TSN Football Analyst Chris Schultz takes a pre-season look at all eight divisions, starting with the AFC East. Tomorrow - the AFC North.
There are three possible playoff teams in this division; the Patriots, the Bills and the Jets. There is no doubt the Bills did the most to improve themselves in the off-season and if quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick can play as he did during the first third of the 2011 season, then yes, Buffalo could be AFC East champions.
In such a tough division, the home and away games within the division will determine everything. How will they finish? I say like this: Patriots, Bills, Jets, Dolphins.
New England Patriots: When you think that the Patriots made it all the way to the Super Bowl with the 31st ranked defence and a well-below average pass rush, it was quite an accomplishment. The truth is they got there by beating a Denver team that didn't have a dominant passing QB and really should have lost to Baltimore in the AFC championship game.
This year they have one of the softer schedules in the league and still have a top three offense with Tom Brady coming off a 5,000 yard season. Defence, though, is still a big concern. On average, New England scored 30 and allowed 21 points per game.
Pass defence is a specific concern as the Pats allowed 4,700 passing yards last season, an incredibly high number. The only players with great ability on defence are the three linebackers. In Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and first round pick Donte' Hightower, they have a true foundation of talent to build from. But to improve they need to get a pass rush in combination with good zone and man coverage in the defensive backfield. There is a lot of pressure on first round pick Chandler Jones and third round pick Jake Bequette to make an impact quickly on the defensive line.
I still like them to win the division. Why? Bill O'Brien is in Penn State and Josh McDaniels is back as New England's offensive co-ordinator. In 2007, Brady threw 50 touchdown passes, won the MVP and Most Outstanding Player Awards and finished with the second-best passer rating in history as the Patriots went 16-0 in the regular season and reached the Super Bowl - with McDaniels as his offensive co-ordinator. The Patriots win the AFC East.
Buffalo Bills: The Bills are going to win more than six games this year. They were 5-2 moving into November last year, and then lost eight of their last nine. And in many of those loses they were dominated by their opponents. But in adding the best defensive free agent, Mario Williams, and another solid pass rusher in Mark Anderson during the off-season, this is a better team already. Outside of quarterback, I believe the most important element in winning football games is having a quality defensive line highlighted by a strong pass rush. The Bills have that now. The truth is, Mario Williams is not Buffalo's best overall defensive lineman - it is DT Kyle Williams, number 95.
I also think that Ryan Fitzpatrick was injured during the last two thirds of the season. This has been rumored and I believe it to be true. After he signed his "big deal," Fitzpatrick regressed, but I really think it was an injury more than any form of complacency. Buffalo is good, but they are still maybe two players away from excellence. They need to find an impact receiver opposite Stevie Johnson, and since Jason Peters left the Bills have yet to find a quality left tackle. Is the answer Cordy Glenn, the number two pick out of Georgia?
I do not underestimate Chan Gailey as a head coach. In recent history the Bills once had Gregg Williams (I know, he's suspended) and fired him too soon. I hope they don't make the same mistake with Gailey. He is a very good play-caller.
The Bills have missed the playoffs for 12 consecutive seasons, and have had only one winning record since 1999. This year that record of mediocrity will change. The Bills finish second in the AFC East.
New York Jets: An indication of potentially how mediocre your receivers really are is when your second-best cornerback says he is also the team's second-best best receiver – and he might be right. Even if Antonio Cromartie is what he claims, it still is disrespectful to a group of receivers that are pro football players and teammates. More than anything else the Jets need to get their locker room in order and pull together as opposed to verbally tearing each other apart.
This could be a make it or break it year for Rex Ryan as a head coach. He's wonderful for the media but after two AFC Championship appearances, the Jets dropped to 8-8 last year. With a second disappointing year his bravado and verbal confidence will become more of an act more than real motivation for the players.
The Jets brought in Tony Sparano to help coach up the run game, win time of possession regularly and limit the number of times Mark Sanchez has to win the game with his arm. And they signed LaRon Landry to cover the Patriots tight ends, as he is one of the few safeties that can match up with them physically. With a good power running back in Shone Green and an aggressive defence, both of those goals are achievable.
One of the keys to New York's success in recent years was the use of defensive backs as pass rushers on the blitz. Last year, only four sacks out of 35 came from defensive backs. Basically, teams have anticipated this tactic and figured the Jets out. So, it's time to switch back to the basics of football and try to out-hit the other team instead of trick them with schemes. That is the approach I think the Jets will take this year.
This is a very tough and talented team but I don't know if they pull will together, because I don't think there is great leadership. The whole Sanchez/Tebow QB rotation possibility has again turned the Jets into a circus – a public team as opposed to a private team like Green Bay. Will it work? Maybe for a while, but as a permanent alternative, I doubt it will be effective. The Jets need to focus on the Jets and let all else revolve around them without comment. That's a tough task in New York. It is either first or third in the AFC East for this team, and I think it will be third because of the distractions.
Miami Dolphins: Sometimes you go into a season refining. Your previous season was pretty good and you only need to be a little bit better to compete for the playoffs. Other times you go into a season re-loading. You're good and everyone knows it. You just need to reproduce the effort and execution from last year to reach the post-season. Other times you are completely re-building, and that's Miami in 20I2.
Joe Philbin takes over a team that was 28th in scoring and he's got two veteran QBs and a rookie first round pick in Ryan Tannenhill to work with. It is very unlikely that Tannehill will be the next Cam Newton or even Andy Dalton, but he has the physical skills to take the Dolphins to a new level of efficiency. Reggie Bush had a great year at RB and Daniel Thomas has a bright future, but when you have to reach out for Chad Johnson to be a primary receiver, and then cut him, it does not provide confidence.
Last year Miami's defence kept four games within a field goal, and their 6-10 record could have been 9-7, but without a polished offence they could not close out games. With the team moving from a 3/4 defence to a 4/3 alignment, so Cam Wake should be more of an impact player, and Paul Soliai is one of those immoveable objects that good run defences require. But in a division with Brady, Fitzpatrick and even Sanchez, how is Tannehill supposed to compete?
Logic says that an eight win season, two more than last year, would be a true sign of re-building. Even if they can manage that, it would still likely mean a last place finish in the AFC East for the tradition-rich Miami Dolphins.