For a good number of years, New England sports fans have become accustomed to watching the Patriots sit comfortably atop the AFC East as their rivals scratch and claw attempting to play catch up and keep pace with the perennial favorites in Foxboro.
After quarterback Tom Brady went down with a knee injury in the first contest of 2008, the team fought its way to an admirable 11-5 record but was forced out of the playoff picture despite finishing a very respectable 4-2 against its divisional foes in a year that featured the resurgent Miami Dolphins, also 11-5, and the 9-7 New York Jets, who had Brett Favre at the controls.
Even the bottom feeding Buffalo Bills pulled out another 7-9 year with running back Marshawn Lynch giving fans on the East Coast’s frozen tundra hope for a sunnier future.
If you’d tried to convince most Bostonian sports fans that the Patriots would achieve the level of success that they eventually enjoyed with Brady getting knocked out against the Chiefs in Week One and Matt Cassel, a kid who hadn’t been a starter since high school, leading the charge to 11-5—yet no playoff berth, they’d have been willing to bet you a beer or two that you didn’t know a thing about NFL football.
Yet somehow that’s what happened. A valiant Patriots team proved that it was truly a tremendous unit by overcoming the loss of its keystone player and still got robbed of the chance for a run at another title that it really seemed to have earned.
For the Patriots to get a shot at another title in 2009, the team will again be forced to first elevate itself above a fairly interesting set of divisional rivals who themselves would appear to harbor as many questions as Brady’s surgically-repaired left knee.
From the Tuna’s Wildcat Dolphins circling in Miami, Buddy Ryan-bred Jets taking off in New York and Mr. You-Know-Who the big play wide receiver shuffling from Dallas into Buffalo, that might not be an easy task at all.
Quandaries and Quality
First order of business for the Pats will be reeling in the Fins, who somehow went from 1-15 pushovers to 11-5 division champions in 2008.
Of course, every New England fan is familiar with the formula at work in Miami as it remains at the roots of the Patriots’ own resurgence which began way back in 1993. Teams that Bill Parcells either coaches or assumes some management role over tend to be annual contenders.
And in classic Parcells fashion, the team pulled one of his old players, Jets castaway and notorious noodle arm Chad Pennington, off the scrap heap and somehow made it all work by cutting underperforming veterans and replacing them with younger or lesser known talents.
For kicks Parcells and first year coach Tony Sparano made the remarkable turnaround using an offensive scheme made popular 70 years ago which spurned Pennington on a good number of important snaps and instead delivered the ball directly to explosive running back Ronnie Brown, giving him an extra blocker upfront to run behind and the occasional opportunity to catch overloaded defenses with their pants down and throw a few surprisingly accurate passes.
On defense, former Steelers mouthpiece Joey Porter replaced longtime Dolphins greats Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor as the face of the unit and had a career year at age 31. You have to think if Keith Byars and Bryan Cox were available the Dolphins' brain trust might have been able to have made good use of them too.
But as impressive as the Dolphins were in 2008, any expert would have to openly question whether the team can reasonably expect to repeat or improve upon its’ year-ago performance.
After all, Pennington is still in charge of the offense and it truly remains to be seen if the Dolphins can continue to use the so-called “Wildcat” to perfection. To do so it must outsmart defensive gurus Bill Belichick in New England and newcomer Rex Ryan in New York twice each to win its games in the AFC East.
Brown was fantastic in 2008 but has had major injuries in the past and the team will need its defense to regain the form that had it ranked third overall in the NFL last year to have a chance of getting into the playoffs and advancing beyond the first round where they sputtered out against Ryan’s Ravens. For now, Parcells is still pulling the strings.
New York Jets
In New York, the Jets produced a solid if unspectacular season under departed coach Eric Mangini and the currently retired quarterback Brett Favre, who may have single-handedly destroyed the Patriots’ chance to squeeze into the 2008 playoffs with an abysmal performance in the Jet’s final game against Miami, in which he threw three interceptions, including a gruesome game sealer, and in doing so mathematically eliminated New England.
Under first-time head coach Ryan, son of legendary defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, the Jets are threatening to turn into the same type of attacking defensive-led squad as the Baltimore Ravens, where he served as defensive coordinator for three years before moving up the East Coast.
Following Ryan from Baltimore is linebacker Bart Scott, who will have to prove that he can lead on the defensive side, versus serve in the same complimentary role in which he shined alongside Pro Bowl teammates Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and a cast of other talented players in Baltimore.
On offense, the Jets have a litany of question marks that Ryan will need to address before the 2009 season even gets underway. The team will have to figure out how it can help Thomas Jones repeat his 1300-plus yard 13 TD season of 2008 that spearheaded the fourth best rushing game in the NFL—without Favre distracting defenses to help it do so and either the unproven Kellen Clemens or rookie Mark Sanchez taking over under center at quarterback.
But lest any New England fan forget, it was the Jets’ defeat of New England during OT in Week 11 that was one of the biggest drivers of the team’s inability to squeeze into the 2008 playoffs.
The Buffalo Bills haven’t had a winning season since 2004, yet somehow manage to win enough games each year, going 7-9 the last three seasons, to seem that they’re at least heading in the right direction.
In 2007, quarterback Trent Edwards was the new hope in Northern New York and Southern Toronto, and in 2008 it was running back Marshawn Lynch, who battered his way over the 1,000 yard mark and found the end zone on eight occasions.
Unfortunately, Lynch must first serve a three-game suspension for violating the league’s code of conduct in a gun incident, but that’s far from the biggest character story emerging in Buffalo.
Walking into Ralph Wilson Stadium is the league’s most enigmatic presence, superstar wideout Terrell Owens who is seeking to prove that after wearing out his welcome with an entire NFL franchise once again in Dallas, and acquiring a reputation for dropping important passes, he’s worth far more than the one-year $6.5 million deal that he inked with the Buffaloes.
Whether Edwards and Owens can produce the first .500 or better season seen in Buffalo in a long time is hard to predict, but fans in the town can’t feel too badly that they’ve got an extremely motivated T.O. on whom to pin their 2009 hopes.
Each team in the running for the 2009 AFC East title clearly has its own quirks and question marks, alongside some valid potential to win as many games as they lose, if not more.
For the Patriots to rise above the crowd and regain their place as a team that expects to play deep into the postseason, it will first have to take care of its home division to get there.