Prior to 1996, the franchise known as the New England Patriots won the AFC East a total of three times. That's going all the way back to the Boston Patriots days (1960).
However, since 1996, the Patriots have owned the AFC East, finishing first 10 times in 15 seasons. In fact, they've won seven of the last eight. The only time they didn't was 2008, and they needed a Tom Brady ACL tear to make it happen.
Will anything change in 2011? Short answer: no. Too many weapons, too well-coached and too friendly of a schedule.
New England Patriots
When you have Chad Ochocinco, Deion Branch, Wes Welker and two solid tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski (they combined to score 16 touchdowns last year), you know some points will be put up. Enjoy it, people. This may be the closest thing to the spread offense we'll see in the NFL.
In the end, as long as Tom Brady is standing upright and hasn't traded in his love for football for fatherhood, the Patriots offense will continue to dominate. The only thing that can stop them is what has stopped them over the years. When they face a great front four (or the Lions' front four in the preseason), their offensive line can buckle and break.
Who will win the AFC East
While some people are praising the Albert Haynesworth pickup, I'm going to hold off. I hate this belief that because Randy Moss gave a crap for about a season-and-a-half as a Patriot, then all troubled players will do the same. Haynesworth is a piece of work who hasn't cared about football in years. Yes, blame Mike Shanahan, blame the 3-4 defense—whatever gets you through the day. I'm not buying it.
Anyhow, the Pats also got aging veteran Shaun Ellis from the Jets, but the one pick-up I actually do like is Andre Carter (11 sacks in 2009). Still, the Patriots defensive backfield is young and overrated, and a good quarterback can abuse it.
I actually think the Jets are the better, more balanced team, but the Patriots have the schedule gods on their side. New England gets San Diego, Dallas, the New York Giants and Indianapolis at home. The only tough road games are at Pittsburgh (after a bye) and a trip to Philadelphia in late November.
It really comes down to the younger players acting like veterans. First, there is no excuse for Shonn Greene to be losing carries to an aging LaDainian Tomlinson. Anything LT does, Greene should be able to do better at this point. More importantly, though, Mark Sanchez needs to continue to improve. He's still young (24 years old), but it's time for the coaching staff to let this kid breath and see what he can do.
Obviously having Santonio Holmes back for a second go-around helps, along with underrated Dustin Keller. Still, did the Jets make the right move by dumping Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery and Brad Smith for two wide receivers (Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason) whose combined age is 71 years?
The Jets pass rush was a major problem last year, so they said goodbye to Shaun Ellis, Jason Taylor and Vernon Gholston. All three had to go. Ellis and Taylor were just too damn old, and Gholston...well, he was one of the biggest busts in Jets history, and that's saying an awful lot.
Coming in they have two rookies: DE/DT Muhammad Wilkerson and nose tackle Kendrick Ellis. However, it's hard to imagine they'll really improve the pass rush this season. Look for the Jets to remain solid against the run to go along with their two elite cornerbacks, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie.
I really want to put the Jets ahead of the Patriots, but no team has a more brutal first seven weeks to the season. They should start the season 2-0, but a three-game road trip takes them to Oakland (the Jets have been known to struggle out west), then to Baltimore and New England (two Super Bowl contenders).
Within the next month, they take on San Diego and New England (again), although both are at home. After that, though, they should be the favorites in every game except for a road trip to Philadelphia.
Ryan Fitzgerald may not be sexy, and his arm strength leaves a lot to desire, but the kid did throw for over 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns last season in only 13 games. Not bad. Lee Evans is gone, but his best days were behind him. Steve Johnson should be a low-end first-tier receiver (for you fantasy lovers out there).
The problem with the Bills remains their offensive line. They weren't very good last season, and four of them are back this year. Not good. I suspect if the Bills start to pile up losses early, C.J. Spiller will begin to spell Fred Jackson a lot more.
Last year the Bills couldn't stop the run (30th in the league) and couldn't rush the passer (28th in sacks). That is why they passed on a quarterback in the first round to bring in defensive end Marcell Dareus. The rookie is a stud in waiting and could do some damage this year. In fact, he should be a preseason Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
Still, the Bills D isn't ready for prime time yet (losing Aaron Maybin certainly didn't help). The backfield was roughed up last year, although getting Terrence McGee back at cornerback will help.
There are just not enough pieces to do any damage. I can see them handling themselves against the less-than-steller foes at home (Oakland, Tennessee) and even winning some road games (Kansas City, Cincinnati, Miami, Denver), but this team also faces the Patriots and Jets twice, plus road trips to face the Giants and Cowboys.
Let's see, combine one of the league's worst quarterbacks with one of the league's worst offensive lines, and what could go wrong? Let's face it, the Chad Henne experiment should have ended last year, after he threw seven interceptions against the Bills, Browns and Lions D's. The fact is, even if Henne improved his decision making and accuracy, it's not like the line could protect him.
While the Fins did draft center Mike Pouncey to play on the offensive line with underrated Jake Long, that's it. Marc Colombo is a joke and Vernon Carey is coming off a knee injury. As for the running game, even if I thought Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas were better than Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams (I don't), there wouldn't be any holes to run through.
Luckily for the Dolphins, they return one of the better front sevens in the league. Paul Soliai, Kendall Langford and Randy Starks can stuff almost any running game, while Cameron Wake and Koa Misi should combine for 20-plus sacks this year as pass rushers in the Fins' 3-4 defense.
The defensive backfield has talent, but they tend to come up small during the big moments. If both Vontae Davis and Sean Smith could keep their heads in the game, they'd be dangerous.
It's going to be a rough year for the Dolphins. It's almost sad, isn't it? Four seasons ago, Bill Parcells showed up to save yet another franchise (this time as Executive Vice President). In one amazing turnaround, the Dolphins went from 1-15 to a playoff team in just one year.
However, the thing about Parcells is he doesn't stick around for long, and when he leaves, it isn't pretty (the rosters he leaves behind, that is). After this season, when the head coach and general manager are fired (two Parcells hires), the Parcells era will be officially closed in South Beach.
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