Shaun Ellis switching teams has shifted the balance of power in the AFC East
One of the premier divisions in all of football is the AFC East.
Since the NFL went to its current four-division per conference alignment, six AFC East teams have reached the Conference Championship Game, including four in the last five seasons. They have advanced three times to the Super Bowl and won it twice.
Only the NFC South has beaten that mark with seven appearances, three wins and two titles. The AFC North also has three Super Bowl appearances (all by New England) and two wins, but only four teams reached the conference title game.
Moreover, the New England Patriots have been the dominant regular season team over that span. They have four of the eight 14-win seasons, including an unbeaten season.
Of course, since earning a trip to the Super Bowl in that season over three years ago, they have no playoff wins. Meanwhile, their rival New York Jets have made the conference title game the past two years as a wild card.
No matter how dominant the Patriots have been in wins over the Jets, New York holds the top spot in the division for that success when it is needed most. But where will the teams finish the 2011 NFL regular season?
Expect Bill Belichick to refrain from smiling in public for the entire 2011 season.
Belichick won his first 10 playoff games with the persona of intensity and perfectionism that was at the very least contemptuous. But after getting just his third loss in eight playoff games, he softened his approach and that has led him to be seen smiling at least once in a season since.
Softer Bill has lost the next two, both on his home field. He will have something to prove this year, and he will not be alone.
Tom Brady has been more relaxed, even playful with the media. He will be a lot of intensely focused. In some ways, his legacy as a clutch performer is on the line.
After winning their first 10 together, they are a below average 4-5. But the fact that they now have three consecutive losses is what everyone will be focused on. Their last win coming in the season right after the Spygate scandal might even raise a few questions given their record before it was 12-2 and it is 2-3 after it.
Or maybe the players have aged more quickly than they could be replaced. In this case, Belichick might be off the hook, but Brady may not be. He has had the weapons in recent years, with receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker both making it as recently as 2009.
Not that Brady has not put up outstanding regular season numbers because of a symbiotic relationship with that talent. And he did unbelievably well (36 TDs, 4 picks, and a 111.0 passer rating) without that kind of talent in 2010. It was why he maintained the mantle of greatest in the game.
But he has one weakness: Any team that can generate pressure with a four-man rush against an unimpressive offensive line.
While there are not a lot of teams that can do this, they all make the playoffs. The Indianapolis Colts (2006 season), New York Giants (2007), Baltimore Ravens (2009) and New York Jets (2010) all had that ability, and handed the Patriots their last four playoff losses.
And that has shown in Brady's playoff production. His touchdown to interception ratio (30:16) is over 20 percent lower than in the regular season (261:103), and his passer rating is 10 percent lower (85.7 to 95.2). He has only six games with a passer rating of 100, and he has lost two home games to only three road wins; Brett Favre has three apiece.
Calling Brady and Belichick as among the best in the big games will be at least debatable if he suffers his third consecutive first-round loss. And with perhaps three other AFC teams in the five the Patriots will be competing with, as well as the likely NFC Champion, they might well face each of these teams this season.
So they had to take a risk. They acquired notorious malcontents Chad Johnson (he said he would change his name back if Darrelle Revis shut him down...one catch, nine yards, your name is Johnson) and Albert Haynesworth in the offseason, and neither may do more than platoon. That is playing with fire.
If it works, the Patriots actually improved from the team that had the best record in the NFL in 2010. And risks like that tend to work out in the disciplined, player-led atmosphere, and malfeasance is not tolerated.
Eventually slackers will return to form, as Randy Moss did in 2010, but it should work in 2011. Especially considering the Patriots added as much as they lost.
They replaced four defensive linemen for two better ones, including taking one of the Jets top linemen, Shaun Ellis. They added another for depth while upgrading their receiving corps slightly (Johnson for Alge Crumpler).
They lost a little depth on the offensive line, at linebacker and in the defensive backfield. That is at worst a wash, so they should win 12 games and the division. (Bodog.net has their over/under at 11.5 wins, with the payoff appropriately higher to take the under.)
The 2010 New York Jets were the latest team to find out you do not win titles in the offseason. I challenge anyone to find a team that has added even a few new starters in the offseason and won the Super Bowl.
Instead, the Jets got exactly as far as they had the previous season. That is because championship teams are greater than the sum of their parts.
It is standard for players to need a full season to get the most out of each other on the field. And teams that have that many holes to plug are often not ready to win it all yet.
To make matters worse, the Jets lost several more players than any other team in the division while adding about the same number as everyone else. Eight players who had major roles last season are gone, and only three impact players have taken their place.
The pressure of this team needing to get to the Super Bowl, in that city, with that much bravado, is staggering. But they still have a good enough team to do it.
It all rests on Mark Sanchez's shoulder...or right arm. If he grows enough from last year's 17 TD, 13 pick performance, he can make up for the losses elsewhere. And he will have to do it with two of his top three wide receivers different from last season.
Sanchez should be able to handle it, because he continues to get better.
Under his watch, the Jets improved from 9-7 in his rookie year to 10-6 in last season. A 19-13 (.594 winning percentage) career record for a team with a quarterback in his first two seasons is solid.
But he is 4-2 (.667) in the playoffs. He rises to the occasion with over a 100 passer rating in three of his six playoff starts. In both of his losses, he had over a 90 rating, so they were not his responsibility.
He improved by about 20 percent in passer rating from 2009 to 2010. If he makes that improvement this next season (about where he is in the playoffs), the Jets should win one more game again this season and get the top wild card spot. (Bodog.net confirms this, with an over/under of 10.5 games but the payoff weighted to encourage people to bet the over so there is a balance.)
The Miami Dolphins upgraded substantially on the offensive line, exchanged some starting talent for depth at linebacker, lost depth a quarterback and lost both their top two running backs.
Combine that with the lack of a single winning season looming over this team since the arrival of coach Tony Sparano and this has a chance of being a collapse year. He will definitely need to guide this team to eight wins, and probably nine, to keep his job.
That is going to be tough with the Jets and Patriots twice a year. But the Dolphins have been just a couple plays away from a winning season, and they will be competitive again.
They still have a solid defense and the improved line should help their offense almost as much as the loss of running backs. Because they have had a number of quality games over the past two seasons to draw from, they may be more prepared mentally early in the season.
If a collapse is coming, it will not be until they are out of the running for the playoffs in December. Because they are better at quarterback than Buffalo, they should finish third in the division.
Bodog.net has the Dolphins over/under at 7.5 wins with the payoff lower for under because that is where more people will bet. Expect them to finish close enough for Sporano to make it through the season, but not to keep his job in 2012.
As a Packers fan, I can tell you three things about new Buffalo Bills linebacker Nick Barnett: He struggles to shake blocking, is injury-prone and overruns plays.
However, he is incredibly fast and a sure open-field tackler. He has big-play ability, plays best in a 4-3 defense and if healthy, he is worth the loss of three depth linebackers for the Bills.
The Bills were scorched through the air and lost two defensive backs they lack the talent to replace. But they also upgraded their defensive line considerably and their receiving corps, special teams and even quarterback by adding Brad Smith (an upgrade over Brian Brohm under center) and Tyler Thigpen.
There are only two problems:
1. Buffalo has no legitimate starting quarterback, the one position of most need in the NFL. The fact that Thigpen can even compete for the starting job tells us all we need to know about how bad their talent at that position is.
2. They play in the toughest division in football. They get the second-worst division (AFC West) for four more games, but play a solid NFC East for four more. Their schedule rounds out with games over a weak Cincinnati team, but also a strong Tennessee squad.
They have a legitimate chance to overthrow Miami and take third place, but I do not have them doing it. They are likely finishing with double-digit losses again this season, and Bodog,net appropriately has their over/under at 5.5 wins--take the under only because of the potential for injuries.
Then Nick Barnett has a chance to return to Southern California to play the rest of his career, because this will not help Buffalo support and keep this team from relocating to a more financially viable Los Angeles.