AFC East preview: This division stands Pat. Again

AFC
The New England Patriots have won the AFC East in eight of the past nine years.

The one year they didn’t was 2008 — when QB Tom Brady blew out his left knee.

Brady’s back again, and better than ever at age 35. There’s no reason to think the Patriots won’t make it 9-out-of-10 in 2012.

Especially because the Pats didn’t stand pat.

To one of the NFL’s most dangerous offences (428 ypg), Bill Belichick added a legit downfield WR threat, Brandon Lloyd.

To one of the NFL’s most porous defences, he moved up to draft a pair of dangerous edge pass rushers, and added eight other defenders via the draft and free agency.

The Buffalo Bills hope to end 13 years in the non-playoff wilderness, behind a talent infusion on defence (hello, Mario Williams!) and stability on offence.

The New York Jets’ circus would make the Ringling Bros. envious. Daily strife and Tebow mania soon will wear down this team.

The Miami Dolphins appear to be taking 22 steps back before moving forward.
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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
LAST SEASON: 13-3, Super Bowl runnerup

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr., and his fiery competitive heart, and ridiculously accurate throwing arm … Brandon Lloyd, the free agent WR from St. Louis, should do what moping Randy Moss in 2010 wouldn’t, and confused Ochocinco in 2011 couldn’t — that is, add a vertical threat to the offensive attack … TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are now contractually locked up, and just beginning to tap into their versatile effectiveness … Wes Welker is back as the most prolific slot WR in the NFL … Rookies Chandler Jones (a 6-foot-5, 266-pound QB crusher) and LB Dont’a Hightower will become impact players the D sorely needs.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: The Pats might have the least effective DL in the division, and the secondary is still patchwork … BenJarvus Green-Ellis leaves a bigger hole at RB than many realize.

SNARKY QUESTION: Can the reworked, aging, rickety OL ably protect Brady for 16 games?

PREDICTION: 11-5. Most division games are gimmes, but this year’s sked might be a bit tougher than 2011′s.
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BUFFALO BILLS
LAST SEASON: 6-10, no playoffs

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Upgrade in talent on DL is “night and day” over 2011, DL coach Giff Smith told me. And a harassing DL makes entire D better, as well as the offence (shorter fields, fewer scoreboard deficits) … Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller might be NFL’s most dangerous multi-threat RB combo … QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was hurting big-time during Nov/Dec swoon, and key players around him were falling left and right.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Fitz’s critics might be right — that he already has hit his ceiling and that D coordinators are on to him … I stick by my pre-camp biggest question mark. To put it into an equation, a C and an RT not quite (or barely) back from injuries + a rookie LT who mostly played OG in college = trouble … Starting LBs … Which WR besides Stevie Johnson scares opposing secondaries?

SNARKY QUESTION: Does Western New York have the patience to wait yet another year for a playoff berth?

PREDICTION: 8-8. Better, but probably still a year away.

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NEW YORK JETS
LAST SEASON: 8-8, no playoffs

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Under Rex Ryan, the Jets always will win primarily because of their defence. He may have added another playmaking force to the DL in rookie Quinton Coples, who when his motor runs has made some impressive plays in the pre-season … There’s still (Darrelle) Revis Island in the secondary … Backup QB Tim Tebow — IF used effectively. Again, we predict OC Tony Sparano will use Tebow in some version of the zone-read, rather than the wildcat.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Seriously? You need me to fill this out? OK, for those who might have spent all of August inside arenas, taking your kids to power-skating clinics and rep tryouts, how about this. The Jets are a freakin’ traveling circus, on wobbly wagon wheels, whipping around a mountain-cliff road that has no guard rail. In freezing rain. For more info, Google TEBOW SANCHEZ SANTONIO REVIS REX.

SNARKY QUESTION: Does Jets brass really think the Sanchez/Tebow thing will work?

PREDICTION: 6-10. Could be worse if the wagon goes over the cliff sooner than later.

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MIAMI DOLPHINS
LAST SEASON: 6-10, no playoffs

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Well, the defensive front wall is good, led by re-signed NT Paul Soliai. It was the biggest factor in Miami’s late-season bounce-back from an 0-7 start … And that’s about it.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: So many … The Dolphins are starting a QB (Ryan Tannehill) who’s so raw, he was a college WR 23 months ago. Most draft analysts warned he shouldn’t start Game 1, yet here he is … The Dolphins traded away their best players on O (WR Brandon Marshall) and D (CB Vontae Davis) … They have no WRs of any note after Chad Johnson‘s off-field meltdown … New schemes everywhere … And new head coach Joe Philbin‘s no-nonsense approach seems to be going over like an experimental jet at a German air show.

SNARKY QUESTION: Why not just put Reggie Bush at QB in the wildcat on every snap?

PREDICTION: 4-12. It’s gonna take Philbin quite some time to create Green Bay South.

 

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