A Battle Between Giants (AFC East Preview)

One of the strongest divisions in the last decade has been the AFC North but really because of one team. The New England Patriots were the NFL’s team of the 2000s as they continued to win every year and if they didn’t win they were very close. With Tom Brady and Bill Belichick leading the Pats they have been able to dominate the league for years. The last few years has seen a small shift in the power structure as the New York Jets have welcomed Rex Ryan. Ryan has completely changed the attitude of the Jets as he continually claims that his team will win the Super Bowl. The rivalry between the Pats and Jets has been awoken and is one of the best current rivalries as both teams have had their fair share of wins in important games. Meanwhile the bottom of the division has been left in the dust as the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills have been beat up by the top two teams. The Bills and Dolphins are both beginning to rebuild as they hope to finally even out the power in the East. It is unlikely that this will happen as the Jets and Pats have remained at the top and do not look to slow down anytime soon. This year the Pats have loaded up and the Jets have again predicted a Super Bowl victory, even if some are doubtful. The Bills and Dolphins have stayed out of the trash talk and may quietly improve on their performances last year.

Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills seem to have been cursed as a franchise as they have yet to win a Super Bowl but hold the record for consecutive Super Bowl appearances, 4 times in the 1990s. They lost all of them and earning a reputation for the losers of the NFL. In 2010 the Bills tried to change this attitude first by hiring Chan Gailey to run the team and then drafting their RB of the future in CJ Spiller. Unfortunately for the Bills this did not work out as they had planned as the Bills ended their 2010 season in last place with a 4-12 record. One of the biggest issues facing the Bills were their QB competition throughout the season and the injury of one of their most hopeful signings in Shawne Merriman. The QB controversy has lasted in Buffalo for a long time as they seem to bring in two QBs almost every year. If it is not Doug Flutie vs. Rob Johnson then it is Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Trent Edwards. The Fitzpatrick/Edwards debate was finally ended in 2010 as the Bills released Edwards during the season handing the team to Fitzpatrick. Another roster moved proved less fruitful as the Bills signed Shawne Merriman who was injured and did not play the entire season. Merriman was supposed to be the solution the Bills defensive wows but could not play and show how good he could be.  This year the Bills hope that the changes they made on defence will help them while their stability at the QB position will allow their offence to finally perform.

The biggest change in 2011 was the multiple signings on the defensive side of the ball as well as the return of a once great linebacker. Shawne Merriman was once considered one of the best linebackers in the league but had fallen off when the Bills side him midseason 2010. This year Merriman is hoping to show everyone that he has not fallen off and is in fact back and stronger than ever. During the preseason Merriman looked like his old self at one point sacking Chicago QB Chad Heine twice in as many plays. The arrival of Merriman is just one thing that has the Bills thinking they may be able to compete this year as they have also added a number of players that will help with the pass rush. Their first round pick Marcell Dareus was named the NCAA National Championship defensive MVP and will help to provide some pressure along with Merriman. One offseason signing will look to make an impact on and off the field as former Packer Nick Barnett will work as one of the middle linebackers and will be the captain of the defence. The improved defence will provide the Bills offence with some breathing room as they will need to adjust to some new faces. The new faces are not new signings but new starters as Ryan Fitzpatrick will be the absolute #1 at QB and his best weapon in Lee Evans has left to the Baltimore Ravens. Fitzpatrick will have Roscoe Parrish, Steve Johnson, and Donald Jones to throw to but may have some growing pains as he tries to gel with these receivers. His main help will be out of the backfield as Fred Jackson will be back at RB and will be backed up by second year RB C.J. Spiller. The Bills will try to ride their newly minted defence as their offence may go through some growing pains but with the Jets and Patriots in the division don’t expect them to make the playoffs this year.

New York Jets

With the arrival of Rex Ryan and his dominating defence the Jets have become one of the better teams in the NFL. The only issue they have is being included in the same division as the always good New England Patriots. Rex Ryan is fully aware of this as he has continued to talk trash about the Pats on a consistent basis. Last year Ryan was able to back up his talk as he went out and used his strong deffence to beat the Pats. During the 2010 season the Jets had a lot of hype as Ryan had claimed they would win the Super Bowl. The season began promising as the Jets won the first matchup against the Patriots and took that momentum to a five game win streak before their bye week. After a hard-fought defensive war against the Packers the Jets went on another string of four wins. This gave the Jets a final record of 11-5 but was not enough to pass the Patriots. The Jets earned the wild card spot and beat the Indianapolis Colts to meet their rivals in the divisional round. The Jets beat the Patriots and then came up short in the conference finals. New York hopes to continue their improvement and finally beat out the Patriots for the division title. They will do this like usual with a defence that has a habit of confusing the best QBs in the game.

The Jets made many attempts at making a big splash in the offseason including going after Nnamdi Asumogha. This may have been bad as they seemed to focus on Asumogha and did not get him while other big name free agents went by the wayside. Not signing Asumogha forced the Jets to resign Antonio Cromartie to compliment the best CB in the NFL Darrelle Revis. The rest of the defensive will stay relatively the same as they do not need any help. The biggest change may have been the loss of Patriots Killer Shaun Ellis who seemed to havce his best game against the Patriots and will now be playing for the Patriots. The Jets defence was ranked number three last year in the NFL and with the one main loss who will be replaced by their first round draft pick Muhammad Wilkerson. The defence will remain the strength of the Jets as the offence will need to step up in order to give Ryan’s D some breathing room. New York has attempted to do this by adding some key wideouts to replace losses and give Mark Sanchez more weapons in his third year. The Jets lost Braylon Edwards but have made up for the loss with the signing of Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason. Burress will have some rust as he was signed after being released from a 21 month stint in prison and Derrick Mason will look to shake off his age and prove he has what it takes to be an elite WR. In the running game the Jets will continue their two-headed attack with Shonn Greene and LaDanian Tomlinson. The Jets will remain relatively the same as they will still be a defensive first team that likes to run the ball. Burress will give them a deep threat if he returns to form and the passing attack looks to be improved if Sanchez can live up to his potential. The Jets have been strong and only getting stronger but the Patriots have also improved and they will battle with New England to the end for the division crown.

Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins have been battling in the AFC East but mainly against the Buffalo Bills to ensure they will not be last in the division. The Dolphins have traditionally been a strong team but have faced possibly the biggest QB curse in the league. After Dan Marino retied the Dolphins have yet to find a QB that can lead them to the Super Bowl. Last year they attempted to find that QB as Chad Henne entered his third year in the NFL and finally came out of the shadow of often injured Chad Pennington. Henne was not able to do much however as the Dolphins went 7-9 in 2010 and finished just better than the Bills. The Dolphins started their season well winning their first two games of the season then they lost their next two. The season was up in the air at the bye week as nobody knew if the Dolphins could recover from the two losses or if they would collapse. After the bye the Dolphins continued to be a middle of the road team as they won a game then lost a game for most of the season. The final three games were the downfall for the Dolphins as they lost the last games and ended on a sour note. The Dolphins are a decent team that needs to find a better identity to be able to challenge for the division title again. Unfortunately for Miami they will be forced to play the New England Patriots and New York Jets if they wish to challenge for that top spot.

In 2011 the Dolphins made a key gamble as they signed former New Orleans running back Reggie Bush. This signing is risky because Bush will come in to the Dolphins as the true #1 runner replacing the old two-headed force of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams who both left in the offseason. The risk also shows as Bush has never been the feature back in the NFL as he was a utility man in the New Orleans offence. In the Dolphins offence Bush will be the feature back and will run the ball primarily instead of holding multiple roles including running, catching, returner, and a number of other roles he had on the Saints. This may allow Bush to focus on the running aspect of his game and make him return to the Reggie Bush that was drafted #2 overall out of USC. If Bush can live up to the potential that he undoubtedly has then the Dolphins will have found their running game that will help to develop a passing game. The essential part to this passing game will be the improvement of Chad Henne who will need to improve on his performance last year if the Dolphins hope to compete against the defences of the Patriots and the Jets. The offence will have some assistance by a defence that harks back to the “No Name Defence” of the Dolphins in the past as they lack any big name players. The one player that will give them some notoriety is Jason Taylor who returns to the Dolphins after a stint with the Jets. The Miami defence was ranked 6th overall last year but was not recognized as a good defence due to their lack of star power. With Cameron Wake, ranked 3rd in sacks in 2010, and the return of Taylor the Dolphins pass pressure will be strong and they do not look to be any worse than last year. The defence will give Chad Henne and Reggie Bush the opportunity to get things going but make no mistake about it the Dolphins season rests on their shoulders. If Henne and Bush can play well the Dolphins will be an improved team and may be able to compete with the top teams but will still need to get by the Jets and Pats who seem to be in a class of their own.

New England Patriots

The New England Patriots have been the top team of the past decade as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have led the Patriots to multiple Super Bowls. Brady is considered one of the top 2 QBs in the NFL, the debate rages between him and Peyton Manning, and has proven it as personnel changes have not phased him. Belichick is the reigning Coach of the year and has a record of 126-50 in his 12 season with the Pats. These two men combined have made one of the strongest teams in the NFL and have rarely been out of the Super Bowl discussion. They have also been a part of one of the best current rivalries in the NFL and mainly because they are the polar opposite of the Jets. The Jets have a tendency to talk a lot with Rex Ryan and his cast of characters whereas the Pats are the worst talkers in the league regularly holding the most boring press conferences in the NFL. This has created a rivalry that has matched them up in some very important games. The 210 season for the Pats was another where they were favorites for the Super Bowl as they went 14-2 but came up short in the playoffs losing to their rival the New York Jets in the divisional playoffs. This year the Pats have made a couple of big moves that if they payoff could guide them back to the Super Bowl. They are again Super Bowl favorites but the only obstacle they will have is how well the New York Jets play against them as the two teams seem to be on a collision course for the divisional title and possibly another playoff game.

The Patriots made some of the biggest and most controversial moves in the 2011 offseason as they signed two players that do not seem to fit into their atmosphere. On offence the Pats signed the always outspoken Chad Ochocinco who seems to be a reminder of the 2010 signing of outspoken Randy Moss. Ochocinco has been a longtime Bengal but as of recently has begun to drop off in production. This may have been a result of being on a bad team or that he was too focused on his own self promotion to focus on the game. Either way both of those should be solved as the Patriots are not a team that allows outspoken individuals and are a good team. If Ochocinco can settle down and fit into the team first attitude on the Patriots he may have one of the best seasons as Tom Brady will be looking to him to stretch the field. Brady will also still have Wes Welker and Deion Branch as the other levels of his passing game that will look to have many different levels to pass to. They will continue to be a pass first team that will utilize the talents of Danny Woodhead at RB and WR along with running back Benjarvus Green-Ellis. On defence the Pats made another big move as they traded a 5th round pick for the controversial Albert Haynesworth. Haynesworth has been a big question mark as he is very talented as a defensive tackle but has attitude problems. While playing for Mike Shannahan in Washington Haynesworth came into campo overweight and could not pass a conditioning test and then pouted on the sideline as he was not happy with the 3-4 scheme. Haynesworth showed up to Patriots camp and seemed to have changed as he passed his conditioning test in his first try. Although the Patriots are a base 3-4 scheme with the sheer weight they will be able to have in the centre of the line expect the Patriots to move more to a 4-3 as Haynesworth, 335 lbs, and Vincent Wilfork, 325 lbs, are too good to not use. If Ochocinco and Haynesworth can fit in to the team first attitude of the Patriots they will be fine and the Patriots will be more than fine. The one obstacle will be the Jets and the season long battle between these two may determine the next AFC Super representative.

 

Prediction:

1. New England Patriots (13-3)

2. New York Jets (12-4)

3. Miami Dolphins (6-10)

4. Buffalo Bills (5-11)

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