NFL Preview: The AFC East

By Fraser Lockerbie

Can the Pats repeat as AFC East champs? Will the wildcat offense work with in Tim Tebow in New York? Will Miami finally close the revolving door of quarterbacks? And what of the Bills? Answers inside our NFL preview.

It’s been over six months since anything even remotely resembling football has been on television (unless, of course, you live in Canada, where their bastardized rendition of the Great American Game starts in July, has three downs, 10 extra yards and literal acres of end zone). It’s August and we’re all tired of the 162-game baseball slog; it’s time to start talking football again, and we start this week with the AFC East.

Buffalo Bills (6-10)

After their suspect early season push in 2011, the wheels came off in Buffalo as we all supposed they would; they went from putting up 30 points a game over the first seven to only 18 in the final nine (owing in large part to a similar trend with QB Ryan Fitzpatrick’s numbers: 68 completion percentage and a 2:1 TD/INT ratio in weeks 1-7, 58 and 10:16 over the last nine) and finished among the worst in the league defensively. The latter problem they solved — albeit expensively — with the free-agent signings of defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, but the former is still subject to the status quo.

The good news offensively for Buffalo is that they saw what C.J. Spiller can do on the ground last year (5.2 average yards and four TDs in six games), and along with Fred Jackson, they may have one of the best back tandems in the league; the bad news is that everyone knows it and the Bills don’t have enough versatility in the air to keep opposing defenses guessing. As a result they’ll struggle to consistently move the ball into the red zone where the targets they do have excel.

2012 Expectations: Their defensive splurge should keep them in a few more games, but without any upgrades on offense or a true downfield threat to draw attention away from the run, they’ll struggle to win them. 7-9, 3rd in the AFC East.

New England Patriots (13-3)

New England attempted a mind-boggling number of passes last year, 612 to be exact, and connected on 401 of them for 5,235 yards, 39 TDs and only 12 INTs. A repeat performance in 2012 seems improbable considering last year’s effort ranks among the best offensive seasons of all time, but the Pats still managed to upgrade this off-season with the addition of downfield threat WR Brandon Lloyd, so the sky is really the limit. He’ll be joined by the usual suspects Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Deion Branch, making for a virtually un-coverable receiving corps and a ton of touchdowns.

Nevertheless, regression is probably in the cards; the Pats lost RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis and did nothing to improve the league’s second-worst defense and secondary. They lucked out in drawing only a few offensively explosive teams in 2012, but we have to wonder how much longer New England can keep playing a one-dimensional game successfully.

2012 Expectations: It’s difficult to imagine that a winning franchise like the Pats are so flat, but they are; if they lose Brady, they lose their receivers. If they lose their receivers, they lose their trips to the red zone and with it their league-best red zone rushing conversions (56 TDs over the last three years), which means they lose touchdowns, which means they lose games behind an absolutely awful secondary. But Brady, at 34, is healthy at the moment, so another AFC East title shouldn’t be a problem. 12-4, 1st in the AFC  East.

New York Jets (8-8)

What better place for a headline-hogging halfback-quarterback like Tim Tebow than a pressure-cooker like New York? It seems the Jets have finally (or rather partially) given up on the idea of Mark Sanchez as a franchise QB and have decided to revert to the ground-and-pound offense that worked so well for them in 2010. And this year, with the help of Tebow and new OC Tony Sparano, they’ll mix in a wildcat system that should be fairly effective given the parts they’ve assembled. RB Shonn Greene has stepped into a premier role, running for 1,054 yards last season and only losing yards on 16 of his 253 carries. Though he only managed a modest 4.2 yards per carry, he only fumbled once and his average should be helped this year by the shadow games implemented by Tebow and Co.

Still, it won’t be all fun and games in New York (is it ever?). Though TE Dustin Keller should see increased production as the Jets get more compact, expect a midseason temper tantrum from WR Santonio Holmes, whose role should be severely marginalized under the new system. Gone are the days of long bombs at Metlife; this is a team that plans to wear defenses down with nothing but true grit and guessing games.

2012 Expectations: This was bound to happen; with an almost dead-even TD/INT ratio and a paltry 73.2 QB rating, Sanchez’ days were numbered as the number one guy in New York. Unfortunately, the Jets’ schedule has them matched up with some of the best defenses in the league, and after a Week Two game in Pittsburgh and back-to-back games against the Niners and Texans in Weeks Four and Five, they’ll need to drown out the crowd noise calling for an end to wildcat. But with a little patience, this could work. 8-8, 2nd in the AFC East.

Miami Dolphins (6-10)

The last time the Dolphins had a bona fide first-string starter at QB, gas cost about $1.10/gallon, Bill Clinton was still residing in the Oval Office and we were gearing up for the impending economic and social collapse of Y2K. Since then it’s been a bit of a mixed bag that has yielded mixed results: a few winning seasons, a few more losing ones, one 1-15 season and a whole handful of Chads. In an effort to curb or close the revolving door, the Dolphins took Texas A&M standout and third-best QB of the draft Ryan Tannehill. Everyone agrees the potential is there, but unlike his counterparts, Andrew Luck and RGIII, he is going to require some time to develop in the pros.

Which is fine considering the state of the Dolphins. They got rid of their most valuable asset (and biggest off-field headache), Brandon Marshall, but are left with what might be the worst receiving corps in the league. In the backfield, Reggie Bush has finally proved he’s an every down–type back (his 5.0 average is up from 3.7 in his first three seasons), but with a new coach, a new offense and a new system, he might lose carries to Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller, not to mention the ones he’s already lost to Tannehill trying to air it out as the season wears on. All this to say, temper expectations.

2012 Expectations: Miami is officially in rebuilding mode, and it seems they’re going to let Tannehill get used to life in the pros before they invest in any high-profile targets for him to throw to. Consider Bush a midseason trade candidate if he repeats what he did last year and consider the season a wash. 4-12, 4th in the AFC East.



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