The AFC East has, for two years now, been a division evenly split between haves (Patriots, Jets) and have-nots (Dolphins, Bills), and there seems little reason to expect anything will change in 2011, at least as far as the final standings. New England and New York remain among the NFL's elite teams, constructed to make the Super Bowl runs that have recently fallen short for both, while Miami and Buffalo simply try to make the playoffs for the first time in, respectively, three and 12 seasons.
If there is to be any change, it might be in the overall quality of the division's defenses. While the Jets and Dolphins already field top defenses -- the Jets ranked third overall last season, the Dolphins sixth -- the Patriots (2011 ranking: 25th) and the Bills (24th) have made improvements that could push them into the NFL's top half.
"I coached in the NFC East for awhile there in Dallas, and I always thought that was a tremendous division -- a really hard, physical division to have to play all those teams twice," says Tony Sparano, the Dolphins' fourth-year head coach. "This division is exactly that way. You've got great coaches, you have outstanding defenses and hard running games. Nobody in our division is going to get by anybody without a real fight."
Still, even if it might prove somewhat more difficult on a play-to-play basis, the Patriots and Jets should make the playoffs, despite a relative leveling of the defensive playing field.
To a Tom Brady-led passing game that produced a league-best 37 touchdowns, against a league-low five interceptions, the Patriots added a wideout who ranks fourth among active players in receiving yards (10,783) and fourth in touchdown catches (66). But whatever production the Patriots receive out of Chad Ochocinco, acquired from the Bengals for a fifth- and sixth-round pick, will be more of a nice bonus than essential.
That's because New England has one of the deepest pools of talented receiving options in the league. It starts with Wes Welker, continues through second-year rising deep threat Taylor Price and ends with second-year tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the best tandem of pass-catching tight ends in the league and each a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. With the 34-year-old Brady still in his prime (even if his career is nearing its downswing), the Patriots' passing game should approach its performance in 2007, when it produced 4,859 yards through the air, the 12th-most ever.
Make that, what the Patriots
"How, strategically, we want to move guys around and put them in certain alignments, or how to configure them relative to certain formations and tie it in with coverage and things like that -- I think there's flexibility there," the coach says, in his usual cards-concealing way. Still, it looks as if New England's major problem has been solved. "I envision it as being one of the best defenses around," says Wilfork. "I hope."
Mesko wasn't called upon much as a rookie, due to the Patriots' highly efficient offense: he was 26th in the league in punts. That meant that when Mesko did trot onto the field, something had gone wrong -- as it might in the several playoff games for which these Patriots surely seem headed. "It definitely requires a greater degree of focus on the sideline," Mesko says of his lack of use. "But I'm getting mental reps if I'm not in there, or if I am."
The Patriots seem certain to win the season's first four games, and its last four (if they need to). Their only potential roadblocks might come in a relatively difficult mid-season stretch, particularly in games at Pittsburgh (Week 8), at the Jets (Week 10) and at Philadelphia (Week 12). Then will come the playoffs -- in which, it must be said, New England hasn't won a game since 2007.
When the Jets' defense is running coach Rex Ryan's 3-4 scheme at its full-strength best, no other is more bewildering to opposing offenses. That is how New York ranked eighth in the league in sacks last season, despite having only one player in the league's top 40 in the category (Bryan Thomas, whose six sacks tied for 39th). When the Jets lose a key cog or two, though, the defense struggles to maintain its standard level of confusion, and the result can be an uncharacteristic lapse, such as the one they experienced in the first half of last January's AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers raced out to an insurmountable 24-3 lead and Ben Roethlisberger wasn't sacked once. "We wore down a little bit," Ryan says. "Pittsburgh put it to us. They were the more physical team that day, which usually doesn't happen. By the time we rebounded, it was too late."
Linebacker Calvin Pace managed a second-half sack in that game despite playing on a fractured foot that was by then only 20 percent healed, according to Ryan. Pace is healthy now, and that should prove crucial to a defense that was "embarrassed" (Ryan's term) by an overall ranking of third.
"He's our best pass rusher, and we're excited for him to have a big year this year," says cornerback Darrelle Revis. If he does, and if the Jets don't again suffer injuries to many of their central components, the defense should once more contend to be the NFL's best.
Mark Sanchez ranked 32nd in completion percentage inside the 20-yard line last season among quarterbacks with more than 15 red zone pass attempts, at 47.7 percent. He was much worse inside the 10, where he completed just 7 of 26 throws. "The coverages get tight, a lot of guys in there," says Ryan. "For any second-year quarterback, you look at anybody that's ever played this game, there's a lot of easier things to do than be a quarterback in the red zone. I think this year, you'll see those numbers go up."
Helping Sanchez's progression will be Plaxico Burress, whom the Jets signed fresh off a 22-month stint in the Oneida Correctional Facility. Even if Burress has lost a step at 34, he's still 6'5" and skilled. "When he's covered, he's open," says Ryan.
The Jets made their annual offseason splash by signing Burress, but he and 37-year-old fellow free agent Derrick Mason might not make up for the 94 catches and 1,337 receiving yards the Jets lost in departed wideouts Jerricho Cotchery and Braylon Edwards. That's where Keller will come in. Keller, now New York's longest-tenured skill position player, caught 19 balls for 254 yards and five touchdowns in the team's first four games last year, but saw his role reduced when Santonio Holmes returned from a season-opening suspension. Now, Keller should be a primary target for Sanchez all season long, a season that Burress predicts will end with a Pro Bowl appearance.
A relatively easy road schedule -- the Jets' only real tests away from the Meadowlands could come at Baltimore (Week 4), at New England (Week 5) and at Philadelphia (Week 15) -- should ensure they will win 11 games for the second straight season. If their lack of defensive depth doesn't become an issue, they could win more than that.
Casual observers almost certainly know the name of veteran Jason Taylor, returning for his third stint in Miami after a season with the Jets, and they might know that of Cameron Wake, the former CFL-er who broke out with 14 sacks last season, but they would likely be hard-pressed to identify any other members of the Dolphins' defense.
"Not so many of those big, huge names, but we've got a lot of blue-collar guys who are hard-working," says Wake. "Let's keep that a secret. Come in the back door." Miami ranked sixth in total defense last season, allowing 309.3 yards per game, and returns 11 of 12 starters, the only addition being inside linebacker Kevin Burnett. Even though it lacks star power, Mike Nolan's unit -- which swirls around nose tackle Paul Soliai, now the highest paid defender in franchise history -- has a chance to become one of the NFL's true elite.
Last season's offense was generally scattershot, and particularly tended to fall apart late in games, posting the fourth-most fourth-quarter interceptions (9) and ranking 25th in yards (1,360) and 27th in points (68). To bring some stability to the offense, Miami traded for a player whose NFL career thus far has been rather unstable: Reggie Bush, acquired from the Saints in July for backup safety Jonathon Amaya and an undisclosed draft pick.
The Dolphins believe that Bush, still just 26, can become something close to an every-down back, including downs that come late in games, and to help him become that they've decided to strip him of the punt-returning responsibilities at which he used to excel. "I enjoy returning punts and doing the special teams thing, but now I get a chance to just be a dynamic offensive player," says Bush. They are also counting on a significant maturation of beleaguered quarterback Chad Henne, who threw just three fourth-quarter TDs and had a rating in the period of 55.6.
Henne has one more year -- or, perhaps, the early portion of one more year -- to prove he can be an effective NFL quarterback, as, although his problems last season were most acute late in games, they extended earlier. "I think overall I came out a better person and a better player, going through that, being criticized and living through that whole year," says Henne, whose overall quarterback rating of 75.4 was actually very slightly better than that of the similarly experienced, if far less censured, Sanchez (75.3).
"We just need to make some more plays down the field." says Sparano, who over the offseason went through the indignity of watching his owner fly to California to unsuccessfully woo another coach, Jim Harbaugh, to take Sparano's job.
The Dolphins hired new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll with the idea that he would be able to shake up an offense that tended toward the conservative, and would help Henne take advantage of his deep threats, most notably receiver Brandon Marshall. Henne, indeed, was impressive in the first three preseason games, compiling 446 yards (second-best in the league) with a 93.6 rating, and connecting with Marshall for a 60-yard touchdown against the Bucs, longer than any catch Marshall had last year. It was, of course, only the preseason.
The fate of the Dolphins is the most difficult to predict among the teams in the AFC East. If the defense is as advertised, if Bush really can finally make good on his talents and if Henne succeeds in making the leap at which his exhibition season has hinted, then they could, despite a difficult schedule, challenge for a Wild Card berth. Those seem, however, to amount to a lot of 'ifs.'
Even after trading longtime star Lee Evans to the Ravens, Buffalo has its share of offensive playmakers. That includes, most notably, wide receiver Stevie Johnson, running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller and former Jet Brad Smith, the free-agent signee who will play a little quarterback, a little running back and a little wideout. Versatility, however, does not always equal success, as Johnson -- the Kentucky product who had 12 catches for 112 yards in his first two seasons, but 82 catches for 1,073 yards last year -- knows. "You can say I got 1,000 yards in a season and whatnot, but we only got four wins," Johnsons says. "Now it's more about trying to get wins and having big production at the same time."
No matter what the offense did last season -- and after Ryan Fitzpatrick became the starting quarterback in Week 3, it wasn't entirely awful, scoring 19.9 points per game -- the Bills would have had trouble accumulating wins due to their feeble run defense. No defense in a decade faced as many rushing attempts as did the Bills, and Buffalo allowed an NFL-high nine separate running backs -- including three individual Jets -- to produce 100-yard games against them.
Shoring up the run defense was the front office's top offseason priority, and to that end they drafted mammoth Alabama tackle Marcell Dareus with the third overall pick, and then signed veteran inside linebacker Nick Barnett, the former Packer. While the result shouldn't be one of the league's best run-stopping units, it should be improved, and that will allow a skilled secondary -- and a pass rush bolstered by a rejuvenated Shawne Merriman -- to have a greater impact. "That's what you hope, that's what you plan on," says head coach Chan Gailey. "That's what we're practicing for, to not let those guys run through us like they did last year."
The 6'5", 316-pound Bell is now entering his fourth season, and it will be a critical one. The former project out of Northwestern State made 16 starts at left tackle last season, and is now the most athletically gifted member of a line that has been shaky for years. "Demetrius really made strides from two years ago to last year," says Fitzpatrick, "and we're expecting the same strides out of him this year." Bell's preseason, though, got off to a rocky start, and he particularly struggled against Broncos' end Elvis Dumervil. If Bell can't serve as the cornerstone of a line that ranks as the league's shallowest, Buffalo's offense won't improve on last season's 25th ranking.
Last season, Buffalo faced what turned out to be the league's most difficult schedule, and they started things off by losing eight straight games. Things don't look much easier in 2011, as the Bills will have to contend with what is projected to be the NFL's second-most-formidable slate. That will likely mean that even if they win more games than the four they managed in 2010, they won't win many more.