The AFC East is all about the New England Patriots and the New York Jets. Since the arrival of Rex Ryan in New York, the Patriots/Jets rivalry has become one of the best in the NFL. The past two seasons the Patriots have been AFC East champs but then folded at home in the playoffs. The Jets have stepped up when it matters most, winning four road games in the last two years in the playoffs. The Miami Dolphins were one of the best road teams in the league, going 6-2. Unfortunately, they went 1-7 at home and put Tony Sparano on the hot seat. The Buffalo Bills remained irrelevant but at least showed some spunk on offense behind Ryan Fitzpatrick and Steve Johnson.
1. New England Patriots
2010 Record: 14-2, 1st place AFC East Head Coach: Bill Belichick (12th season New England, 177-100 career)
Key Additions: OL Nate Solder, QB Ryan Mallett, WR Chad Ochocinco, DL Albert Haynesworth, DE Shaun Ellis
Key Losses: TE Alge Crumpler, OL Nick Kaczur, DE Ty Warren, DE Tully Banta-Cain, S Brandon Meriweather
2011 Outlook: The Patriots enter the 2011 season with something to prove. Once known for their consistency in the postseason, they have lost their last two home playoff games and haven't won a playoff game since 2008. The Patriots made some high profile moves this off-season with two players that have some character concerns. Those players would be WR Chad Ochocinco and DL Albert Haynesworth. The Patriots have been successful in the past on some questionable players, including Randy Moss and Corey Dillon. Ochocinco and Belichick have always been friendly so as long as he can still produce that shouldn't be a problem. With Haynesworth it is always a question of motivation, and it remains to be seen if the Haynesworth that we saw in his contract year will come out to play in New England. QB Tom Brady is coming off another outstanding season, throwing 36 TDs to just 4 INTs. Those numbers are already amazing but are even more amazing when you look at who the Patriots have at RB to throw off defenses. They have some talented guys, in Ben Jarvis Green-Ellis, and Danny Woodhead but no one that really scares a defense and would make them focus on the Patriots ground game. Even his wide receivers aren't all world, led by Deion Branch and Wes Welker. That being said, the Patriots do have a two headed monster at tight end with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. One major area of weakness last season was the Patriots pass defense, which finished 30th in the league. The Patriots jettisoned Brandon Meriweather. Meriweather struggled last season and only made the Pro Bowl because the Pro Bowl means absolute crap these days. That means a bigger role for Patrick Chung who was decent but inconsistent last season. The Patriots are hoping that teaming Haynesworth with Vincent Wilfork will take some pressure off of the secondary. If anything is to stop the Patriots from another dominating season and then playoff success it is the questions surrounding the defense. That will be the area to watch and the key to Patriots season.
2. New York Jets
2010 Record: 11-5, 2nd place AFC East
Head Coach: Rex Ryan (3rd season New York, 24-14 career)
Key Additions: DL Muhammad Wilkerson, WR Plaxico Burress, WR Derrick Mason Key Losses: WR Jericho Cotchery, WR Braylon Edwards, RT Damien Woody, FB Tony Richardson, WR/KR Brad Smith, P Steve Weatherford, CB Drew Coleman, DE Shaun Ellis, NT Kris Jenkins, LB Jason Taylor
2011 Outlook: The Jets haven't quite been the circus this off-season that they were last off-season. Most of their free agent signings were not huge headline grabbers, although the pickup of Plaxico Burress certainly qualifies. Despite that, the expectations remain high and its another Super Bowl or bust mentality for Rex Ryan. This is the season where we find out if QB Mark Sanchez can become good or if he is merely an average QB riding the coat tails of a talented team. Last season RBs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson ended up sharing most of the carries. The scuttlebutt coming out of New York this season is that Tomlinson will be more of a third down back and Greene will take a more prominent role. The wide receivers will be different. Santonio Holmes re-signed, but Burress and Derrick Mason replace Braylon Edwards and Jericho Cotchery. It remains to be seen if Burress can pick up right where he left off, and also whether Mason can continue to be productive despite being an old man. Dustin Keller has been a good security blanket at TE for Sanchez and that doesn't figure to change. Ryan prides himself on defense and the Jets were very good for most of last season. However, against the Steelers the defense folded and put the Jets in an insurmountable hole. They missed out on Nnamdi Asomugha so Antonio Cromartie returns. DL Muhammad Wilkerson was drafted in the first round and will likely be called upon early to help what was at times a weak pass rush last season. The Jets have a stretch of three straight road games early in the season that could make or break them. I expect them to follow their usual formula, move the ball with the run, only ask Sanchez to do anything when completely necessary and rely on your defense to win games. That has worked for them the past two seasons and it will likely work again this year.
3. Miami Dolphins
2010 Record: 7-9, 3rd place AFC East
Head Coach: Tony Sparano (4th season Miami, 25-24 career)
Key Additions: C Mike Pouncey, RB Daniel Thomas, RB Reggie Bush, QB Matt Moore, LB Kevin Burnett, DE Jared Odrick, DE Jason Taylor
Key Losses: QB Chad Pennington, QB Tyler Thigpen, RB Ronnie Brown, RB Ricky Williams, LB Channing Crowder
2011 Outlook: The Dolphins have a defense that is capable of keeping them in every game but their offense just isn't there yet. The Dolphins hope another year under his belt will help QB Chad Henne. Henne has been underwhelming and has seen the fan base largely turn against him. When rumors swirled that the Dolphins would be trading for Kyle Orton that really turned the tide against Henne. Henne will likely have some margin for error as his backup is Matt Moore, who has shown little in his career. The Dolphins backfield is completely different. Gone are Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams and in their place is Reggie Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas. It will be interesting to see how the Dolphins split the carries between Thomas and Bush. Coach Tony Sparano has mentioned that Bush could be their featured back, but he has never done that in his pro career so people are obviously skeptical. Henne needs to develop a rapport with WR Brandon Marshall. Marshall was very quiet last season and didn't show the play making abilities that made the Dolphins acquire him. On the other side is Davone Bess, who will be expected to make a leap this year after a solid season last year. Defensively, the Dolphins aren't filled with big names but they are good. They were in the top ten last season against both the rush and the pass. Jason Taylor has been brought back for his third stint with the team. He had a pretty good year in New York last season so the possibility of him contributing this season isn't impossible to believe. One player that did make a name for himself last season was LB Cameron Wake, who finished with 14 sacks. Having to face the Patriots and Jets four times, along with the NFC East is going to prove to be too daunting for Miami. I have zero faith in Henne and there are just too many unanswered questions about the offense to expect anything more than another disappointing year for the Dolphins.
4. Buffalo Bills
2010 Record: 4-12, last place AFC East
Head Coach: Chan Gailey (2nd season Buffalo, 22-28 career)
Key Additions: DE Marcel Dareus, WR/KR Brad Smith, QB Tyler Thigpen, LB Nick Barnett
Key Losses: LB Paul Posluszny, SS Donte Whitner, DE Marcus Stroud
2011 Outlook: I thought writing about the Bengals was tough, what the hell do you say about the Bills? I suppose there are some bright spots on the team. Ryan Fitzpatrick had a solid season last year and is firmly entrenched as the starter. If he puts together another nice season, the Bills might finally have themselves a quarterback. Fred Jackson is expected to be pushed by C.J. Spiller this season. Spiller largely underwhelmed last season, so the pressure will be on him to step it up. Steve Johnson came out of nowhere last season to take the league by storm. He did have one forgettable moment against the Steelers last season where he dropped a game winning touchdown pass. Other than that though he was spectacular. The Bills have questions on the offensive line, where a bunch of no names will try to keep Fitzpatrick upright. On defense the Bills saw Paul Posluszny and Dont Whitner depart. They are hoping that Shawne Merriman has something left in the tank. It will be bad news for them if it turns out that he was nothing more than a steroid fueled player. Their run defense was atrocious last season, which was a shame because they had one of the better pass defenses in the league. Hey, the Bills will probably win one more game than last season but that's about all I see positive coming out of Buffalo. I think this team might need a change of scenery, or a new head coach, or a General Manager that isn't a country bumpkin, or.... you get the picture.