Thursday, August 30, 2012

2012 NFL Divisional Previews - AFC East

The New England Patriots have run the AFC East for what seems like an eternity. The New York Jets appeared ready to challenge their supremacy, but the circus turned into a freak show last year. Things became even more ridiculous for the Jets this off-season with the addition of Tim Tebow. Now don't get me wrong, I like Tim Tebow the person, but I don't see this whole thing in New York ending well. The Buffalo Bills did what seemed to be impossible, sign a top-flight free agent, when they got DE Mario Williams to sign. The Miami Dolphins have a new coach, and a new quarterback, but if the preseason is any indication, the same old problems. 

1. New England Patriots

2011 Record: 13-3, AFC East Champs, AFC Champions
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (13th season New England, 192-104 career)
Key Additions: FB Tony Fiammetta, WR Brandon Lloyd, DE/OLB Trevor Scott, DE/OLB Chandler Jones, ILB Dont'a Hightower, LB Bobby Carpenter, CB Will Allen
Key Losses: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, WR Chad Ochocinco, OT Matt Light, DE Andre Carter, DE Mark Anderson, OLB Gary Guyton, S James Ihedigbo

2012 Outlook: For 18 games last season the Patriots had shattered the old football adage that to win a championship you needed a solid running game, and a good defense. Instead, the Patriots mostly relied on one of the best offenses in football to carry them. Then, in the Super Bowl, the defense actually played pretty well, but it was the offense that couldn’t get on track, and the Patriots were left once again as runners up to the Giants. The Patriots have responded by bringing in a lot of new faces, especially on defense. The new faces they tried to bring in on offense haven’t really worked out. Josesph Addai, Robert Gallery, Jabar Gaffney, and Dont’e Stallworth have all either been cut or quit. It doesn’t really matter though, because Tom Brady is still the signal caller. Brady continued to be as good as ever last year, and the Patriots remained as imaginative as ever on offense. They also have a familiar face calling the plays, with Josh McDaniels returning as the offensive coordinator. The running game has a new leader, as they let the Law Firm go to Cincinnati, so second year man Stevan Ridley is the starter. Anyone who has followed the Patriots knows that they tend to go by running back by committee, and only really run the ball out of necessity. Ridley had some nice moment as a rookie last year, but needs to improve on holding on to the ball. The wide receiving corps is still led by Wes Welker, but he is now complemented by Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd figures to work out better than the Chad Ochocinco pick up worked out last year. Deion Branch is also back but he is starting to get up there in age, and is reverting back more to the player he became in Seattle. Where the Patriots are ridiculously stacked is at tight end. Rob Gronkowski, or Gronk as he is more commonly known, burst onto the scene last year. No one could stop the douchy man beast as he set a single season record for TDs in a season by a tight end. With how much Gronk dominated things last year, you would think there wouldn’t be any leftovers for fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez but you would be wrong. Hernandez was so good that the Patriots rewarded him with a contract extension a few weeks ago. The offensive line has struggled in the preseason, and a lot of that has to do with them trying to replace the retired Matt Light. They are hoping Nate Solder can solidify himself at left tackle and keep Brady healthy for all 16 games. The defense was absolutely dreadful last season. Opposing offenses basically did whatever they wanted to the Patriots. For a defensive genius, Belichick has done a real crappy job recently of putting good defenses on the field. The pass rush was decent but Andre Carter and Mark Anderson are both gone and a rookie Chandler Jones will be expected to replace some of their production. At corner, Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty are back, and the Patriots are hoping another year of experience will lead to more consistent play from them. The Patriots drafted Dont’a Hightower out of Alabama and he is expected to start at linebacker with Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes right away. Also, can’t forget about massive Vince Wilfork, who showed last year that he has some good hands, and provides the most entertaining plays in the league when he intercepts a pass and has to return it. Stephen Gostkowski continues to make Patriots fans easily forget that he replaced a legend in Adam Vinatieri. The Patriots also have one of the top punters in the league and a man with a great name, Zoltan Mesko. The Patriots schedule doesn’t look at that intimidating at this point and with some of the dreck they have in their division, they should cruise to another AFC East title. 

Prediction: 11-5 

2. Buffalo Bills

2011 Record: 6-10, last place AFC East
Head Coach: Chan Gailey (3rd season Buffalo, 28-38 career)
Key Additions: QB Tavaris Jackson, DE Mario Williams, DE Mark Anderson, CB Stephen Gilmore  
Key Losses: OT Demetress Bell, ILB Reggier Torbor, CB Drayton Florence

2012 Outlook: The signing of Mario Williams could be the dawning of a new era in Buffalo. The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs since 1999, and seemed to be coming closer and closer to moving Toronto. That is why it surprised everyone when they opened up their checkbooks to sign Williams. The Bills got off to a fast start last season but then injuries took their toll and they finished the year losing 8 of their last 9 games. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick got off to a strong start last year and was rewarded with a contract extension. Maybe it was just a coincidence but after signing that extension Fitzpatrick was terrible. RB Fred Jackson was signed to an extension in the off-season and he hopes to pick up where he left off last year before getting hurt. C.J. Spiller is his backup, and after a rough rookie year, seemed to grow more comfortable last season. The Bills number one receiver is the equally talented and frustrating Stevie Johnson. Johnson has his moments of greatness, but also had way too many crucial drops and stupid penalties. Beyond Johnson, the Bills don’t have a ton of weapons at receiver and tight end. David Nelson had a decent season last year and Scott Chandler at tight end had his moments. The Bills have one of the better offensive lines in the league and surrendered just 23 sacks last season. The line is basically a bunch of no names but they get the job done. The Bills were tired of having no pass rush so this off-season they did something about it. As I mentioned early the splashy move was bringing in Williams. When healthy Williams has been very good and lived up to his #1 draft pick status from 6 years ago. The Bills also signed Mark Anderson away from the rival Patriots. Anderson had 12 ½ sacks last year but some are skeptical that he played above his head during a contract year. The Bills also had their troubles stopping the pass, so used their first round draft pick on South Carolina corner Stephen Gilmore. The other most known name on the defense is linebacker Nick Barnett. A lot of pressure will be on Williams and Anderson to bring up the games of the rest of the defense. Rian Lindell and Brian Moorman return as the kicker and punter, respectively. Lindell is an enigma; he is pretty accurate but also has a tendency to miss really easy field goals. With a somewhat easy looking schedule and the improvements on defense, I think the Bills can have a winning season. I think the playoffs are probably another year away but for once, things are looking up in Buffalo. 

Prediction: 9-7 

3. New York Jets

2011 Record: 8-8, 2nd place AFC East
Head Coach: Rex Ryan (4th season New York, 32-22 career)
Key Additions: QB Tim Tebow, WR Chaz Schillens, WR Stephen Hill, SS LaRon Landry, SS Yeremiah Bell,  DE/DT Quinton Coples
Key Losses: RB LaDainian Tomlinson, WR Plaxico Burress, SS Jim Leonhard, S Brodney Pool

2012 Outlook: It only seemed a matter of time that all his boasting and bravado would come back to bit Jets Coach Rex Ryan in the ass. 2011 was his reckoning, as the Jets lost their last three games to finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs. Nothing summed up the Jets season better than in their final game, a must win, Santonio Holmes quit on his team. Not surprisingly, because it is the circus that is the Jets but Holmes is back this year. The Jets then went and created themselves a never ending quarterback controversy, as they brought in Tim Tebow to back up Mark Sanchez. Tebow is expected to be used in a multitude of ways, including on special teams. Sanchez was better than people give him credit for last year, throwing for a career high with 27 TDs. Both Sanchez and Tebow have looked equally terrible in the preseason, as the Jets haven’t even been able to score a touchdown. If Sanchez thought the pressure was tough his first three seasons, he hasn’t seen anything yet when it comes to what he will feel this year. The Jets got away from what worked for them in 2009 and 2010 and tried to become a passing team. This year new offensive coordinator, Tony Sparano has been tasked with returning them to the ground and pound they were known for. That means that Shonn Greene will have to play much better and be more consistent than he was in 2011. The Jets are thin at wide receiver, with only Holmes being the real standout. Hopefully for the Jets, Holmes and Sanchez have gotten on the same page, because without Holmes there isn’t much else. Stephen Hill will be their number two receiver, a lot to ask for a rookie that wasn’t all that heralded. TE Dustin Keller and Sanchez have developed a nice rapport over the years, and Sanchez will probably rely on him more than ever this season. Right tackle has been in a state of flux for the Jets, who swapped disappointments with the Rams when they traded Wayne Hunter to St. Louis for Jason Smith. Austin Howard will go into the season starting at right tackle after playing well in the Jets last preseason game. The rest of the Jets line is pretty good with big names like Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson. The calling card for the Jets under Rex Ryan has been their defense and while they were still pretty good last season, they did regress. Their pass rush was not good last season and the rest of the defense suffered for it. The front seven is aging and the Jets didn’t really do anything in the off-season to make you think the pass rush will be greatly improved. The secondary has seen a lot of changes with addition of LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell. Landry is hit or miss at safety and has trouble staying healthy. Darelle Revis remains the best corner in the game, while Antonio Cromartie needs to be more consistent. Nick Folk beat out Josh Brown for the kicker job but Folk doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. Letting Steve Weatherford go to the Giants looked like a major mistake after the pretty awful year T.J. Conley had. However, the Jets are giving him another chance this season. The future looks very murky for the Jets and this team has a ton of question marks. The defense and running game aren’t good enough anymore to carry the rest of the team, and Ryan will suffer his first losing season as coach. 

Prediction: 6-10 

4. Miami Dolphins

2011 Record: 6-10, 3rd place AFC East
Head Coach: Joe Philbin (1st season Miami, 0-0 career)
Key Additions: QB Ryan Tannehill, QB David Garrard, WR Legedu Naanee, OLB Gary Guyton
Key Losses: QB Chad Henne, FB Lex Hilliard, WR Brandon Marshall, G Vernon Carey, DE/DT Phillip Merling, CB Will Allen, CB Vontae Davis, SS Yeremiah Bell

2012 Outlook: Another year of poor performance and mediocrity cost Tony Sparano his job in Miami. He has been replaced by the life of the party, Joe Philbin. Anyone that has been watching Hard Knocks knows I am being facetious. Philbin got the job because he was the coordinator for the juggernaut that was the Packers offense and also because Miami couldn’t get anyone better. The Dolphins have handed over their future to rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Many are expecting Tannehill to be a bust, especially with the lack of weapons he has in Miami. Tannehill showed on Hard Knocks how little he knows about the rest of the NFL, so hopefully he begins to learn some things. Despite playing well down the stretch, Matt Moore will serve as his backup, and could possibly fall to number three when free agent signing David Garrard is healthy again. One bright spot for Miami last season was the emergence of Reggie Bush at running back. Bush got off to a slow start but by year’s end was one of the best backs in the league. Rookie Daniel Thomas was a disappointment this year, and has already felt the ire of Philbin for being late to meetings. Chad Johnson was supposed to make a crappy receiving corps less crappy but he went and hit his now ex-wife and was cut. That means the Dolphins top receivers are Davone Bess and free agent signing Legedu Naanee, yuck. It feels like TE Anthony Fasono is 100 years old, but he is only 28 and returns at tight end. The Dolphins offensive line is pretty good, led by Jake Long and Mike Pouncey. However, Long hurt his knee a few days ago and if he has to miss time that will be a huge blow for Miami. The Dolphins were strong at stopping the run last season but were awful against the pass. They need improved play from their pass rush, and have to hope that Cameron Wake can get back to having a double digit sack season. The Dolphins are pretty strong at linebacker with Karlos Dansby, Koa Misi, and Kevin Burnett. They also brought in Gary Guyton to spell Burnett at times. They will have to get better pressure, as they traded away their best cornerback Vontae Davis to the Colts and might struggle even worse this season in pass defense. The Dolphins were atrocious in the preseason and many pundits are thinking they could be in the running for the number one pick. I haven’t been overly impressed by what I have seen of Philbin but still think this is a team capable of getting at least six wins. It will really depend on how Tannehill plays and whether the Dolphins get unexpected top flight production out of their weak receiving game. 

Prediction: 6-10

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