NFL 2011: Who Is the Favorite in the AFC East?

Mark David SmithCorrespondent IJuly 3, 2011

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 16:  Running back LaDainian Tomlinson #21 of the New York Jets walks with the ball after a play against the New England Patriots during their 2011 AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium on January 16, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

It’s a pretty simple question: who will win the East division in the AFC?

Well, if history tells us anything, the New England Patriots should win the division. Since 2002, the Pats have won seven division titles, only losing the tiebreaker to the Miami Dolphins in 2008.

Tom Brady is arguably the best quarterback in the league, and Bill Belichick might be one of the best head coaches in NFL history. Everyone not a Patriots fan hates him, but argue with the 101-27 record over the past eight seasons.

New England took a 14-2 record into the postseason last season but lost in the divisional round. The Patriots haven’t been clutch in the playoffs lately and haven’t won a Super Bowl since February 2005, when they won their third in four years.

The defense was better than expected last year, and no matter who Belichick puts on offense, Brady makes it work.

So the Patriots are the favorites. How great of a challenge will the rest of the division be?

The New York Jets have been one game away from the Super Bowl the past two postseasons. They finished second in the division both years but outlasted New England both times.

Head coach Rex Ryan hasn’t made any friends outside of New York with his press conferences and public appearances, but until New York is kept out of the playoffs, they have those bragging rights.

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 19:  Quarterback Chad Henne #7 of the Miami Dolphins is pressured by Linebacker Chris Kelsay #90 of the Buffalo Bills during a game at Sun Life Stadium on December 19, 2010 in Miami, Florida. The Bills defeated the Dolphins 17-14.  (P
Marc Serota/Getty Images

However, New York could potentially lose several key players once this lockout comes to an end. Wide receivers Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith are all unrestricted free agents, as are cornerback Antonio Cromartie and defensive end Shaun Ellis.

Not all of these players will leave New York, but Mark Sanchez will definitely have fewer playmakers to work with this season. This is a critical year for the quarterback out of USC, who has been underwhelming statistically as a starter. He finds ways to win close games (including two consecutive OT wins last year against the Lions and Browns) but might not be so lucky in 2011.

The Miami Dolphins aren’t expected to legitimately contend for the playoffs due to uncertainty at quarterback, running back and head coach.

Chad Henne really struggled last year, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams will most likely not return, and Tony Sparano has failed to recapture the magic of the 2008 season.

Let’s start with what the Dolphins have done right: defense.

Miami’s defense was ranked sixth in the league in yards per game in 2010, 10th in sacks and fourth in yards per play. They ranked in the top 10 in passing and rushing defense.

However, Miami was middle-of-the-league in scoring and ranked 28th in interceptions. The lack of clutch play when they needed it most was a killer for Miami’s young defense last season, and with more maturity and experience, this defense will become one of the best in the NFL.

On offense, Miami will have an improved line and a very good receiving corps. The team’s success depends on Chad Henne’s response to the critics and how well rookie Daniel Thomas can play as the feature back in new coordinator Brian Daboll’s offense.

The Buffalo Bills have had one winning season since 1999 and finished third or fourth in the division in 10 of the last 11 years. It’s gotten to the point where the Bills are just expected to be in the East basement.

While researching for information on the outlook for the 2011 Bills season, most of the articles I found centered on the new uniforms. They look good, not going to lie, but if that’s the best news the team has to promote…

The Bills haven’t had answers. They need time to work out problems and figure out strategies, and this lockout is really hurting them.

The Bills have seen a coaching carousel for a long time, with the latest addition being Dave Wannstedt as Assistant Head Coach to Chan Gailey. Of course, none of the coaches can work with their players due to the lockout.

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for more than 3,000 yards last year and 23 touchdowns. With three decent receivers in Roscoe Parrish, Lee Evans and Steve Johnson, the offense has potential.

However, the league’s worst rushing defense, ranked 24th overall, must improve drastically for Buffalo to finish above .500 in 2011.

My prediction: New England 11-5

Miami 9-7 (This one was tricky because the Dolphins' offense relies on Chad Henne's improvement. If Henne struggles, Miami finishes below .500. If he improves, expect 9 or 10 wins)

New York 9-7

Buffalo 6-10


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