"This is as tough as it gets, right here," Jets head coach
"It," one can safely assume, being an AFC Championship, a reachable goal for each of the AFC East's teams -- except for the Bills, although even Ryan wouldn't dare suggest that. This division has sent two surprise teams to the playoffs the past two seasons, including the division champion Dolphins in 2008 (who somehow went 11-5 despite outscoring opponents by a combined 28 points) and the wild-card-winning Jets in '09, and now features three teams, in the Jets, Dolphins and Patriots, who all appear to be more talented than they were in either of those years.
You'd think it would be "play defense," right? Ryan's defense was the NFL's best by a significant margin in 2009 (it allowed just 252.3 yards per game, more than 30 fewer than the second-ranked Packers), and was bolstered by the offseason acquisitions of cornerback
The D should
Though he's just 23 and a member of a team loaded with established veterans,
"You gotta understand," says defensive tackle
The question, of course, is whether Sanchez's burgeoning leadership skills will be matched by his performance. For the Jets to reach the Super Bowl they've so often predicted for themselves, he will need to significantly improve upon a rookie year in which he ranked 28th in quarterback rating, and in the regular season's second half failed to throw more than one touchdown in a single game.
Taylor is the NFL's active sacks leader with 127.5, but he'll turn 36 on Wednesday and mustered a combined 10.5 sacks in 2008 and '09 -- fewer than he'd recorded in each of his three preceding seasons. The Jets signed him mainly to provide themselves with some veteran depth and mentoring -- "I'm here 'cause Rex wanted me here. To be wanted and embraced, it was easy," he explains -- but Pace's injury means that they are now bereft of any player but Taylor who constitutes a real threat to reach double-digits in sacks. At least in the early going, Taylor will be counted on for more than he -- or the Jets -- bargained.
New York's offseason motto was "212 degrees." Left tackle
The Jets surged to that Championship game last January and had a 17-13 lead over the Colts before wilting in the second half, losing 30-17. Now they return as the most talented, across the board, team in the NFL, and even though critics love to point out all the reasons why they won't fulfill their promise -- the situations with Revis, Pace and Sanchez (legitimate); their predilection for talking themselves up (not as legitimate) -- there is no reason to believe that they won't be among the NFL's elite, and the Super Bowl contender they believe they are.
They could get off to a rough start without Pace and Revis (and Holmes, who will be suspended for the season's first four games), and it's not hard to imagine them emerging from a difficult early schedule (Ravens, Patriots, Dolphins, Bills, Vikings) at 1-4. But things get easier from there, and they should only get stronger.
This is not to say that Miami does everything exceedingly well; more that they appear to be very solid, in all areas, without any particularly outstanding strengths. On offense, the offseason trade for former Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall -- who is just 26, and who last season became the fifth player ever to catch 100 balls in three consecutive seasons -- and the continued development of quarterback
"Our main focus is still the run game," says Henne, "but we definitely put in some plays that are attacking down the field." There is also little doubt that a remade defense -- one that ought to feature six new starters -- will be much better than last season's unit, which ranked a disappointing 22nd overall and was the central reason the Dolphins were unable to build upon their surprising 2008 AFC East title.
That '09 defense was mediocre against the pass (overall ranking: 24th) and the rush (18th), and even though
"It feels like I'm the old guy, and I'm not that old!" says Dansby, 28. "It's cool to me. It revives me, man. It rejuvenates me." The Dolphins also have a lot of defense-minded brainpower on their coaching staff -- including new coordinator
Misi, a second-round pick out of Utah, is one of two rookie defenders (the other is first-round defensive end
Though their personnel is rather different, this Dolphins team in many ways resembles that '08 AFC champion. It looks to be a grinding group that won't blow anyone out, but it has the anchors in place -- in Henne, in Marshall, in Pro Bowl left tackle
The Patriots had the NFL's third-best passing attack in '09 (277 yards per game), and several factors suggest it should be even better than that this season -- if not up to its incredible standard from '07 (when New England gained 296 yards per game through the air, 25 more, on average, than any other team), then something close.
First, quarterback Tom Brady, who turned 33 in August, should by now have shaken off all of the latent rust he'd accrued after missing nearly all of the '08 season with a blown-out knee. Second, he now has more weapons than
Less promising so far in the preseason has been New England's ability to get to the quarterback. No Patriot has more than a single sack, and the team has just four, total. The loss of veteran defensive end
Banta-Cain, 30 and in the second year of his second tour in New England (after two years with the 49ers), is set to start opposite Burgess, and will need to prove that his stellar 2009 -- his 9.5 sacks led the Patriots -- was not a fluke for a player who hadn't registered more than 5.5 sacks in any of his previous six seasons. "It was something I've always felt capable of doing," he said. "Last year I really got an opportunity to be on the field more, and I was healthy -- previous years I had been either a backup or I had injuries. Last year was really my first complete season of playing, and I think that was the biggest key." Now Banta-Cain enters 2010 as perhaps the biggest key to the Patriots' defense.
The Patriots' embarrassing 33-14 wild-card loss to the Ravens, in which they yielded 234 yards on the ground, served to expose just how far removed the team was from its glory days, which effectively ran up until it shocking, undefeated season-killing Super Bowl loss to the Giants in February 2008. This year's team is very different from that 18-1 iteration -- just 18 players remain from that season (not counting Ty Warren or the holding-out guard
The Bills trailed only the Jets in passing defense last season, and also led the AFC with 33 takeaways, despite their starters in the secondary missing a combined 26 games due to injury. Now the unit's almost entirely healthy (although free safety
They will form a backbone of a defense that will now operate out of a 3-4 base under new coordinator
The line was not only awful last season (it allowed 103 QB hits, the second most in the NFL), but also injury-plagued, and was the major contributor to the team's woeful 30th-ranked offense. Now the starters are healthy, but for Chan Gailey's offense -- and particularly quarterback
"He obviously has unbelievable quickness and speed," Gailey said early in training camp of Parrish, the 5-9 dervish. "I mean, [he's] in the top echelon of the league. And it's incumbent upon us to make sure that he touches the ball and is involved in the offense and all that kind of stuff." Parrish, a Miami product, is now in his sixth season with the Bills, and until Gailey's arrival his career seemed to be trending in the wrong direction, both as a receiver and a return man. He had just three catches for 34 yards in '09, and he ranked 25th with a 5.5 yard average on punt returns, after leading the NFL with a 15.3-yard average in '08. But Parrish had four catches for 56 yards and a touchdown in the Bills' third preseason game, against Cincinnati, and he and rookie running back
The Bills are widely expected to be one of the NFL's worst teams, and that they play in a stacked division and face a brutal early schedule (they play five popular playoff picks -- the Dolphins, Packers, Patriots, Jets and Ravens -- in their first six games) won't help matters. A defense that ought to be improved, even though sacks leader