2015 NFL Preview: AFC East

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Every era has their dominant teams and more often than not those dominant teams become the most hated team in the league.

The New England Patriots have filled that role perfectly winning multiple Super Bowls in the 2000s and becoming the team to beat in the East.

Last year they found their way to the top for another year winning their sixth division title and Super Bowl XLIX.

So they remained one of the handful of teams that nobody likes but for them it is far more than just winning that has put them on the most hated list.

In 2007 the Patriots were accused of videotaping the New York Jets’ sidelines during a game to determine signals of the coaching staff.

The Patriots admitted to the infraction citing that they misinterpreted the rules regarding recording devices.

That year they went to the Super Bowl amid the controversy and the thought that they may have done this to other teams.

Their latest run to the Super Bowl also contained controversy as well when the Indianapolis Colts accused them of deflating balls to make them easier to handle.

An investigation was launched and the NFL determined that their game balls were under inflated, below league standards, and that Tom Brady knew about it the entire time.

The league punished the Patriots and suspended Brady for the first four games of the season as once again they were in the midst of a scandal.

One of the biggest issues in the scandal was that Brady had destroyed his phone despite the NFL asking to see it and determine if he had sent texts to the equipment manager to tell them to deflate the balls.

The Brady suspension was overturned after a judge determined that Roger Goodell had gone too far to accuse Brady but the damage had been done.football-sidebar

A new report recently released has former coaches claiming that the Patriots sent employees to steal opposing team’s play sheets as well.

The Patriots are a team that is one of the most hated because they win but more so because they win with extremely shady practices.

They have consistently been accused of cheating and bending the rules while teams have reportedly taken precautions whenever playing the Patriots.

They remain the team to beat in the East though as among all the controversy they are still the most consistent team in the division.

Much like the East in the NFC this division is full of teams with issues both on and off the field.

The Buffalo Bills were a losing team for years but are beginning to turn things around and now have one of the most controversial coaches leading the way.

The New York Jets are reeling from the loss of that controversial coach as they try to figure out who they are as a team this year.

The Miami Dolphins continue to try to find their way to the top after years of promise just falling short.

They have all had their issues in past years and recently with the East consistently remaining an unpredictable division.

The only thing that is ever certain in the East is that the Patriots will be the team to beat after winning six division titles in a row.

They will enter the season coming off of yet another controversy but Brady and Belichick are still there and the changes are not many for a team that took home another Super Bowl.

Despite those issues the team remains solid and everyone else in the division will just be trying to keep up with the Pats.

Unlike other years though there may just be a team or two that can actually challenge the Pats as teams have improved.

It could be a much better battle than usual as the AFC East attempts to be a much better division than a year ago.

A lot of eyes will be on the East this year as the Super Bowl champions attempt to repeat as champions.

Maybe more than that though is that the Patriots will be under a microscope as they attempt to win a seventh straight division title while overcoming the perception of being labelled cheaters.

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The Buffalo Bills are in the midst of a resurgence as they have continually moved closer to taking the title over the last few years. Last year they finished in second place with a solid record but couldn’t find their way to the playoffs. This year they are hoping to take that extra step and have taken some big steps towards that goal. The biggest move of all came when they signed new head coach Rex Ryan. Despite his penchant for making headlines, both negative and positive, his blue-collar attitude has already won over fans in Western New York. A big issue that led to his departure from the Jets was his failure to find a consistent quarterback. This year he has the same task as the Bills have been looking to find a consistent QB since Jim Kelly. To that end Ryan brought in a number of quarterbacks to compete for the job and in the end it was former Baltimore back-up Tyrod Taylor who won the job. Ryan loves Taylor’s athleticism but there are a lot of questions with his limited experience as a starter. He will have plenty of weapons to work with this year as the Bills are loaded with very good skill players. Sammy Watkins returns as one of the most talented young receivers in the lead while new additions Percy Harvin and Charles Clay provide big upgrades in the passing game. The run game will miss Fred Jackson who became a leader and a fan favourite but the addition of LeSean McCoy provides a huge upgrade in both the rushing and passing game. Ryan’s bread and butter has always been defence though and he has a good group to work with in the Bills. It all started with a line that sent three players to the Pro Bowl including the defensive leader Mario Williams who will try to keep up their pass rush with Jerry Hughes on the other side. The linebacking corps will miss Kiko Alonso who was traded away last year but the group played without him with the emergence of Nigel Bradham while Preston Brown takes over as the quarterback of the defence in the middle. The defensive backs are probably the weak point but they take full advantage of the pressure up front. They will go with rookie Ronald Darby at the corner opposite Stephon Gilmore who needs to step up and justify his status as a first round pick a few years ago. The Bills have a new attitude with Ryan leading the charge and an upgraded offence that will look to keep up with a powerful defence. The big question comes at quarterback though where Taylor needs to prove a lot if the Bills want to win the division. Despite those questions they will still compete at the top of the division and may find themselves in the playoffs year.

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The Dolphins were once one of the best teams in the NFL with a hall of fame quarterback but since then they have been dealing with the curse of Marino. There has yet to be a quarterback in Miami that has provided the same type of leadership and ability that Dan Marino brought to South Florida. The result has been a rough patch where they see small periods of great play but more than enough bad seasons. They have attempted to rebuild multiple times but no consistency has come from their attempts. Their latest rebuild is starting to show some promise though as head coach Joe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill have brought the Dolphins back to relevance. Now they try to return to winning as they added a number of veterans to a young group attempting to make a push to the playoffs. Tannehill leads the way for the team as the fourth year quarterback will need to take a step forward and become the true leader of the offence. He will have some extra help this year as the Dolphins added tight end Jordan Cameron and veteran wide receiver Greg Jennings who will play with his former offensive coordinator in Philbin. These two veterans will be needed as the Dolphins will also depend on second year QB Jarvis Landry and rookie DeVante Parker. In the backfield Lamar Miller is not considered one of the top backs but he did put together a 1,000-yard season last year and has proven to be an underrated back. The offence is in good hands but the biggest question, as always, will be whether or not Tannehill can lead the offence to the playoffs. The defence will be greatly improved as they landed one of the most coveted free agents in the league. A defensive line led by Cameron Wake will see a massive improvement as Ndamukong Suh has been added in the middle. The pass rush and run stuffing of Suh will provide Wake with even more opportunities to get to the quarterback. If Suh can make the difference that his contract requires this defence may be entirely new this year. The line will need to set the tone as the Dolphins linebackers might not help out much. The trio of Koa Misi, Chris McCain, and Jelani Jenkins have not shown much in recent years. Brent Grimes and Reshad Jones are the heart of the secondary and both are reliable but beyond them there are questions when it comes to Jamar Taylor and Wait Aikens. The Dolphins are a better team than a year ago but there are still some major questions and those questions will hold them back. They will miss the playoffs for another year but a winning record, although just barely, is a possibility as they continue to improve but not enough to compete.

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For a team that is consistently the most boring in the NFL this has been a different off-season than they have seen in a long time. After winning the Super Bowl last year the Patriots were thrown into an investigation over deflated balls in the AFC Championship game. The results of the investigation punished the Patriots organization and suspended Tom Brady for the first four games of the year. A lawsuit from Brady followed and eventually the suspension was overturned but it wasn’t until just before the season was set to start. This off-season has bene entirely about the off-field issues of the Patriots instead of football and this team has never experienced that type of off-season. How they handle it will make all of the difference as they look to get back to football as the defending champs. The is once again a show of the Patriot way as there are few major additions and more than a few major subtractions. None of those will affect the offence in any major way though as Brady returns to start the season, although an NFL appeal may see his suspension return, and he leads much the same group as last year. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are his main outside targets while Rob Gronkowski will remain the biggest target in the passing game. The Patriots did see Shane Vereen leave this off-season but they move on with their stable of running backs. Leading the way this year will be LeGarrette Blount who takes on a much larger role in the offence than a year ago. On defence the Patriots are very much a changed team but like always they move to the next man up philosophy. On the line Patriot stalwart Vince Wilfork is gone leaving Alan Branch and Sealver Siliga in the middle. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones remain a good rush pair on the ends. The linebacking corps remains unchanged as Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Jamie Collins are all good but all need to stay healthy which has been struggle. The secondary sees the biggest changes as both starter cornerbacks in the Super Bowl are gone with Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis leaving in the off-season. They did not sign anyone else to take over as home-grown talent Logan Ryan and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler takes over a starting role. The group will have some consistency in the return of Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty at safety. The Patriots are a team used to consistency and not happy with controversy. Anyone that sees their press conferences know who much they prefer to stay under the radar. That makes this off-season so tough for them but with the matter solved, at least for the time being, they hope to move on. They are still the team to beat in the East though and baring the off-field issues having a massive effect they will win the division while fending off some more improved teams.

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The New York Jets are a franchise that has not seen a normal season in a very long time but that is where they started. They have always been the flashier of the two teams in the city and as good as that can be it can also provide some terrible things. The Jets are essentially a circus but when it works they can be a great one. When it doesn’t work it turns out to be a disaster and as many good years as they have had they have had more bad. That includes this year as they thought they had gotten rid of the problem when they replaced Rex Ryan with Todd Bowles but it only continued when starting quarterback, Geno Smith, was sucker punched in the locker room breaking his jaw. With Smith on the sidelines for most of the season new addition Ryan Fitzpatrick takes over as a starter. Fitzpatrick has been in this situation before and has had success which he will try to continue this year and has talent around him. The biggest addition on offence will be Brandon Marshall who provides Fitzpatrick with a big body receiver that can be a touchdown machine. Behind him though there is not much as Eric Decker is good but not great while the rest of the receiving group are not great targets. The running game is led by Chris Ivory who enters his first season as the full-time starter and hopes to break the 1,000 yard mark with the ability to do it. The defence was always strong under Ryan and the frame that he built remains strong under Bowles. The line is the heart of the defence as Muhammad Wilkerson leads the way and rookie Leonard Williams looks to prove that the first round pick they used to get him was well worth it. The linebacking corps does more of the rushing in this scheme with Quinton Coples and Calvin Pace on the outside more than able to make it a tough day for opposing quarterbacks. In the middle Demario Davis and Davis Harris have proven to be solid run-stuffers to go along with the edge rushers. The secondary will see the biggest changes this year but they won’t be huge in the same way. Two new cornerbacks take over but both have been here before as Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis made a great team from 2010-12 when they both played on the Jets. They were brought back and will once again make this secondary much better than a year ago. They Jets are once again headline fodder but they have improved form a year ago. The main problem is the fact that likely the offence is still not good enough to compete at the top of this division as a playoff appearance is not going to happen.

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Prediction:
The AFC East is another controversial group of teams but there is one clear leader and it is the most consistent team every year. The Patriots may be the most hated team in the NFL right now especially after their hectic off-season but they are still the class of the division. They will take the division title again this year but it might not be as easy as it once was. The Buffalo Bills will be right on their tails trying to get their own division title with an improved team. They will fall just short of the division title although a wild card could be there. The Dolphins and Jets are both trying to find their way to the top but there are just too many questions for both teams. They will both fall short of too much improvement and won’t compete for the playoffs this year.

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