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2012 Division Preview: AFC East

In the first 10 seasons of the reconfigured four-team AFC East (2002-11), the red-white-blue-and-silver-clad colossus from New England has ruled all. While the Bills, Dolphins and Jets have combined to employ 14 head coaches and enough starting quarterbacks to stock a whole rival league, there has been Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in New England. Still standing, and still winning. Ever winning.

The Patriots have yet to have a losing season in the realigned AFC East, and their eight playoff trips and four Super Bowl appearances since 2002 dwarf the accomplishments of the rest of the division. The Bills (a league-high 12-year playoff drought), Dolphins (one playoff berth) and Jets (five playoff trips) together can't come close to matching what the folks in Foxboro have done in the postseason. The Patriots also own the six best regular season records in the division's history: logging a 16-0 in 2007, 14-2 marks in 2010, 2004 and 2003, a 13-3 in 2011, and a 12-4 in 2006. Put another way, New England's nine double-digit win seasons in that span are four more than the rest of the division combined, and none of the other three have finished better than 11-5.

"Do I respect New England and the fact that [it] has won our division a zillion times?'' Jets head coach Rex Ryan said early in this year's training camp. "The three years I've been here, they've won it all three years -- and I don't think it's been close. They've been clearly dominating this division for years and years. So you have to beat them. It always goes through them.''

It certainly does, and here's a news flash: The Jets haven't exactly narrowed the gap, losing the division to New England by one game in 2009, three games in 2010 and five games in 2011. That's not the direction Ryan and Co. want to be heading, even if they did upset the Pats in the 2010 playoffs. And it's hard to see the division being anything but New England-centric again this season. Buffalo should be improved on defense with the Mario Williams signing, but the Jets have their issues on offense with the challenge of the Tebow factor, and Miami is starting over again with a new head coach (Joe Philbin) and a rookie quarterback (Ryan Tannehill). Add it all up, and it's a good bet the dynasty rolls on.

What the Patriots do best: Hang up some crooked numbers.

Is is possible we have started taking New England's offense for granted? For the third time in five seasons, the Patriots topped 500 points scored last year (513), joining the Greatest Show on Turf St. Louis Rams of 1999-2001 as the only other club to accomplish that feat. New England's Tom Brady-led passing game is a well-oiled machine, with the Patriots finishing third overall (and first in the AFC) in scoring, second in total yards (6,848), second in first downs (399), second in passing yards (5,084), and fourth in touchdown passes (39). New England had nine games with at least 34 points, including playoffs, and cracked 400 yards of offense 12 times including the postseason.

What the Patriots need to improve: Their pass defense.

New England wasn't as bad on defense as some of its 2011 numbers indicated, finishing a middle of the pack 15th in points allowed (21.4 per game) and a decent enough 17th against the run (117.1). But the pass defense did struggle mightily last year, giving up 293.9 yards per game, ranking only slightly ahead of Green Bay's rock bottom effort in that category. Then again, the Packers and Patriots went a combined 28-4 in the regular season, so draw your own conclusions. Still, New England's defense wants a considerable drop from the 8.0 passing yards per attempt (29th) it allowed last year, as well as its 43.1 percent third-down conversion rate (28th). The Patriots devoted most of its draft to defense, with the thought being that front-seven players like first-round defensive end Chandler Jones and first-round linebacker Dont'a Hightower improve New England's speed and athleticism in passing situations.

Which Patriot needs to step up: Shane Vereen, running back.

The Patriots have used the preseason to find out who will replace the departed BenJarvus Green-Ellis as their lead running back, and it now appears that Vereen, a second-round pick in 2011, might have nosed ahead of Stevan Ridley in that competition. Vereen started New England's Week 2 preseason game against the visiting Eagles and turned in a solid performance, with 20 yards rushing and 29 more on four receptions. Ridley is still in the race, but Vereen's 84 yards rushing now leads all Patriots runners this preseason and it was perhaps telling that Ridley was in the Eagles game during fourth-quarter mop-up duty, when New England's inclination is usually to rest and protect key players for the regular season. The Patriots running game will never be all that vital with Brady around, but New England needs someone in the backfield to keep defenses honest, pick up the critical short-yardage situations, and help sell the play-action calls.

Predicted record: 13-3.

The Patriots have rolled to an NFL-best 27-5 regular season record the past two years, and there's no end in sight to their dominance of the AFC East. The Bills should be competitive in the division, and maybe the Jets will make a little noise at some point, but New England is by far the class of this four-team grouping. A check of the Patriots schedule shows opponents that went just 116-140 last year, making it the league's easiest by that often deceiving measure. But in drawing AFC South and NFC West opponents this year, New England doesn't have a murderer's row to plow through outside its division. Maybe the Bills, Ravens or 49ers could give Bill Belichick's talented team a tussle on a given Sunday this season, but the losing efforts will again be few in Foxboro.

What the Bills do best: Field an underrated pair of playmakers in the backfield.

Though the tandem of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller may not scream star material to some, plenty of teams would swap their top two rushers for the productive Buffalo duo. In a heartbeat. Jackson is a versatile and valuable rusher, receiver and blocker, and in just 10 games last year he accounted for a whopping 1,376 yards of offense, with six touchdowns and a 5.5-yard average carry. When Jackson went down with a broken fibula in November last season, the Bills offense lost its most dangerous weapon and became easier to defend.

Spiller picked up some of the slack, contributing 830 yards from scrimmage, with six touchdowns of his own and a very effective 5.2-yard average rush. Buffalo's running game works well out of the spread offense favored by coach Chan Gailey, with both Jackson and Spiller adept in a one-back formation, and as threats in the short passing game. Even with the Jackson injury, the Bills run game finished a respectable 13th last season with 120 yards per game, and its 4.9-yard average rush ranked fifth.

What the Bills need to improve: Getting to the quarterback.

It wasn't difficult to decipher the focus of the Bills' offseason. Buffalo finished with a meager 29 sacks last season -- better than only two other NFL teams -- and 10 of those came in one remarkable game against Washington. So the Bills went shopping in free agency and spent lavishly to land two of the biggest prizes available when it came to pass rushers: defensive ends Mario Williams, the former Houston No. 1 overall pick, and Mark Anderson, fresh off a 10-sack season in New England last year.

The Bills already had two quality defensive tackles in emerging 2011 first-round pick Marcell Dareus and unsung veteran Kyle Williams, so the move back to a 4-3 defensive scheme under new coordinator Dave Wannstedt dovetailed nicely with the personnel acquisitions. The thinking is straight forward: If the Bills' remodeled pass rush can turn up the heat, everything about a Buffalo defense that ranked 26th in yards allowed and 30th in scoring should take a sizable step forward this season.

Which Bill needs to step up: Cordy Glenn, offensive left tackle.

Buffalo has named Glenn, a rookie, its protector of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's blind side, and that's always a bit of a hold-your-breath decision. Especially when the team has legitimate playoff hopes, and especially when the new left tackle played the majority of his collegiate career at guard. But the Bills believe their second-round pick has the build (6-foot-6, 343 pounds), aptitude and athleticism to handle the offensive line's key position, and they seem willing to endure any early season growing pains he might have.

Predicted record: 10-6.

The Bills cruelly have teased their fans with fast starts and season-killing slides a time or two recently (from 5-2 to 6-10 in 2011), but it says right here their NFL-high 12-year playoff drought will end this time around. (I think.) Buffalo's defense might take a little time to jell, but its defensive line has a chance to be a force by midseason, and a softer-than-usual second-half schedule gives the Bills a great opportunity to stay away from any losing streak longer than two or three games. An AFC wild-card berth will have long-suffering Buffalo fans partying like it's, well, 1999 -- the year of the Bills' most recent playoff appearance.

What the Jets do best: Defend the pass.

This just in: The Jets have pretty good cornerbacks. And even with some underachieving play at safety in 2011 -- a position they believe they've upgraded this year with the new starting tandem of LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell -- New York was pretty stout against the pass again last season. The Jets surrendered less than one touchdown pass per game (15), which ranked second in the league, and their 54.2 completion percentage (4th overall) and 201 passing yards per game allowed (5th) both earned them top-five honors.

The key to New York's strength against the pass is obvious: If there is a true shutdown cornerback in today's NFL, Darrelle Revis is it. And the Jets also have the play-making Antonio Cromartie and an improving Kyle Wilson at cornerback, giving them the AFC's deepest depth chart at the position that grows ever more important with each passing year. If Landry and Bell can solidify the safety position, proving capable in both run defense and centerfield play, the Jets secondary will thrive against the three- and four-receiver sets favored by New England, Buffalo and Miami.

What the Jets need to improve: Their shorten-the-game running attack.

Time for a late-August reminder that the Jets didn't trade a fourth-round pick for Tim Tebow to threaten Mark Sanchez as their starting quarterback, they acquired him to help them return to the physical-style "Ground and Pound'' running game that worked so well in helping them reach back-to-back AFC title games in 2009 and 2010. Tebow is mostly about re-flexing New York's muscles in the ground game, and it's new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano's job to use him as effectively as possible while keeping defenses honest with his occasional passing threat.

New York got away from its winning blueprint last season and suffered for it. The Jets' Shonn Greene-led running game averaged an embarrassing 3.8 yards per carry, ranking 29th among 32 teams, and their 105.8 yards rushing per game was just 22nd, putting far too much pressure on quarterback Mark Sanchez and a passing game that is still underwhelming at times and often prone to game-turning mistakes. Tebow is the X factor in New York this season, but the Jets' fortunes won't turn on what he does with his left arm as much as they will with his legs.

Which Jet needs to step up: Austin Howard, offensive right tackle.

The Jets on Thursday finally did the expected and benched the besieged Wayne Hunter, inserting Howard into the starting lineup -- at least for now. The right tackle slot was a trouble spot all last season for New York, with Hunter being held responsible for 11 sacks, and also drawing 11 penalties. After a dreadful preseason capped by Hunter giving up three first-half sacks to the Giants last weekend, the Jets had enough and are giving Howard the chance to claim the job as his own.

Howard is a third-year veteran who went undrafted and has been cut by the Eagles and Ravens earlier in his career. How much of an improvement over Hunter he is will be worth watching closely in New York's final two preseason games. The Jets could get back into the trade market seeking a right tackle, after having the Jeff Otah deal voided by his failed physical earlier this month.

Predicted record: 7-9.

New York's defense had better rebound significantly in terms of its 2011 fall-off in points allowed (22.7 per game, 20th overall), because the Jets offense simply isn't equipped to win many shootouts. Even if Mark Sanchez can block out the Tebow chatter and have a strong season, New York's offense lacks for playmakers, especially at receiver, where the Jets are really counting on second-round rookie deep threat Stephen Hill to make an early impact.

The high-drama factor will again wear on New York's locker room at some point, and the Jets are usually their own worst enemy when it comes to focusing solely on football and not wasting precious energy on outside issues. While the Patriots and Bills look like they've improved, New York seems locked in a state of status quo, and that translates to third place in the AFC East this year.

What the Dolphins do best: Stuff the run.

It got lost in the shuffle last season, when the Dolphins started 0-7 and eventually got head coach Tony Sparano fired, but no one ran on Miami in 2011. The Dolphins defense finished third against the rush with just 95.6 yards allowed per game, third in terms of average rush (3.7), and surrendered the third-fewest rushing touchdowns (8). Much of the credit for that strength goes to nose tackle Paul Soliai, who often drew double-team blocks and still effectively clogged the running lanes. Alongside Soliai was defensive tackle Randy Starks, another underrated lineman whose ability to get off blocks and make plays should now fully be utilized with Miami going to a 4-3 defensive formation under new coordinator Kevin Coyle.

Ends Cameron Wake and Jared Odrick both have strong pass rush skills, but they're not liabilities against the run by any means. In combination with Miami's middle linebacker Karlos Dansby, who flows to the ballcarrier with solid instincts and athleticism, teams trying to run against the Dolphins will be in for some frustrating afternoons.

What the Dolphins need to improve: Their receiving depth chart.

There may not be a more anonymous group of skill-position players in the league than Miami's receiving core. With Brandon Marshall traded to Chicago and Chad Johnson currently unemployed, the Dolphins will have rookie starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill looking for the likes of Davone Bess, Legedu Naanee, Brian Hartline, Roberto Wallace, Marlon Moore and Julius Pruitt on game days. See what I mean?

Unheralded doesn't even begin to describe this group. Try finding a go-to guy in that bunch. One will certainly emerge, but for now, Bess and Naanee are as good as it gets. Maybe Miami goes receiver shopping around cutdown time and adds a name or two to the depth chart. Until then, some young players like Wallace, Moore and Pruitt might get great opportunities to contribute. Just don't look for Miami's pass catchers to go high in anybody's fantasy draft.

Which Dolphin needs to step up: Jonathan Martin, offensive right tackle.

The team's second-round pick out of Stanford has been the starter at right tackle since he arrived in Miami's training camp this summer, but his preseason has been shaky at times. Last week against Carolina he allowed two sacks and took penalties for holding and a false start.

A three-year starter at left tackle for the Cardinal, Martin was moved to the right side in deference to veteran Jake Long, one of the NFL's finest at his pivotal left tackle position. With Long, Martin and second-year veteran Mike Pouncey at center, the Dolphins offensive line has a chance to be one of the team's strengths for years to come. But at the moment, Martin is over-thinking things at times and getting caught up in the mental battle that rookies must slog through. Once he learns to play more instinctively and let his athleticism take over, he'll cut down on the mistakes.

Predicted record: 5-11.

Miami is certain to have some growing pains this year with a rookie at quarterback in Tannehill and a first-time NFL head coach in Joe Philbin, the former Green Bay offensive coordinator. It'll help accelerate Tannehill's development that his former collegiate coach, Mike Sherman, is on hand as the team's offensive coordinator and play-caller, but it would aid the rookie even more if Miami had given him a few more NFL-proven receivers to target. The Dolphins defense is pretty solid and will keep the team in games, but there aren't enough playmaking weapons on the roster to score with the likes of the Patriots and Bills. Building a better offensive arsenal is one of Miami's long-range objectives, but it leaves the Fish significantly outgunned this season.

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