NFL Predictions 2011: Still a 2-Team Battle in the AFC East

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NFL Predictions 2011: Still a 2-Team Battle in the AFC East
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In a quarterback-driven league, it's no shocker that teams with great quarterbacks do well and the Patriots have certainly done well over the past decade.

The Patriots have had a winning season every year since 2001 and have won double-digit games every year during that span with the exception of 2002 (9-7). Although Patriots quarterback Tom Brady won his first 10 playoff games, which includes three Super Bowl victories, the Patriots and Brady have lost their past three postseason games and haven't won in the playoffs since their 18-0 start to the 2007 season.

On the other hand, the Jets have made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons under coach Rex Ryan and quarterback Mark Sanchez as Wildcard teams. Despite having to win on the road, they have reached the AFC Championship Game—but fallen short of their Super Bowl aspirations—both seasons.

Continuing his annual tradition, Ryan has made another Super Bowl prediction for the Jets. My guess is that he might do the same next year regardless of whether the team wins the Super Bowl this year.

So, who will win the AFC East in 2011?

Here are my 2011 NFL predictions for the AFC East (records in parenthesis):

1. New England Patriots (11-5): As mentioned above, it's a quarterback-driven league and Brady is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the starting quarterbacks in this division, Mark Sanchez (Jets), Chad Henne (Dolphins) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (Bills). Last season, Brady was nearly flawless from Week 7 on. From Week 7 to Week 17, Brady completed 65 percent of his 326 pass attempts for 2,697 yards while throwing 26 touchdowns and no interceptions. Heading into 2011, Wes Welker, who had three consecutive seasons with 110-plus receptions from 2007-2009, is another season removed from his torn ACL as the team adds Chad Ochocinco on the outside.

The Patriots have a much easier start and end to their schedule than the eight-game stretch in the middle. From October 9 to December 4, they face only one team that did not win double-digit games in 2010: Dallas. That said, the Cowboys had much more talent than their record indicated. Whether they finish first or second in the division will likely depend on how they weather the middle part of their season.

2. New York Jets (10-6): Is this the year that the Jets take that next step and get to the Super Bowl? The Jets have one of the league's best defenses and arguably the league's best defensive player in shutdown corner Darrelle Revis. Last year, the Jets allowed the third-fewest yards (291.5 per game) and sixth-fewest points (19.0 per game) in the NFL. In addition, they can run the ball although last year seemed disappointing in that regard. While they finished fourth in the NFL in rushing offense (148.4 yards per game), that was a year-over-year decline from 2009 when they led the league with 172.3 yards per game. For the team to take the next step, they will need more out of Mark Sanchez and their passing game after finishing in the bottom 10 in the league for two straight seasons.

3. Miami Dolphins (6-10): With Henne under center, the Dolphins will likely continue to rely on their ground game more than their passing attack. More than a seal of approval for Reggie Bush, however, the coaching staff's naming of Bush as their starter is more of a seal of disapproval of rookie Daniel Thomas, in my opinion. The Dolphins have a strong set of cornerbacks in Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, but they're not as good as the tandem of Revis and Antonio Cromartie regardless of what they claim. Either way, the Dolphins have one of the better defenses in the league. A key for the Dolphins will be to limit turnovers, especially down the stretch. Henne has thrown almost half (15) of his 33 career interceptions in the fourth quarter.

4. Buffalo Bills (6-10): Despite finishing in last place in 2010, the Bills played most teams tough during Weeks 7 to 15. Although they were 4-5 during that span, four of their five losses were by three points and three of those were in overtime. With a little bit of luck, their record could have been significantly better than 4-12 in 2010. By drafting Marcel Dareus with the third overall pick and locking up Kyle Williams with a long-term extension, defensive tackle is arguably the team's strength. That said, the team ranked dead last in rush defense (169.6 yards allowed per game) in 2010. While their offensive line is certainly not their strength, running back C.J. Spiller, their first-round pick (ninth overall) last year, has not looked anywhere near as impressive as his speed and big-play ability would suggest.

Bold prediction for the AFC East: Wes Welker, who had only 86 receptions in 2010, will lead the NFL in receptions and record his fourth season of 110-plus receptions in the past five years. Since Welker became a Patriot (2007), a receiver has reached 110 receptions seven times. Welker has three of them; four other players have one each.

Related:
- AFC East Team Schedules: Buffalo Bills | Miami Dolphins | New York Jets | New England Patriots
- Take our division-winner polls for all eight divisions and/or discuss Week 1 (and beyond) games in our NFL GameDay Forum

Before the start of the season (Thursday Night), we will release all of our division predictions in addition to our Super Bowl prediction, which will be posted in this centralized location.

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