NFL Division Preview: AFC East Has New Faces, Same Outlook

New England 11-5
Miami 10-6
New York 8-8
Buffalo 7-9

Daunte, Kevan and Junior. Welcome to the new and vastly improved AFC East, the division of lasting decisions. In all there were about 40 changes from teams in this division alone; however, the last name on the list may surprise you, considering Junior Seau spent the majority of his pro ball with the San Diego Chargers and was contemplating retirement. But this tidbit of information may not: Junior’s a-huntin’ for a ring. It’s the one piece of hardware (and there aren’t many left) that has eluded him all these seasons. Get the ring and the rest will take care of itself.

Not so fast. New England is not the team they once were and the shopping of wide receiver Deion Branch just further illustrates how different the AFC East – and the Patriots – will be. Then the Patriots took the field in the preseason and in the first two games scored almost 100 and allowed only 30. Then they capped the preseason by losing 31-23 to the Giants after obliterating Arizona 30-3 and the Redskins 41-0. At times Tom Brady looked more like the player of old than the player undergoing some scrutiny related to a certain Barry Bonds issue. So having Branch is a non-issue and the Pats look like they’ll return to the Super Bowl, right?

Not so fast. Miami seems to have had a resurgence with the arrival of Daunte Culpepper in the off season, however no matter how you cut it the loss of Ricky Williams will hurt the team. The good news for the Dolphins, if there is any, is that Williams is now out for the season up north and so his next game will be in the NFL, though it will be next year provided he stays clean. And the Dolphins retained most of their starters on both sides of the ball, which is lots more than what can be said for the Buffalo Bills and definitely the New York Jets, the one team probably hit hardest and helped the most by free agency.

For the Jets, the defection of Herm Edwards to the Kansas City Chiefs, in which several of his players and coaches went provides a looking glass into what season the team will have. It is a retooling year in every sense of the word, complete with a just completed quarterback controversy (after much ado, Chad Pennington got the nod), new coaching staff and old knee injury to their top running back, Curtis Martin.

And Buffalo is still a team in turmoil, though signs seem to be pointing up from last year. The Bills brought on Marv Levy in a consultant’s role. No matter, though because the Patriots are still the team to beat in the East, and there doesn’t seem to be anybody who can stop them from repeating as division champs. The Bills are about two years away.

NEW ENGLAND (10-6 last year, AFC East Champions)
OFFENSE
Manning the helm for his 7th season is Tom Brady, the effusive signal-caller with the Nor-Cal attitude and laid-back, however pinpoint delivery (twice as many TD’s as interceptions in his career). Brady looks to have a stocked cupboard once again, though the imminent departure of Deion Branch, one-time Super Bowl MVP at wide out, will hurt down the road, particularly in the playoffs, if Branch in fact gets his comeuppance. If not look for Branch to play the final six games of the season, just to get higher market value in the offseason. If Brady goes down, backup Matt Cassel is more than capable of doing a good job. At running back the Pats look set as usual, as Corey Dillon again looks to have a Pro Bowl season and rush for more than 1,000 yards. Wide receiver is the key question in Foxboro, with Reche Caldwell the new acquisition for Tim Dwight and Branch’s season currently in question. Tight end Daniel Graham shores up an impressive lineup, with heir apparent Ben Watson ready to do battle if Graham can’t go for any reason. The O-line is ready to go, too, suffering few defections. If all goes well, look for New England to challenge deep into the playoffs and possibly the conference title. If the Pats don’t, it will still be close because it could be argued that the AFC East is among the weaker divisions in the league and a subpar Pats offense may equal a division title.

DEFENSE
Just when you thought you had heard everything, along comes the news that Junior Seau, a certain Hall of Fame linebacker during his days in San Diego, is here. What’s next? Emmitt is returning to the Dallas Cowboys? Well, Smith did go to Arizona before his retirement and this is Seau’s third stop on the “Huntin for a Super Bowl Tour”. Couple that with Tedy Bruschi’s return to the linebacker spot after a life-threatening stroke and you have a recipe for pain, mainly to other teams that choose to run up the middle. But that’s not all, run outside and you will see Roosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel (11.5 sacks between them in ’05) Not only does New England’s D look healthier than it’s ever been but it seems to have added players in the places where they had some concerns. The D-line looks solid as usual, anchored by Richard Seymour. The only question mark actually happened 10 months ago when defensive back Rodney Harrison went down with a season-ending knee injury. This event could curtail the Pats’ quest for another ring, though it’s possible-though not likely-that Harrison could be back in time for the season opener though a timetable has not been set for his return.

SPECIAL TEAMS
One big piece to the Pats’ puzzle was removed when kicker Adam Vinatieri bolted for the warmer indoor climes of Indianapolis, leaving draft pick Stephen Gostkowski. But the other pieces to the puzzle remain, including punter Josh Miller and return specialist Troy Brown.

IN SUM
The Patriot bus keeps rolling right along and they should only have difficulty with Miami in their division. Though the division race will likely not be decided until the last two games of the season there is no reason to believe New England will not be standing tall in ’07. In fact, the additions of Junior Seau and Tedy Bruschi’s recovery will probably bolster an already impressive defensive line. They are also blessed with a tough first half of the schedule followed by one cream puff after another in the second half. But they will be derailed in the division playoffs as Indianapolis looks far too good at this point.
PREDICTION: 11-5, AFC East Champions

MIAMI (9-7 last year, 2nd AFC East)
OFFENSE
Anytime you bring in a player like Daunte Culpepper, there is cause to celebrate. But before you start waving the Dolphins flag, keep one thing in mind: Injuries always seem to get the best of this team. If Culpepper can avoid the injury bug unlike so many of his Dolphins’ quarterback predecessors, then a case can be made for Miami’s ascent to the NFL elite. However, when you look at the most important part of any Nick Saban attack (the run), sophomore Ronnie Brown is the starter though Ricky Williams was the reason the Fish got so many red zone opportunities (second and third-chance) in the last six games of the season. They also have a new fullback since the contract of Fred Beasley was terminated. With Williams out until next year, the Dolphins will rely on a pass-heavy arsenal that is as good as advertised. The Fish wideouts are good and it will be downright frightening to see what Chris Chambers and Marty Booker can do with Culpepper firing howitzers in their direction. Though Booker had a somewhat disappointing second season in a Miami uniform, adding Daunte may be the medicine the Fins need. Tight end is always reliable in Miami and Randy McMichael will again be called on to snag passes down the middle, as Miami looks to stretch defenses out. The O-line is intact, so off Daunte will go on naked bootlegs and designed quarterback draws.

DEFENSE
Perhaps the best defensive line in the league belongs to the Dolphins, who boast Kevin Carter and Jason Taylor on the ends while Vonnie Holliday and Keith Traylor apply pressure inside. And though the rest of the defensive lineup is unheralded, other than middle linebacker Zach Thomas, the lineup is intact. What this means for opposing offenses is that Miami is a seasoned team ready to take the next step despite not having a bunch of big names and flashy players.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Olindo Mare is back and that’s more good news for a team that has already had more thus far in the season than the Pats. With a wicked 83.5 % accuracy on field goals and letter perfect connectivity on PATs, Mare is the man in Miami. Add to that a good and steady performance from punter Donnie Jones (43.5 yards per punt) and it looks like Miami starts right where they left off, contending for some hardware.

IN SUM
While the Fins may be one year away from contending for a Super Bowl, they will improve on their 9-7 record by one game, thanks to a pudding-soft center of schedule (Kansas City, Minnesota and Detroit) which will bolster their record by the time they tackle the end of the slate, filled with a not-so glorious trip to Indianapolis. If New England falters at all and it could happen, given the defections and injuries to their already depleted squad, Miami is the kind of team, unheralded though they are, to step in and take the division by storm. But New England is still the team to beat in the east, though this race could come down to the final game of the season. That said, Miami is not the team that anybody will want to play come playoff time.
PREDICTION: 10-6, AFC Wildcard

NEW YORK JETS (4-12 last season, 4th AFC East)
OFFENSE
The Jets offense was downright offensive last year, chalking up a not-so impressive 240 points in 16 games. Chad Pennington fought a rotator cuff injury all year and was not stellar in three games, throwing for more interceptions (3) than touchdowns, a real surprise considering Chad’s 2-1 touchdown to interception ratio. But that’s not where the Jets threw everyone off. First off was Herm Edwards departure to Kansas City to accept that coaching job followed by the roller coaster effect that coaching changes have on an offense. Pretty soon, it looked like the only thing for New York would be to retool the whole thing and hope for some help via free agency. But something strange happened in the offseason; the Jets started making deals from every backlot and office. Soon after that the Jets had acquired Patrick Ramsey from the Washington Redskins, leading believers in Chad to believe that the big P was on his way out. If you know anything about Chad, it’s that A. he is beloved in the Big Apple and B. he is a very intelligent guy. So what does he say about the Ramsey trade? That’s right, he’ll help in any way he can and that he’s behind Patrick 100 percent, which isn’t far from his 62 percent career completion percentage. And just when Jets fans thought things couldn’t get more weird, along comes the news that Tim Dwight is bolting the Patriots for NYC. (We’ll get to the mass free agents on the D-side later in the article.) Also to recap, the Jets do not officially have a depth chart at this time, however this writer will do his best to provide you, the reader, with one, since it’s what is good. And Laveranues Coles has been good at wide receiver, but not that good (845 yards in ’05). Couple him with the other colorful name in the lineup, and that’s Jerricho Cotchery and you have a team that nobody really knows about. This is what could surprise teams, because with the recent addition of running back Kevan Barlow and the admission that Curtis Martin may actually be on his way back from the physically unable to perform squad to the first string, you get the feeling that new head coach and former Pats defensive mastermind Eric Mangini is playing his cards close to the chest. But don’t worry Jets fans, once again you have no serviceable tight end and two green O-linemen, which is why the offense is a M-E-S-S, mess, mess, mess. That equates to E=MC2, or Pennington running for his dear life, per usual. Which frankly is no different from Vinny or Brooky (Testaverde or Bollinger, two QB’s sent packing in a busy offseason) doing the same thing last year.

DEFENSE
If there were only more space per line in which to write about the many defections and additions for the defensive line of the Jets, one could argue for more pay per column inch. Because that’s precisely what it would take for one to notate all of the wheelings and dealings on D. Though the Jets are going to be in a 3-4 defense, it may be more prudent for them to think about playing a 3-8, since they have enough depth at defensive back to cover two or three NFL teams at one time. Unfortunately that would lead opponents to run up the middle more often than they already do (foes gobbled up more than 2,000 yards on the ground and more than 5,000 total) and get more first downs (321 last year). And that’s when the Jets, who are sneaky like that, said adios to Ty Law and picked up Seahawk Andre Dyson. Then in came linebacker Brad Kassell from the Titans and just recently D-linemen Bobby Hamilton from the Raiders, C.J. Mosely from Minnesota and now Pats D-back Hank Poteat, giving credence to the 3-8 argument once again. In all seriousness the Jets nearly go three-deep in their defensive backfield and barely go two-deep at every other defensive position. This is a problem that will be exposed when the D-line parts like the Red Sea, allowing opposing running backs to think they have all day to run through, which they do until Dyson knocks them into the middle of next week, or the Jets’ 20 after they enjoy a wonderful 30-yard scamper.

SPECIAL TEAMS
The other Nuge, or Mike Nugent may not play a guitar or eat elk innards for breakfast but he sure can hit a field goal from 40 yards out (7-10 last year from that distance). He can also make good from 20-40 yards, which is why the Jets are going to make things interesting in a lot of games that they shouldn’t be competitive. And he’s automatic on PAT’s, too. Punter Ben Graham is effective and it’s very likely that Dwight will help the Jets return teams before the season is through.

IN SUM
This is a team that nobody can really fully understand. How effective will Pennington be after coming off of serious shoulder surgery? Is the addition of Kevan Barlow going to supplant C-Mart? Probably not for a season. Will Tim Dwight provide that much-needed offensive spark that the Jets have sorely missed? And finally, will the additions of D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold from the draft help New York quarterbacks from running for their lives all the time? On defense the Jets made so many changes it would literally take another page to notate and so suffice to say there were many, including Dyson and the not-so known announcement that Bryan Cox would be a defensive line coach. Hell, Cox would probably be able to come out of retirement and HELP the linebacking crew, which is about as useful as 12 defensive backs. But the reason the Jets will be in games is because they still have significant firepower on offense and there is every reason to believe Chad will right this ship. And Pennington is not somebody you would want to bet against. Even so, a brutal first half of the schedule filled with every team you would not want to play makes this season one full of beatings and then possibly bliss. Also add in the possibility of actually seeing a 3-8 alignment for the first time. That said, the Jets will have some surprises in store for their opponents and Mangini will figure out a way to beat a few teams (Green Bay, Chicago and Houston) in the latter portion of their schedule and just flat out beat Buffalo and Miami at home to make things interesting, a word that so aptly describes the offseason of the New York Jets.
PREDICTION: 8-8, 3rd AFC East

BUFFALO (5-11 last year, 3rd AFC East)
OFFENSE
It’s a season of firsts for the Buffalo Bills who arguably have as much talent as any other team in the division yet find a way year after year to botch it up. Things could be on the rise, however, with the addition of Dick Jauron as head coach and his subsequent nod to the almighty Marv Levy, who will fill the role of director of football operations. Even Bills legend Peerless Price has come back to lend a hand to a wide receiving corps that needs it. Levy, as you know, was the longtime coach of the Bills who led them to several Super Bowl appearances. It is only hoped if you are a Bills fan that Buffalo actually closes the deal and makes it all the way next time. Buffalo is like that girl you want to score with in high school but can’t seem to get the courage up to go for home plate. That is an apt description for this offense, which is now led by J.P. Losman (as many touchdowns as picks; 8 last year) when he supplanted last year’s starter Kelly Holcomb, in a duel. My guess is this duel is not over. Willis McGahee has the running back job as long as he wants it, but he is coming up on a contract year and so this may be the last hurrah in a Bills uniform. The A-Train Anthony Thomas is his backup, a Jauron fave since his days in Chi-Town. It’s likely that Thomas’ role in Buffalo is to serve as more of a mentor than a threat to McGahee. Fullback Daimon Shelton will never get you touchdowns, but his 260-pound frame will provide added security for both McGahee and the quarterback, whomever that may be. Next to the small-market viability of the team, in jeopardy until commissioner Paul Tagliabue came out in April to say the team would be relocated, the back line looks to be stable, along with the always capable wide receiving duo of Peerless Price, who is looking to regain his past Bills form after three seasons elsewhere and Lee Evans (7 TDs last year) with fourth-year man Josh Reed Price’s understudy. At tight end the Bills have picked up Redskin Robert Royal and hope he thrives in the way Jay Riemersma did. He certainly has the size of Riemersma and the capability to find the red zone. Probably the least worrisome area for the Bills is the offensive line, which nabbed Tutan Reyes and Melvin Fowler to help out an already depleted corps. The bad news is that if any of the starting five O-line goes down in a clump of navy blue and red it will be difficult for the Bills to have success on the ground or in the air, and that’s why the Bills will finish last in the division.

DEFENSE
Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay will anchor the D-line, while the inside will see two newcomers, Larry Triplett from Indianapolis and draft pick Kyle Williams. The linebacking team has the capability of greatness, however Takeo Spikes did not have the monster season he’s capable of due to injury in week 3, and London Fletcher took over in his absence. Angelo Crowell added three more sacks to the total, but this crew needs Spikes to regain his form in a hurry. The Bills defense will be on the field a lot longer than the offense and so it’s vital for them to be in sync. Also they are only one-deep in most spots and so one injury, like the one to Spikes last year, will decimate this crew. In the defensive backfield Nate Clements has seemed to step up and assume the role of leader, even stepping in the big shoes of Spikes last year as a team captain. The addition of Matt Bowen keeps the lineup one-deep, however, the D-backs have the same problem as the linebackers in terms of depth. It’s one and done.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Rian Lindell returns as the Bills kicker to reprise his role of savior. In two games last year Lindell accounted for all of the team’s scoring and his 83 percent kicking accuracy kept the Bills in games they should have been out of. Punter and Pro Bowler Brian Moorman is another bright spot for Buffalo, and there are more Pro Bowlers in special teams than any other group. Terrence McGee and Roscoe Parrish had a touchdown between them on punt and kickoff returns and long snapper Mike Schneck earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl.

IN SUM
The Buffalo Bills have made some wholesale changes in the offseason and were able to get Peerless Price back in a Buffalo uniform, which should help this team immensely. Adding Jauron, a defensive specialist and Levy to the mix should only add to the intrigue. But this team is still two years away from contending for the division title, mainly because New England is now in the twilight of their heyday and everyone else is waiting for their turn, particularly the Dolphins. While all of the pieces are being put into place for a run at it all, the Bills still need a quarterback who is capable of doing the kinds of things Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly did in their time here. It remains to be seen whether or not Losman is that guy; Holcomb will be looking over his shoulder all season. On defense and special teams the Bills are looking to erase a season that saw opponents scoring 371 points. But in the end the Bills have a brutal schedule that gives them no rest from week to week. The only weak part of the schedule comes from week 3 to week 7, in which Buffalo entertains the Jets and Minnesota and then embarks to Chicago and Detroit. After that it’s New England, followed by a bye week and a horrific second half of the schedule that has Green Bay, the Colts and a much improved Houston Texans team. But Buffalo will not be much worse than the Jets.
PREDICTION: 7-9, 4th AFC East

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