"This is as tough as it gets, right here," Jets head coach Rex Ryan opined during training camp of the state of the AFC East. "All the teams are getting better. You look at what Miami did, bringing in Brandon Marshall, it's going to be a war when we go play them. We go against New England, all they have is Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, enough said. Buffalo, we don't know what they're going to be, because they have [new head coach] Chan Gailey -- but I know one thing, they're going to play hard. This is definitely the old black and blue division, that's what this is going to be. We're going to beat on one another, and whoever comes out with the best record in this division probably wins it."
"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.
What the Jets do best: Run the ball.
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 Antonio Cromartie and safety Brodney Pool, but it seems sure to start the season without two central contributors: All-Pro corner Darrelle Revis, whose holdout shows few signs of ending, and outside linebacker and team sacks leader Calvin Pace, who will miss a minimum of six weeks after breaking his foot last Friday.
The D should still be very good, but the team's major strength might now be its running game, which was also the league's best in '09. The Jets are so confident in beefy second-year back Shonn Greene -- who rushed for 304 yards and two touchdowns in three playoff games -- that they exhibited very little interest in re-signing Thomas Jones, who will aim for his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season in Kansas City. Their rushing attack shouldn't miss a beat.
What the Jets need to improve: Quarterback play.
Though he's just 23 and a member of a team loaded with established veterans, Mark Sanchez certainly acts like a leader. In July he invited eight of his teammates (including new receiver Santonio Holmes) to Newport Beach's Pelican Hill resort for a week of workouts he dubbed "Jets West" (the group also attended baseball's All-Star Game and the ESPYs), and during training camp he rather conspicuously made sure that he was always the first to offer a hug to his teammates after they'd made a big play. "Just getting a completion against our defense is like a win in itself," he explained. "So when it happens, you need to let guys know."
"You gotta understand," says defensive tackle Kris Jenkins. "Sanchez is not trying to be the leader. Sanchez is the leader, and doing what a leader is supposed to do. He's a young guy, but he's stepped into those shoes, and he's wearing them."
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.
Which Jet needs to step up: Outside linebacker Jason Taylor.
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.
Predicted record: 11-5.
New York's offseason motto was "212 degrees." Left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson explains: "It's the temperature at which water boils -- that one extra degree that changes everything. Last year Rex Ryan said, 'What was the difference between us being in the Super Bowl and just being in the AFC Championship? Just this much.' So we need to do that much more."
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.
What the Dolphins do best: Everything.
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 Chad Henne, whom the Dolphins seem to revere and trust as much as any second-year starting quarterback can be revered and trusted, should pay dividends. It'll likely elevate the passing game to a level that approaches that of the Ronnie Brown- and Ricky Williams-led rushing attack, which was last season the NFL's fourth-most productive.
"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.
What the Dolphins need to improve: Overall defense.
That '09 defense was mediocre against the pass (overall ranking: 24th) and the rush (18th), and even though Bill Parcells -- beginning his third season as the franchise's Executive V.P. -- made his biggest offseason splash with his signing of the talented Marshall, his main focus was on the other side of the ball. Seven of his eight draft picks were defensive players, as was his other significant free-agent signing, that of former Cardinals inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, who will be charged with leading all that youth.
"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 Mike Nolan and new linebackers coach Bill Sheridan, the Giants' coordinator last season -- and that should contribute to a rejuvenation not just for Dansby, but also the entire unit.
Which Dolphin needs to step up: Outside linebacker Koa Misi.
Misi, a second-round pick out of Utah, is one of two rookie defenders (the other is first-round defensive end Jared Odrick) who, as of a couple of weeks ago, appeared to have locked down a starting job. But he has yet to make much of an impact in the Dolphins' exhibition season (through three games he has seven tackles, and no sacks, interceptions or forced fumbles), and is now reportedly being pushed by third-year pro IkalkaAlama-Francis, a former Lions backup. Dansby is doing his best to tutor his young linebacking mate -- particularly, Dansby says, "with pass-rushing things, the way he needs to drop into coverage." The 6-foot-3, 251-pound Misi made all of his 36 starts in college on the defensive line, and he must accelerate his learning curve to justify the early hype that surrounds him.
Predicted record: 9-7.
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 Jake Long, in all those young defenders -- to initiate a sustained run of success, starting this year.
What the Patriots do best: Throw the ball.
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 Randy Moss and Wes Welker (who appears to be at nearly full strength after his own knee injury, suffered during last season's Week 17) at his disposal, particularly in second-year wideout Julian Edelman and precociously skilled rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Through the Patriots' first three preseason games, those three were all tied with Moss for the team lead with seven receptions.
What the Patriots need to improve: Rushing the passer.
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 Ty Warren has made the Patriots' front seven very thin and reliant on pressure from aging players like end Gerard Warren and outside linebacker Derrick Burgess, both 32. That means the Patriots might be in for many games similar to last Thursday's exhibition loss to the lowly Rams, in which they yielded 36 points and a combined 326 passing yards to rookie quarterback Sam Bradford and his no-name backups, Thaddeus Lewis and Keith Null. New England's offense will ensure that it will more often than not be on the right side of those high-scoring affairs, but it won't be easy.
What Patriot needs to step up: Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain.
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.
Predicted record: 9-7.
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 Logan Mankins). While the defense features a fair amount of young talent (like rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes, the former Florida Gator) with the potential to quickly develop, it is the offense that will bear the brunt of the Patriots' load. The offense, however, is talented enough to lead New England to a potential wild-card berth.
What the Bills do best: Defend the pass.
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 Jairus Byrd, the NFL's co-interceptions leader as a rookie in '09, might miss Week 1 after having groin surgery) and extremely deep.
They will form a backbone of a defense that will now operate out of a 3-4 base under new coordinator George Edwards, a scheme that elicited a positive report from running back Fred Jackson, before Jackson broke a bone in his right hand during the team's exhibition season opener. "They're flying around the ball," said Jackson. "That's what a 3-4 defense allows you to do -- it allows you to draw up some crazy things. They're definitely going to have a lot of guys over there making plays." If the Bills are to exceed expectations this year, it will have to be largely on the strength of a revitalized defense.
What the Bills need to improve: Offensive line.
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 Trent Edwards -- to have any success, the line will need to significantly outperform what can be expected from a group that includes no established stars, only callow youngsters (in second-year guards Andy Levitre and Eric Wood and third-year left tackle Demetrius Bell) and undistinguished journeymen (center Geoff Hangartner, right tackle Cornell Green).
Which Bill needs to step up: Wide receiver Roscoe Parrish.
"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 C.J. Spiller could provide Buffalo's offense with a game-breaking element that was absent last season.
Predicted record: 3-13.
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 Aaron Schobel retired, should keep them in games long enough for the offense -- and, particularly, the offensive line -- to lose them. They might emerge from their four games against fellow bottom-feeders in the Jaguars, Chiefs, Lions and Browns with a few wins, but an ultimate record better than 3-13 would constitute an accomplishment.