AFC East preview: Can anyone beat Pats in NFL's most dramatic division?
A reality show wrapped in an NFL division, the AFC East has produced a mesmerizing, confounding stretch since the end of last season. So much has occurred that we almost need one of those TV-style recaps.
Previously on "The AFC East" ...
The Jets fired coach Rex Ryan following a 4–12 season, and the Bills promptly scooped him up a couple of weeks later. That shift preceded the Patriots' Super Bowl win, which came amid allegations that Tom Brady had orchestrated an illegal tampering of the footballs his team used during the AFC Championship Game (an act now referred to as Deflategate...you may have heard of it.) The scandal, painfully, has yet to be resolved.
As if all that was not enough, the Dolphins landed free agency's biggest fish, former Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Miami also traded for Kenny Stills, signed veteran Greg Jennings and drafted Devante Parker, all in hopes of upgrading their passing attack.
New York replaced Ryan with ex-Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, then swiped Darrelle Revis away from New England as part of a roster overhaul that brought Antonio Cromartie, Brandon Marshall and rookie Leonard Williams to the Big Apple, too.
The excitement from those good moves in New York did not last long, as new coach Bowles is now dealing with a suspension to defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson; a contract stand-off involving Muhammad Wilkerson; and an injured quarterback, Geno Smith, whose jaw was broken by his (now ex) teammate, linebacker IK Enemkpali, who punched him during a locker-room disagreement.
Oh yeah, and after the Jets released him, Enemkpali was then promptly signed by...Rex Ryan and the Bills.
All this from one division? If you pitched the AFC East's recent script to the producers of "Ballers", they would shoot it down as being unrealistic—and that's a show that recently asked viewers to believe the Miami Marlins played before a packed home crowd.
Brady's impending suspension has made it easier (though not at all easy) to envision Buffalo, Miami or New York snapping New England's six-year run as division champs. The chances of someone actually pulling off the upset, though, may rest in how badly the Patriots are hurt not by their Week 1 quarterback situation but by their off-season defections. Meanwhile, the rest of the East is waiting to see the impact of their own critical changes.
Thankfully, actual football begins soon. When it does, will this division be able to match the drama it's produced off the field?
Are there reasons to doubt that the defending Super Bowl champions can claim their seventh consecutive AFC East title? No question. The Brady suspension (if it ultimately sticks) could put New England in a hole if backup Jimmy Garoppolo falters, and the thinned-out secondary badly needs multiple players to step into prominent roles.
And yet, this is hardly the first time Bill Belichick's team has faced adversity. It seems to thrive on it, somehow finding that extra gear when everyone casts doubts—look no further than the Patriots' lethargic 2–2 start last season. There's a reason New England has won at least 12 games in each of the past five years.
Starting RB LeGarrette Blount is also suspended for the Patriots' opener, but the offense is otherwise set up to survive Brady's absence. There is ample depth in the backfield, including 2014 flash in the pan Jonas Gray, newcomer Travaris Cadet and the forgotten Dion Lewis. The Patriots also have the luxury of tight end Rob Gronkowski, a devastating blocker on top of his obvious abilities as a pass catcher.
Despite losing Vince Wilfork in free agency, the Patriots can show a number of looks up front. Keep an eye on 2014 first-rounder Dominique Easley. And the linebacking corps, led by Jamie Collins, can cover a lot of ground.
Belichick happens to be as good as it gets at adjusting his game plan week-to-week, too, so the Patriots rarely find themselves unprepared or out-schemed. He will find a way to have his team ready, regardless of who is in the lineup.
Dark horse: Bills
“I'm not a Super Bowl-winning head coach,” Rex Ryan told Andrea Kramer on last week's episode of Real Sports, "but I'm getting ready to be. It's gonna happen."
While perhaps that does not count as a guarantee for 2015, Ryan has been outspoken in his confidence ever since Buffalo hired him. He does have a host of reasons to feel enthused about what he inherited, starting with a defense that ranked fourth in the NFL last season, surely music to the defensive-minded Ryan's ears.
Bills GM Doug Whaley has thrown caution to the wind seeking an offense to match. He backed his aggressive 2014 trade-up for WR Sammy Watkins by adding LeSean McCoy, Charles Clay and Percy Harvin at the skill positions this off-season.
The two lingering unknowns are massive: quarterback and the offensive line. Ryan did find success early in his Jets tenure with Mark Sanchez at QB, game-managing around a stout run game and defense. Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor or EJ Manuel could be asked to do the same, provided the line can buoy the ground attack.
A lot must go right for Ryan to get his crack at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The AFC East title would be an important step.
Division MVP: Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
A handful of people took up the argument in 2011 that an injured Peyton Manning deserved MVP consideration because of how dramatically Indianapolis collapsed without him. Brady will miss far less time than his future Hall of Famer counterpart did then, but the mere reaction to his possible four-game absence tells us all we need to know.
Even at 38 years old, Brady remains a brilliant, surgical quarterback. Maybe one or two other quarterbacks in the NFL could have pulled off the late Super Bowl rally he unleashed vs. Seattle.
Miami's Ryan Tannehill is the second-best quarterback in this division, and might be an emerging star. The gap between his play and that of a locked-in Brady remains wide. New England has one of the greatest ever at the game's most important position.
Potential breakout player: Jamar Taylor, CB, Dolphins
Can Taylor stay healthy? The 2013 second-round pick missed a substantial chunk of his rookie year while battling back from a sports hernia, then landed on injured reserve last season due to a shoulder issue. This weekend, in Miami's preseason game vs. Carolina, Taylor exited with a quad injury.
A starting job is there for the taking if he can stay close to 100%.
Rookie to watch: Leonard Williams, DL, Jets
Williams was such a highly-regarded draft prospect that it was a considered a slide when he lasted until the Jets' spot at No. 6. Even they may not have planned on needing to lean on him so heavily this early. But with Richardson facing a four-game suspension and Wilkerson nursing a hamstring injury, Williams has been the de facto lead dog up front his preseason.
"He has that Richard Seymour prototype-body," teammate Willie Colon told the New York Post. "He’s long, he’s athletic, he moves really well in the trenches. He doesn’t even know how good he can be. He’s just playing football. So when he really gets his burns, he’s gonna be scary."
Week 2 of the preseason provided a glimpse at Williams' potential. He dropped Atlanta backup QB T.J. Yates for a safety as part of a five-tackle, 1.5-sack showing. Williams has a clear shot at Defensive Rookie of the Year, and the Jets are banking on him to live up to the hype.
Coach with most to prove: Joe Philbin, Dolphins
The Dolphins clearly are not messing around anymore—this season is playoffs or bust. If they do not get there, the odds are stacked against Philbin returning for 2016. He has yet to produce an above-.500 season, finishing 7–9, 8–8 and 8–8, respectively, over his first three years. That won't cut it again, particularly after Philbin's questionable game management cost the Dolphins multiple times in 2014.
Miami did extend Philbin's contract through next season, at least keeping him out of the despised lame-duck situation. The bump creates little extra security in terms of Philbin's job, though. He's likely down to his last shot.
Must-watch divisional game: Miami at New England, Week 8
Check out the start to the Dolphins' schedule: at Washington, at Jacksonville, Buffalo, the Jets (followed by a bye), at Tennessee, Houston. They should be favored in all of those games and very well jump out to a 6–0 record.
Game No. 7 takes them to Foxborough, on a Thursday night.
By that point the Patriots will have had Brady back in their lineup for at least two games. Will they have any ground to make up? If so, this would be the time to do it—New England hosts Miami amidst a three-game homestand and a stretch including five of seven games at Gillette Stadium.
On the other hand, the Dolphins' cushy beginning gives way to a brutal final 10 games. In it, they play six 2014 playoff teams, the Patriots twice, plus visit Buffalo and Philadelphia and host the Giants. They might need that 6-0 start to buoy them should the second-half slate prove too much to handle.
Regardless of the standings headed into this late October showdown, a Miami win would send waves through the AFC East.