We’re previewing all eight divisions in the NFL, one at a time, starting in the East and heading out West. First up is the AFC East.
New England Patriots (12-4)
Miami Dolphins (7-9)
Buffalo Bills (6-10)
New York Jets (6-10)
No one division in the NFL has been dominated by one team in recent memory like the AFC East. Not only have the Patriots won the last four division titles, but they’ve taken nine of the last ten, with only the 2008 Dolphins managing to tie them, the year Tom Brady went down in the very first game of the season. Teams have taken shots at the Brady/Belichick duo, but no one’s been able to dethrone them. Since Belichick took over in 2000, the Dolphins have had seven different head coaches, the Bills five, and the Jets four. The Patriots level of continuity and consistency is to be envied as they roll along, year after year, picking up double-digit win totals.
If that was going to ever change, wouldn’t it be this season? The Patriots have had one of the most turbulent offseasons in the history of the NFL, an offseason that would cripple most teams. Their receiving corps has been decimated, almost literally – two thirds of their receiving yards from last season went to players no longer with the team, and that’s not including Rob Gronkowski, who went under the knife multiple times. That sort of turnover just doesn’t happen – only nine times previously in NFL history have top quarterbacks lost more than half their receiving yards from season to season. Then, you have all the offseason turmoil caused by the arrest of Aaron Hernandez. That would be enough to sink most teams before they start.
The Patriots aren’t most teams.
If you were going to trust anyone in NFL History to break in a new receiving corps on the fly, it might well be Tom Brady. He’s been arguably the best quarterback in the NFL over the last three seasons, and shows very few signs of slowing down. Besides, there’s more than one unit on a football team, and the Patriots defense was showing some signs of improvement in the second half of last season. That improvement could get derailed by the offseason as Alfonzo Dennard found himself arrested. They have one of the better linebacking corps in the league with Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower – they’re stiff against the run, although overall weak against the pass.
But it’s certainly realistic to say that this is the most vulnerable the Patriots have been in years – someone just needs to step up and knock them down. Any takers?
The Jets are struggling for their life – you could have made quite a bit of money last season had you bet that the Jets would have reached double-digit losses and still employ Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez. The days when the Jets made back-to-back AFC Championship games seem like ancient history at this point, and they were absolutely gutted this offseason – out went nearly the entire coaching staff not named Ryan, out went Darrelle Revis, Bart Scott, Shonn Greene, Dustin Keller, Brandon Moore – a near complete house cleaning. Ryan’s only still on the roster to coach the defense, and that’s where any hopes the Jets and Ryan have for 2013 might rest. You can say whatever you want about Rex Ryan – and many people have – but the man knows how to coach defense. There’s some talent there, too – they used their first round pick on Dee Milliner, who looks like he could be a decent replacement for Revis in time, and they have Muhammad Wilkerson on the line, who I liked enough to name to my all-budget team. If there’s an improvement on defense, now that Rex is calling the plays again, it’ll have to be matched by an improvement at quarterback, and, as bad as Sanchez has been, he can’t be that bad again, right? If he is, surely Geno Smith can step in and provide a little bit extra quality? I don’t know; I think the team might be able to get to .500, which might save Ryan’s job, but challenging the Patriots? I don’t see it this year. They might rise above mediocre status and challenge for a wildcard in a weak AFC – but that’s only if everything clicks.
The Bills are on their fourth new regime in the past decade, and this time, they swear, they have it right. They have a hot young college coach in Doug Marrone out of Syracuse, they have a first round quarterback in EJ Manuel, and they’re ready to go to work. Bills fans can be excused for having heard this before. Every few years they bring in a new coach with a new philosophy and a new quarterback, and proceed to be … about as good as the team was the season before. They haven’t had a winning season since 2004, and no playoff berth this millennium, and so they bring in yet another new coach and quarterback combo. The most frustrating thing for Bills fans has to be that they are doing everything right – they’re replacing players when they need to, they’re willing to start from scratch, but still they end up stuck in this rut. Is it just over-optimism to hope that this time everything’s fallen into place? It won’t be this year, for sure – Manuel’s selection in the first round was stunning, simply because he needs time to develop. He’s either going to be thrown in the fire from the beginning or sit behind Kevin Kolb, who isn’t going to lead them to the promised land either. As good as C.J. Spiller is, he isn’t enough to run the Patriots down all by his lonesome, and there’s just not enough experience on the offense to let the Bills be serious challengers this season.
That leaves us with the Dolphins, who decided to try to beat the Patriots with large amounts of cash – leading them to make the splash of the offseason by bringing in Mike Wallace. $60 million over five years is quite the contract for a receiver who fell under 900 yards and 70 receptions last season, but they wanted to give Ryan Tannehill a top-tier quality weapon, and Wallace certainly was that in 2010 and 2011. I’m expecting a bounceback in his production, but that’s going to be a little offset by the difference between Ben Roethlisberger and Tannehill. I expect him to get back over 1000 yards though, and his catch rate to rebound from the 54 percent he put up last season, significantly below his career average. Still, he won’t reach his averages because of the quarterback situation. A football team isn’t just one player and signing Wallace had repercussions on the rest of the team – notably, the inability to resign Jake Long. The offensive line will be shuffled this season, which isn’t a word you want to hear associated with the guys protecting your quarterback. I’m not sure that Jonathan Martin is ready to slide into left tackle, and I’m pretty sure “Richie Incognito” is actually the anthropomorphic incarnation of a sack, as opposed to an offensive guard. Can Tannehill improve enough to offset that decline? I’m not sure. I also question the defensive line – Dion Jordan’s college numbers were actually quite disappointing, though he excelled at the combine, so his high draft choice has to bring with it several question marks, especially in a 4-3 defense. They’re gambling on him living up to his performance in the workout room, which is always a risky proposition. No, I see too many question marks to reserve a ticket on the Dolphins bandwagon this season.
The AFC East might end up being the most boring division race this season. No, none of the teams in it are liable to be absolutely horrible – though you never know when you’re throwing inexperienced quarterbacks into the fray. The Patriots, by luck or design, have their biggest weakness – pass defense – up against a trio of quarterbacks that don’t strike fear into opposing teams’ hearts. They are working in a new receiving corps while two of their three opponents are actively rebuilding, and the fourth is still working their way up to the top level. Brady and Belichick have dominated the AFC East for years, and I don’t see that changing this season.