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AFC East preview: Patriots favored again, but the gap may be closing

AFC East preview: Patriots favored again, but the gap may be closing Photo:

The 2010 season felt at the time like a changing of the guard in the AFC East. The Jets, under then second-year head coach Rex Ryan, claimed their second straight playoff berth and then knocked off the Patriots, who had just won the division for the seventh time in eight years, to advance to the AFC Championship Game.

The momentum ended there. New York slipped back to an 8-8 mark the next season, New England came within a play of claiming the Vince Lombardi Trophy and the status quo had returned. Since the Jets' 11-5 finish in 2010, no team other than the Patriots has climbed above the apparently elusive .500 mark in this division.

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Will this season be more of the same? Anyone expecting a marked slide from the Patriots might be in for disappointment. Tom Brady is still around, Rob Gronkowski is expected back in the lineup and a somewhat under-the-radar defense buoyed by newcomer Darrelle Revis has top-five potential. So, the answer to that question depends on how equipped the other three franchises are to make a legitimate run.

On paper, there are reasons for optimism. Both the Jets and Dolphins scrapped their way to 8-8 records in 2013 and could be tougher outs this year -- the Jets thanks to the arrival of a couple talented offensive weapons; the Dolphins because of Ryan Tannehill's continued emergence coupled with a defense that has talent at all levels, most notably along a loaded defensive line.

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Then there is a Buffalo franchise that is absolutely desperate for success. So desperate, in fact, that it mortgaged part of its future to score perhaps the draft's most talented offensive player. The Bills also will be playing for beloved former owner Ralph Wilson, who passed away this offseason.

The changing of the guard declaration may have been premature four years ago. How about now?

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The favorite: New England Patriots

No surprise here. The Patriots have won the last five AFC East titles, doing so in runaway fashion each of the past three seasons. Of course, in spite of that run, which has included three straight trips to the conference title game and a Super Bowl berth, Bill Belichick's club has not been able to win it all since the 2004 campaign -- a frustrating reality for one of the league's elite franchises.

Whereas last year's performance was more of a duct-tape job, with Brady relying on guys like Aaron Dobson and Austin Collie in that AFC title loss to Denver, the 2014 Patriots appear better put together. On top of expecting Gronkowski to be 100 percent for the regular season, the Patriots also signed top corner Revis and wide receiver Brandon LaFell and used a third-round draft pick on running back James White, who is expected to push for carries behind Stevan Ridley and Shane VereenAnother free-agent signee, cornerback Brandon Browner, will be available after serving a four-game suspension to open the season.

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"They’re both great players," Brady said of Revis and Browner, per NESN, "so when you make a mistake, they make you pay, and I think that’s the mark of a really good corner. As a quarterback, you’re always trying to find the weak link in the defense, and neither of those guys are weak links."

The Patriots' extended run atop the division has been sparked by dominance within it: New England was 4-2 against AFC East foes last year and went a combined 11-1 against the Bills, Dolphins and Jets the two years prior. The Patriots open their 2014 schedule with a trip to Miami, offering an early chance to establish themselves as the East's team to beat yet again.

Dark horse: New York Jets

"Somebody asked me if we focus on New England. Bulls**t," Rex Ryan told the New York Post in July. “We’re focused on us. We’re focused on us and how are we going to be better. I have to be honest, I don’t worry about them. They need to worry about us. I think that’s really where we’re at now."

The Jets unexpectedly saved Ryan's job by finishing 8-8 last year, capped by a gutsy Week 17 win over Miami that kept the Dolphins from postseason play. Now, if they could just figure out their offense. While Ryan, now in his sixth season at the helm in New York, has kept the defense up to par, the offense has finished 28th and 29th in points scored over the past two seasons, respectively. For the Jets to have realistic hope of upsetting the AFC apple cart, that number must improve.

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Enter Eric Decker and Chris Johnson, two big-name scores in free agency. New York expects Decker to step in as its No. 1 receiver after an 87-catch showing in Denver. He does not have Peyton Manning throwing him passes any longer, though, so his success -- and that of the team -- ultimately will rely on quarterback Geno Smith ...

... or backup Michael Vick, who has settled into the No. 2 role but may not be there for long if Smith scuffles. The second-year quarterback started all 16 games in his rookie season and produced underwhelming numbers, with just 12 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions. Decker's presence should help, and the arrivals of Willie Colon, Breno Giacomini and rookie Dakota Dozier help stabilize an O-line that flailed some in 2013. 

Will those additions, on top of a defense anchored by Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, be enough to scare the Patriots?

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Most important player: Rob Gronkowski

The most irreplaceable player in this division is Brady (despite Matt Cassel helping this team to an 11-5 mark with Brady on the mend in 2008, the last year New England missed the playoffs). But Gronkowski is the guy who can help push the Patriots over the top, and they have not had him available for either of the past two postseasons. 

Questions about Gronkowski's health will linger, understandably, until he proves he can stay on the field. But let's not forget what kind of player he is when he can -- i.e. arguably, a top-two tight end in the NFL alongside Jimmy Graham. Not only is he an unmatched target in the passing game (averaging more than five catches and one touchdown per game from 2011-12), Gronkowski is an essential blocker in the Patriots' run game. Remember, he often played the in-line role while Aaron Hernandez moved around the field when that pairing ever so briefly played together.

New England has eased Gronkowski along this summer, his knee keeping his Week 1 status in question. With him, the Patriots are a far more dangerous foe. 

Rookie to watch: Sammy Watkins

Randy Moss set the gold standard for rookie receivers back in 1998, when he finished with 69 catches for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns as the Vikings ran off a 15-1 record. The 17-touchdown mark is too high of a bar for Watkins -- Buffalo threw 16 touchdown passes all of last season, including 11 in 10 games by current starter EJ Manuel. Aiming for around 70 catches and 1,000 yards receiving, however, may not be asking too much of Watkins.

Or, at least, the Bills hope it's not. They made a dramatic move up the draft to land the former Clemson star, then wasted no time dropping him into the depth chart as the top receiver. Buffalo needs Manuel to be far better in his second season than he was in his first, and Watkins' arrival could be the catalyst for such a progression.

"We went into this draft saying we were going to be bold and we made a bold move,” Bills president Russ Brandon said of the trade to target Watkins. "Obviously, Sammy Watkins was a player that was very, very, very high on our board and someone that we felt could contribute immediately and we’re sitting up here very pleased."

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If all goes according to plan, Watkins could help free up his offensive teammates, too. The Bills' tight end and running backs caught a combined 155 passes last season, paced by Scott Chandler's team-leading 53 grabs. Watkins will command a little extra attention from opposing secondaries -- in the Bills' preseason game against Carolina, for example, the Panthers frequently shaded a safety his direction, leaving extra space for Chandler, C.J. Spiller and others.

Watkins will be productive in the NFL; the Bills need him to be right out of the gate.

Two more rookies who could have a major impact on the AFC East race: Miami offensive linemen Ja'Wuan James and Billy Turner. The Dolphins' offensive line was an Achilles' heel last season and reportedly has been worrisome in camp. James is penciled in as the starting right tackle, while Turner is in the mix at right guard. Should they prove up to the task, both in paving the way for Miami's run game and providing Tannehill with protection, the Dolphins offense will have a chance to make up for falling short last season.

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