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2011 NFL Preview – AFC East

With Tom Brady under center, New England has won the AFC East every year since 2003. Can we expect a change in 2011? And when will things finally turn around for division doormats Miami and Buffalo?

1. New England Patriots
Adding past-their-prime stars is typically a telltale sign of a franchise grasping at straws. But when it’s Bill Belichick bringing in fading all-pros, it’s a stroke of genius. I, like most everyone else, believe Belichick is the best coach in the NFL. However, the addition of Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth reek of desperation. Desperation is so “un-Belichick-ian.” Nonetheless, I still think the Patriots will win the AFC East because of Belichick and Tom Brady. Brady and the offense will again rank among the NFL’s elite. Although they lack the elite talent that defenses fear, their depth, scheme, and Brady make them difficult to contain. Besides, Brady has won with significantly worse. The biggest question surrounding the 2011 Patriots is the defense. Can Haynesworth sure up the middle of a line that was manhandled by the tougher New York Jets in the playoffs? Did releasing two-time Pro Bowler Brandon Meriweather actually make the defense better, or will it prove too irrational? If the defense is respectable, New England will again win the division.

DWC’s Take: Patriots – There is much to like about the Patriots, especially Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Brady’s 2010 campaign was ridiculous (36 TD, 3900 YDS, 65.9 PCT, and only 4 INT). There are very few, if any, quarterbacks able to put up those types of numbers. Brady makes the offense run. On defense, they still create turnovers, and have all-pro linebacker Jerod Mayo policing the field. However, this team has not won a playoff game in four years. What were once deep playoff runs have now become one-and-done campaigns. I think it has a lot to do with the secondary. Since allowing Asante Samuel to walk, the Patriots haven’t been the same. They were 30th in pass defense last year. You won’t win with that type of effort. High quantities of interceptions can hide the problem, but once the playoffs roll around, a team’s weakness gets exposed. The Patriots are still a contender, but without a better pass defense, one should expect more of the same.

2. New York Jets
Mark Sanchez is the primary reason I shied away from declaring Rex Ryan’s boys the division champs. This is year three of the Sanchez era, and to date, I’m not convinced he’s a franchise quarterback. Glass half full: Sanchez has the mentality to be a great quarterback. He’s a leader. He hasn’t been afraid of the biggest moments of his career and more importantly, he’s not afraid to fail. Glass half empty: Sanchez has an average to below average arm, makes mental mistakes that often cost the Jets points or worse, wins, and lost two of his top three receivers from a year ago, replacing them with a 34 year-old ex-con and a 37 year-old veteran. Year three is when the training wheels are supposed to come off. Sanchez’s honeymoon is officially over.

Thankfully, for Sanchez and Jets fans, the New York defense has been the best in football the past two seasons. While they’ve undergone minor changes this offseason, don’t expect their performance or impact to change. As we witnessed in the playoffs last year, Darrelle Revis and the defense give the Jets a decisive advantage over the Patriots. However, unlike the Patriots, New York suffers from mental lapses throughout the season, often resulting in unnecessary close games (OT vs. Cleveland and Detroit), or surprising losses (Miami). It’s these letdowns that are ultimately the difference between 1st and 2nd in the division. New England rarely takes a week off. The same can’t be said for New York. Thus, the Jets settle for 2nd best… at least in the regular season.

DWC’s Take: Jets – The Jets successfully rebelled against the status quo of the NFL, advancing to two consecutive AFC conference championship games on the shoulders of a physical running game and stout defense. While the Jets run the ball better than almost anyone, it’s their defense that wins games. They refuse to play “bend, but don’t break” football. Instead they smother offenses and keep them off the scoreboard entirely. With that said, conference championships are not the goal. To get over the hump and reach the Superbowl, the Jets need more out of Mark Sanchez. 2010 was a good year for Sanchez, but he needs to keep the turnovers down and put more points on the board. While you can win without a great passing offense, adequate play from the quarterback is a must.

3. Miami Dolphins
There’s talk leaking out of South Beach that Miami will be better than most expect. I’ve watched less than three Dolphin games in the past two seasons, so I can hardly offer an opinion on the quality of the team. However, any offense that relies heavily on Reggie Bush, Brandon Marshall, and Chad Henne cannot be taken too seriously. Bush is an injury guarantee. Marshall is the best player on the offense but requires someone to get him the football. Right now, that someone is Chad Henne. Thus far, Henne has been mostly a disaster. Miami even publicly pursued other options this offseason before sticking with Henne. Also, Dolphin fans hate him. The AFC East is again a two horse race with Miami finishing a few body lengths behind. I think it’s time we start considering the Dolphins as one of those long suffering franchises like the Eagles, any team in Cleveland, and the Bills. Dan Marino, one of the NFL’s greatest players of all time, couldn’t even bring home a Superbowl, unless you count the one he won with Ace Ventura. Keep your heads up, Dolphin fans. You have great weather and a talented basketball team, neither of which can be said for Bills fans.

DWC’s Take: Dolphins – Many people probably wouldn’t know Miami consistently boasts a top 10 defense. Even more impressive is how they’re able to do this without marquee names on their roster. Miami’s defense was the biggest reason why the Dolphins flirted with a .500 record in 2010. If the defense follows up last year’s performance with a similar showing, the Dolphins can expect another 7 to 8 win season. The biggest problem with Miami is the offense. It’s in the bottom 15 for both passing and rushing. Chad Henne doesn’t seem to be the answer. He turns the ball over way too much and fails to score enough points. To top it off, he doesn’t have a reliable running game right now. For all we know, Reggie Bush could return to his USC form, but history tells us his flashes of brilliance every now and again will be overshadowed by his time on the injury list.

4. Buffalo Bills
Why have Miami and Buffalo struggled for the past 15+ years? Simple. They’ve failed to find a franchise quarterback. Miami has been unable to replace Dan Marino. The Bills have failed to replace Jim Kelly. After signs of progress down the stretch in 2010, the Bills had a discouraging offseason. Starting middle linebacker Paul Posluszny left for Jacksonville and veteran receiver Lee Evans was traded to Baltimore. Former top 10 pick, Aaron Maybin was also released after failing to register a single sack in two seasons. Not much is going right in Buffalo. It’s likely the Bills remain in the AFC East basement until they stumble across a franchise quarterback or find some other type of franchise savior.

DWC’s Take: Bills – I was surprised by the Bills offense. Fitzpatrick isn’t great, but he threw 8 more TDs than INTs, which is more than Mark Sanchez can say. Fred Jackson also performed well, and I expect C.J. Spiller to stay on the field more his second year. Steve Johnson caught 10 TDs after only 2 in his first two seasons. However, for some reason (execution, offensive line play, the defenses they face 6 times in their own division), Buffalo’s offense still ranked near the bottom. The biggest problem in Buffalo (other than Toronto breathing down their necks) is the defense. It’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They finished the 2010 season 3rd in passing and 32nd in rushing. Ouch. What’s worse, they let their three top tacklers walk without getting any compensation. A few years ago, it looked like the Bills were turning the corner. Now, it looks like they are right back where they started, playing for high draft picks.

For those keeping score, here are last season’s AFC East predictions:
Actual Results: NE, NYJ, MIA, BUF

Score: DWC: 3, Me: 2, Fail: 3

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