Wednesday, August 27, 2014

2014 NFL Divisional Previews - AFC East

Another season, another AFC East title for the New England Patriots. It seems that as long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are teaming up then the Patriots will keep winning divisions. However, that pair hasn't won a Super Bowl in a decade. The Patriots brought in some big names on the defensive side of the ball, an area that has been weak in recent years. The Miami Dolphins are entering a make or break year for coach/quarterback tandem Joe Philbin and Ryan Tannehill. The Dolphins had a playoff berth in their grasp last season but choked it away. The Buffalo Bills are hopeful that QB EJ Manuel can remain healthy the entire season, as he showed some flashes as a rookie last season. The New York Jets pulled 8 wins out of their asses last season, and for some reason think that entitles them to start talking smack again.

1. New England Patriots

2013 Record: 12-4, AFC East Champs
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (15th season New England, 218-114 career, 3 Super Bowl championships)
Key Additions: TE Tim Wright, DT Dominique Easley, CB Darrelle Revis, CB Brandon Browner, S Patrick Chung
Key Losses: RB LaGarrette Blount, LG Logan Mankins, NT Isaac Sopoaga, ILB Brandon Spikes, CB Aqib Talib, S Steve Gregory, S Adrian Wilson

2014 Outlook: The last few years the Patriots seasons have seemed to follow the same scripts. They win the woeful AFC East with little resistance, then they win a playoff or game or two and then lose,  falling short of another Super Bowl, rinse and repeat. Another constant for New England has been, despite having defensive genius Bill Belichick as coach, they have been a team that relied on their high powered offense. The Patriots made some movers in their secondary this past off-season to try to change that narrative. Lase season the offense wasn't the high-powered unit that Patriots fans have become accustomed to. Tom Brady saw his numbers dip as he was surrounded almost entirely by rookies and guys he hadn't played with for very long. He also was without stud TE Rob Gronkowski for the majority of the year. The offense figures to be much improved this year as all of his weapons are back and Gronkowski is, at the moment at least, healthy. Not surprisingly, Danny Amendola battled injuries last season, so Julian Edelman turned into Brady's favorite target, Edelman had over 100 catches but a lot of them were on short patterns. Kenbrell Thompkins had some nice moments as a rookie and is a strong number three option. Aaron Dobson is 4th on the depth chart but should also be a contributor as he stepped in and played well at times last year. The Patriots also hope that they can get a consistent contribution from Stevan Ridley this season. Ridley immediately entered Belichick's doghouse by fumbling in the season opener. He would sometime find his way out of the doghouse but then go right back in it with more fumbles. LaGarrette Blount is gone, so they don't have that option to fall back on if Ridley struggles to hold on to the ball again. Shane Vareen will serve as Ridley's backup and could see just as many touches as Ridley. The Patriots offensive line also struggled last season but remains in tact. Injuries also hit the Patriots on the offensive line, so they are excited to welcome back RT Sebastian Vollmer. C Ryan Wendell and RG Dan Connolly struggled last season. The Patriots are hopeful that the injury bug passed through last year and combining that with Brady's higher chemistry with his receiving corps this year, that will lead to an improved unit in 2014. The Patriots could have the best corners in the league come game 5 of the 2014 season when the newly signed Brandon Browner is done serving his four game suspension. He will pair up with the Patriots other flashy acquisition Darrelle Revis. One player that could make an even bigger defense is the returning from injury Vince Wilfork. The Patriots ranked 30th in the league against the run last season and that was because they didn't have the gigantic Wilfork to eat up the middle. The Patriots also seem ready to insert rookie DT Dominique Easley as a starter after cutting Tommy Kelly. The Patriots have two strong pass rushers in Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones. The Patriots also figure to be very strong at linebacker with the emergence of Jamie Collins, who will now start alongisde Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower. Mayo was another player lost for most of the season due to injury last year. Joining Revis and Browner in the secondary will be beast safety Devin McCourty and the questionable Duron Harmon. Stephen Gostkowski made it pretty easy for Patriots fans to move on from Adam Vinatieri, as he has been consistently good year after year. Ryan Allen is entering his second season as the Patriots punter. Edelman will return punts and Matthew Slater will return kicks. Per usual, the Patriots are one of the favorites to come out of the AFC. I think they will be better on both sides of the ball this season and seem destined to meet the Broncos in an AFC Championship rematch. However, I think once again, Brady and Belichick will come close but not able to reach the pinnacle that once seemed so easy for them.

Prediction: 12-4

2. Miami Dolphins

2013 Record: 8-8, 3rd place AFC East
Head Coach: Joe Philbin (3rd season Miami, 15-17 career)
Key Additions: RT Ja'Wuan James, RB Knowshon Moreno, LT Branden Albert, CB Cortland Finnegan, S Louis Delmas
Key Losses: OT Jonathan Martin, G Richie Incognito, G John Jerry, CB Nolan Carroll, CB Dmitri Patterson, S Chris Clemons

2014 Outlook: 2013 was a season to forget for the Miami Dolphins both on and off the field. On the field, the Dolphins controlled their destiny in the final game of the season, hosting the New York Jets. A win and they would be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Instead, the Dolphins lost, completely soiling themselves and losing in embarrassing fashion. It seemed to be a fitting end to a season that featured the bullying scandal that turned the Dolphins into national news for all the wrong reasons. Most of the people from that fiasco are gone now and the focus can go back to football. The seat is warming for coach Joe Philbin to get the Dolphins back in the playoffs. Sharing that hot seat with him is third year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill showed improvement in his second season but still is not where the Dolphins would like him to be to consider him a franchise quarterback. Lamar Miller is penciled in as the starting running back, and the Dolphins acquired Knowshon Moreno to potentially push him. Daniel Thomas has slipped all the way to third string in the rotation. Another major disappointment in 2013 for the Dolphins was Mike Wallace. Wallace signed a huge deal and was expected to make an immediate impact on the Dolphins offense and passing game. But Wallace and Tannehill could never seem to develop any chemistry and while Wallace would show flashes of his Pittsburgh self, he never really got going in 2013. This season will be telling, as Wallace and Tannehill should have that chemistry now and no excuses. Brian Hartline is a solid number two receiver and led all Dolphins receivers in yards last year. TE Charles Clay had a nice year last season as well and is becoming a dependable target for Tannehill. A major reason for Tannehill's slow progression as a quarterback has been the disaster that the offensive line was. Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito both left mid-season and the rest of the line was basically patchwork. To try to rectify the line, the Dolphins signed Branden Albert and drafted Ja'Wuan James. The Dolphins will be without their best lineman to start the season, C Mike Pouncey, so Sam Brenner figures to start the season there. Defensively, the Dolphins weren't very good last year either, especially against the run. Randy Starks and Jared Odrick will be counted on to control the line of scrimmage and help improve the Dolphins run defense. Cameron Wake remains a strong pass rusher, and Olivier Vernon is hoping to continue his coming out party after 11 1/2 sacks last season. Linebacker is a major question mark for Miami. Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler are both coming off subpar seasons, and Koa Misi is adequate at best as middle linebacker. CB Brent Grimes successfully returned from injury last season to entrench himself as the Dolphins premiere cornerback. The other corner position is not as set in stone, with the newly signed Cortland Finnegan manning the position. Finnegan was atrocious in St. Louis and his best days appears far behind him. Louis Delmas was signed to replace the departed Chris Clemons at safety. Caleb Sturgis returns for his second season at kicker, and after missing eight kicks last season, is on thin ice. Brandon Fields is on much more sturdy standing and one of the best punters in football. Little used RB Marcus Thigpen will return punts and kicks. I expect 2014 to wind up pretty similar to 2013 for the Dolphins. They are just good enough to beat the medicore and lower tier teams, but don't have enough talent to beat the good and elite teams. I think that means another 8-8 season and another year sitting at home for the playoffs.

Prediction: 8-8

3. Buffalo Bills

2013 Record: 6-10, last place AFC East
Head Coach: Doug Marrone (2nd season Buffalo, 6-10 career)
Key Additions: WR Sammy Watkins, RB Anthony Dixon, RB Bryce Brown, WR Mike Williams, LG Chris Williams, OLB Keith Rivers, ILB Brandon Spikes
Key Losses: QB Kevin Kolb, WR Stevie Johnson, S Jairus Byrd

2014 Outlook: A new coach didn't change the results for the Bills, as they once again missed the playoffs and incredibly have not made the playoffs at all in the 2000s. They are hoping that the addition of another dynamic Clemson player might finally be what puts them over the top. I always advise people to not put too much stock in what happens during the preseason but if EJ Manuel and the Bills offense is anywhere near as terrible as they have looked thus far, it will be another long season in Buffalo. Manuel had his rookie season interrupted last year due to injury but he had shown some positive signs in the bit of playing time he had. The Bills drafted him in the First Round last year, so they are all in on Manuel for the foreseeable future. Another player they are all in on but are still waiting for results from is RB C.J. Spiller. Spiller entered last season with a ton of hype but once again struggled with injuries and consistency. Despite being 105-years old Fred Jackson may still be counted on to shoulder the load in the run game. The Bills also added Bryce Brown from the Eagles. Brown has had some moments but also is terrible at holding onto the ball. The dynamic Clemson player I mentioned above is WR Sammy Watkins. The Bills traded their first round pick in 2015 to move up to get Watkins. Watkins has made some spectacular catches in training camp but if he doesn't have a quarterback that can reliably get him the ball it won't matter. Robert Woods is the Bills number two receiver. The second year player showed some promise as a rookie, and the Bills are hopeful he can become a consistent pass catcher. The Bills also acquired Mike Williams from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and hope that can flash some of his 2012 form. Scott Chandler is underwhelming at tight end but year after year the Bills trot him out there as their starter. The Bills offensive line is not very good. They have some solid starters on the line but no one that is dominant. Their best blocker is probably RG Kraig Urbik. The Bills hired that whiny nut job Jim Schwartz as their defensive coordinator so expect to see lots of penalties and general lack of discipline from the defense. You will also be seeing the Bills switch to a 4-3, which means sack master Mario Williams will return to his natural position of defensive end. The Bills really struggled against the run last season which is surprising because Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams are both pretty good defensive tackles. Dareus had a troubled off-season and could be facing a suspension at some point. DE Jerry Hughes is coming off a 10 sack season, so the Bills look pretty good in their front four. Linebacker is a different story as the Bills lost their best linebacker, Kiko Alonzo to injury, leaving them with guys who have their best years behind them in Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers. The Bills were excellent against the pass last season but a big reason for that, S Jairus Bryd, is now in New Orleans. Da'Norris Searcy will try to fill Bryd's shoes and start alongside Aaron Williams. Leodis McKelvin and Stephen Gilmore are the corners. Gilmore has yet to live up to the promise that made the Bills take him 10th in the draft in 2012, mostly due to injury problems. Kicker Dan Carpenter is coming off a strong season, and punter Brian Moorman is coming off a terrible year. Marquise Goodwin will return kicks and McKelvin will return punts. The Bills just seem eternally stuck in quick sand. They don't quite bottom out, but they can't fight their way up to becoming a playoff team. Until they have the right quarterback in place, 6 and 7 win seasons figure to be the norm for Buffalo.

Prediction: 7-9

4. New York Jets

2013 Record: 8-8, 2nd place AFC East
Head Coach: Rex Ryan (6th season New York Jets, 46-40 career)
Key Additions: FS Calvin Pryor, QB Michael Vick, RB Chris Johnson, WR Eric Decker, KR Jacoby Ford, RT Breno Giacomini, CB Dmitiri Patterson
Key Losses: QB Mark Sanchez, WR Santonio Holmes, G Vladimir Ducasse, CB Antonio Cromartie

2014 Outlook: Despite having almost no offensive talent to speak of the New York Jets somehow managed to win eight games last season. Perhaps it speaks to the level of coach Rex Ryan is. Ryan talks way too much but I don't think many other coaches could have coaxed 8 wins out of the group he had to work with last season. He was rewarded with a contract extension but the Jets still have missed the playoffs three straight seasons. They added a lot of pieces on offense this past off-season so another non playoff season may spell Ryan's demise. Geno Smith has been named the starter over Michael Vick. Vick doesn't really sound like he gives a shit, so probably best to go with Smith, even if he was completely awful last season. The Jets were blown out in some of their losses, and the point totals might lead you to believe it was the fault of the defense. But the truth was that Smith turned the ball over so much, the defense was constantly being put in bad positions. Despite finishing sixth in the league in rushing last season the Jets decided to bring aboard over the hill Chris Johnson. Johnson will definitely share the workload with Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory. The Jets wide receivers were a complete joke last season, so New York brought in free agent Eric Decker to be their new number one receiver. It remains to be seen whether or not Decker became a star because of Peyton Manning, or if Decker is good no matter who is his quarterback. Besides Decker the rest of the Jets receivers are mostly dreck, including Stephen Hill, David Nelson and Jeremy Kerley. The Jets are even underwhelming at tight end with Jeff Cumberland. One area on the offense that the Jets have gotten right is their offensive line. D'Brickashaw Ferguson is Mr. Dependable at left tackle, and Nick Mangold is one of the best centers in the NFL. The Jets have a new starter at right tackle with Breno Giacomini, but some question marks on the line include the injury prone Willie Colon and the underwhelming left guard Brian Winters. The main reason the Jets finished .500 last season was their defense. One typically characteristic of Ryan coached teams is tough, hard nosed defense. The Jets passing defense was a mess last year but their run defense was one of the best in football. That is because the Jets front three features awesome players including Muhammed Wilkerson, Damon Harrison, and Sheldon Richardson. But then when you get to the back eight you start to see why the Jets struggled against the pass last season. LOLB Quinton Coples is good but not consistently good, and Calvin Pace is starting to get up there in football years. The Jets secondary is a mess. CB Dimitri Patterson just randomly disappeared last week and is indefinitely suspended. The other corner Dee Milliner talks a good game but hasn't proven himself yet. The Jets drafted Calvin Pryor and he looks like he will start right away, and the Jets may have moved on from LaRon Landry in the past but now his brother Dawan is their safety. Kicker Nick Folk was excellent last season, but the same cannot be said for punter Ryan Quigley. Jacoby Ford is slotted to return kicks, and Kerley will be the punt returner. The Jets schedule is pretty tough and even with the additions on offense I still don't have much faith in Geno Smith's ability to make proper use of someone like Decker. Add to that the questions and unrest on defense and I think the Jets will be sitting home for the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

Prediction: 7-9

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