The 2011 NFL season is still four weeks away but it’s never too early to start making predictions about the upcoming season.
Last year, six of the eight divisions weren’t decided until the final two weeks of the season and the last three division winners weren’t crowned until the action was all over on Week 17.
The AFC East was not one of those competitive divisions. In fact, it was really a two-horse race between the New England Patriots and New York Jets. However New England ran away with the division in the second half of the season.
This season the AFC East intraconference schedule includes games against the AFC West and theinterconference schedule matches them with the NFC West.
Buffalo still looks to be a work in progress and Miami sports a solid defense but there is a lot of uncertainty on offense.
Conventional wisdom (or common sense) would tell you neither team has a chance to compete in this division. Except this is the NFL, where teams quite often go from the basement to the summit and vice versa in a single season.
Will either Buffalo or Miami be able to break through and cause a shakeup in the division? Or will we see a repeat of last year with New England and New York trading punches?
With that, here are my 2011 predictions for the first of eight NFL Divisions: the AFC East.
2010 Record: 4-12
Coach: Chan Gailey
Key Returners: Steve Johnson (WR), Drayton Florence (CB), Fred Jackson (RB), Ryan Fitzpatrick (QB)
Key Additions: Nick Barnett (LB), Tyler Thigpen (QB), Brad Smith (WR/KR)
The Buzz: The Buffalo Bills lost key defensive players Paul Posluszny, Marcus Stroud and Donte Whitner. While most teams might be up in arms about such departures the Bills shouldn’t shed a tear. The defense was terrible last season and ranked dead last against the run.
The offseason acquisitions of linebacker Nick Barnett and first-round draft pick defensive tackle Marcell Dareus are expected to fix that.
The Bills also hope to get quality production from Shawne Merriman. He is coming off of an Achilles injury but should be ready to go in week one.
Buffalo’s offense was equally as disappointing as its defense. The team ranked 28th in total offense but does return star wideout Steve Johnson who had a breakout season a year ago, in which he caught 82 passes for 1,072 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Ryan Fitzpatrick will be under center for the third straight year in Buffalo and C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson will give Buffalo a nice one-two punch at running back.
2011 Projection: All in all, Buffalo’s offense has many of the same faces as last year although it is hard to believe that Stevie Johnson will enjoy the same success he did a year ago. C.J. Spiller must stay healthy, and if he can, he and Jackson figure to be a handful for opposing defenses to deal with.
There are some serious questions for the defense. Merriman and Barnett are big name backers but both are coming off of injuries and appear to be on the downside of their careers.
The schedule doesn’t appear to do Buffalo any favors either. Bills fans should expect the team to miss the postseason for the 12th straight year and finish in the cellar of the AFC East once again.
2010 Record: 7-9
Coach: Tony Sparano
Key Returners: Brandon Marshall (WR), Takeo Spikes (LB), Yeremiah Bell (S), Cameron Wake (LB)
Key Additions: Reggie Bush (RB), Marc Colombo (OT), Kevin Burnett (LB)
The Buzz: South Beach was hot with rumors this summer. The Dolphins showed an interest in just about any QB whose last name wasn’t Henne.
Henne threw for over 3,000 yards last season but only managed 15 touchdowns against 19 interceptions. The pressure is on for the fourth-year signal caller.
The Dolphins didn’t appear to do Henne any favors by letting both Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams sign with other teams. Their replacements are rookie running back Daniel Thomas and former second-overall pick Reggie Bush.
Bush has been little more than a change of pace back and special teams’ player during his career. He also hasn’t proven to be very durable. The Dolphins will more than likely lean on Thomas to do most of the heavy lifting.
On the other side of the ball, Miami looks good. They return most of the starters from a defense that ranked sixth in total yards last season.
Led by linebackers Cameron Wake, Koa Misi and Karlos Dansby the Dolphins upgraded an already solid line backing core by adding Kevin Burnett from the Chargers. The defense will do their part to make sure 2011 is a successful campaign for the Dolphins.
2011 Projection: The Dolphins might have been a playoff team last year had they found a way to win more than one home game. The schedule this year is manageable, and they could contend for a wild card.
Still there is too much uncertainty in their offensive backfield to expect them to make the postseason this year. The Dolphins success will hinge largely on Henne’s development at quarterback and unproven rookie runner Daniel Thomas.
With serious offensive concerns and two teams in the division that are more talented, don’t expect Miami to win more than eight games.
2010 Record: 11-5
Coach: Rex Ryan
Key Returners: Mark Sanchez (QB), Bart Scott (LB), Derelle Revis (CB), Santonio Holmes (WR), Bryan Thomas (LB)
Key Additions: Plaxico Burress (WR), Derrick Mason (WR)
The Buzz: The Jets advanced to their second straight AFC Championship last year under Head Coach, Rex Ryan. The team has all the pieces in place to make another run at the Super Bowl this year.
Mark Sanchez enters year three with a chance to prove that he is more than merely “a guy” on a team with a stellar offensive line and a phenomenal defense.
The running back combination of Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson will power the offense once again, but Sanchez must raise his level of play to give the team some balance.
Braylon Edwards’s departure hurts, but Santonio Holmes should step in and fill the No. 1 spot receiver with no drop off. The biggest question is at the other receiver spot. Derrick Mason signed with the team but is at the end of his career.
The signing of Plaxico Burress could prove to be a steal for the Jets. He was the favorite target and go-to guy for Eli Manning, but that was over two years ago and before he was faced with a myriad of off-field problems.
The defense looks to be as strong as ever and will once again carry more than their share of the weight.
2011 Projection: Forget about all the hot air that Rex Ryan blows. He is one of the best coaches in the game today and finds a way to get the most out of his team.
The New England Patriots enter this season with the Jets right on their heels. New York showed last season in the playoffs that they can play with anyone and anywhere.
After two straight defeats in the AFC title game, one has to wonder if this team is destined for the Super Bowl or an epic slide. Mark Sanchez played well for most of last year but must continue to improve if his team hopes to get over the hump this season.
As long as the Jets stay healthy, they will once again find themselves in the mix at the top of the AFC.
2010 Record: 14-2
Coach: Bill Belichick
Key Additions: Shaun Ellis (DE), Albert Haynesworth (DT), Chad Ochocinco (WR)
The Buzz: In Week 9 of the 2010 NFL season, the Patriots were blown out by 20 points in Cleveland.
While most teams might’ve allowed the setback to cause a downward spiral, the Patriots used it as motivation and went on to win the final eight games of the regular season and finished with the league’s best record at 14-2.
This year the Patriots look to be as scary and as deep as ever. The offseason signings of Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco are the most publicized but might not necessarily be the biggest.
Along with Haynesworth, the Patriots snagged Shaun Ellis from the Jets. Add in Vince Wilfork and the Patriots have easily the best defensive front in the league.
The talent is there at linebacker, Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo should both have big years. The secondary is the weakest unit on defense but don’t tell cornerback Devin McCourty that.
As a rookie, McCourty had 82 tackles and seven interceptions. He should enjoy another stellar outing in year two.
2011 Projection: The Achilles heel of this team the past few seasons has been the run game, although last season the Pats finally found a runner they could rely on in BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
He is at the top of the depth chart to begin the season but is being pushed hard by rookie, Stevan Ridley. Ridley gives Brady a better pass catcher out of the backfield and could be used in a Kevin Faulk role.
The Patriots were the best team in football for most of last season but got bullied at home by their AFC East nemesis the New York Jets in the Divisional Playoffs. You have to know that doesn’t sit well with Bill Belichick or Tom Brady who’ve had a whole offseason to stew over it and plot their revenge.
Expect the Patriots to be where they are most years, at the top of the NFL.