and put the team back into the playoffs for 2010.
New York Jets (5-11)
While Brett Favre was the only reason the Jets were even mentioned in the playoff race last season, he was also the main reason New York failed to make the postseason. Favre never posted a quarterback rating over 62 during New York’s four out of five losses to end the season. His surprise addition also allowed the Jets to avoid rebuilding. There’s no escaping that reality in 2009.
Rex Ryan did good work in Baltimore but must deal with a monumental challenge in New York. His defense lacks leadership. His running back, Thomas Jones, turns 30. Worst of all, Ryan must deal with an overrated rookie quarterback who will be forced onto the field long before he is ready. Add all that to the aforementioned schedule and the Jets will find themselves near the bottom of the league and the top of the draft in 2010.
So where does this leave the Buffalo Bills? Out of the playoffs for the tenth straight season. Their record will improve to 9-7, largely on the back of Terrell Owens, their two-pronged running attack, and the definitive emergence of Trent Edwards as a solid, starting quarterback.
A weak offensive line, an inability to stop the run up front, and the possible emergence of a weak secondary will continue to plague the team.
The record will be enough for Dick Jauron to keep his job despite more questionable play calling. That means the team will pass on Jim Haslett—a hometown hero who has publicly said he wishes to return to Buffalo.
It will also keep the team out of the Bill Cowher sweepstakes, a man who built his career on a philosophy that historically mirrors the Bills’ own—a blue collar, run first, defensive powerhouse in a smaller, cold, blue collar city.
The move away from those values signifies a much deeper problem for a team that faces the possibility of relocation. Whether the T.O. Show and an improved record—but still playoff-less year—is enough to keep one of the AFL’s original franchises in its home city remains to be seen.
All statistics courtesy of NFL.com, buffalobills.com, and ESPN.com