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AFC East Preview

by Photo of Jake Langbecker

It’s a familiar two horse race in the AFC East

AFC East Preview

Sometimes it is hard to remember that the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins even exist. If it was up to the executives at ESPN they would have Bill Belichick's Patriots and Rex Ryan's Jets play every week on Monday Night Football. Based on the coverage both teams receive it's hard to believe that's not already the case. The greatest intercity rivalry in sports, New York vs Boston, is alive and well in the NFL and the two teams will be the talk of the AFC East in the upcoming season.

The always colorful and boisterous Ryan would have you believe the Jets and Patriots are on equal footing. This is especially true coming off the Jets victory over the Patriots in last season's divisional round playoff game. However, history tells quite a different story. The Jets haven't won the division since 2002 and in the last 10 years the Patriots have claimed eight titles. The Dolphins won the division in 2008 (when Brady was hurt) but it has been a decade of dominance for the Patriots.

The biggest questions facing the Patriots and Jets will be how well do they integrate new pieces and how much improvement will they see in their younger players. For Belichick it means figuring out how enigmatic players Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth will fit into the Patriots' culture. The Patriots will also be looking for improvement from their young secondary, backfield and tight ends. For the Jets the biggest piece to integrate will be Plaxico Burress, who looked like he was fitting in just fine in their second preseason game. The Jets will need their young backfield of Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene to continue to improve and need to see something from defensive back Kyle Wilson to justify his first round selection.

What about the Dolphins and Bills you ask? Well consider them two of the front-runners in the upcoming Andrew Luck sweepstakes. Also known as the race for last place.

Here's a look at our preseason rankings for the AFC East:         

New England Patriots

Record Last Season: 14-2 (Lost in Divisional Round to Jets)

Key Additions: Chad Ochocinco, Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter,

Key Losses: Marcus Stroud, Ty Warren

The Skinny: The Patriots have struggled in the post season recently and have lost three straight playoff games dating back to Super Bowl XLII against the Giants. However, their regular season dominance continues following a 14-2 record last season and that's why I'm picking them to finish atop the AFC East. The Patriots lost a couple defensive starters in Marcus Stroud and Ty Warren but replaced them with veterans Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter and the enigmatic Albert Haynesworth. 

As if Tom Brady didn't already have enough weapons on offense with Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Rob Grankowski, and Aaron Hernandez, he now adds an all-pro receiver in Chad Ochocinco. The picture in the backfield is unclear but Stevan Ridley has made the best case in the preseason thus far. Ridley is a rookie out of LSU and will compete primarily with Danny Woodhead and BenJarvs Green-Ellis for carries out of the backfield.

Plenty of weapons on both sides of the ball coupled with the leadership of Belichick and Brady and the Patriots are poised to make it back to their first Super Bowl since "The Helmet Catch".      

Player to Watch: Tom Brady. As mentioned above the Patriots have not performed up to expectations in the playoffs and much of that can be attributed to Brady. These are the stat lines for his last three playoff games. 

Against the Giants: 29-48, 266 yards, 1 TD. 

Against the Ravens: 23-42 154 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs, fumble lost. 

Against the Jets: 29-45 299 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, sacked 5 times. 

Not very inspiring numbers especially for a guy that is so effective in the regular season. The Patriots have plenty of playmakers on defense and offense but like it often does in the NFL it will all come down to Brady's play when it counts. It will also be important to watch how Brady integrates Ochocinco into the passing game and handles any potential problems with the attention-seeking receiver. I would be willing to bet that there will be problems.      

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 13. The Patriots have a tough schedule including playing the Jets twice, games against the Cowboys, Chargers and Colts at home and travelling to play the Steelers and Eagles. Out of those seven games it wouldn't be surprising if the Patriots dropped at least three, that's why their over/under is set at 13.

New York Jets

Record Last Season: 11-5 (Lost in AFC Championship to Pittsburgh Steelers)

Key Additions: Plaxico Burress, Derrick Mason, Aaron Maybin, Muhammad Wilkerson

Key Losses: Braylon Edwards, Brad Smith, Shaun Ellis, Vernon Gholston, Damian Woody, Kris Jenkins

The Skinny:  The Jets favorite comedy this summer should have been "Bridesmaids". After back-to-back unsuccessful trips to the AFC Championship Game, the Jets were once again the bridesmaid but never the bride. Rex Ryan has predicted a Super Bowl championship for the Jets but he does that every year and now the question is can the Jets finally live up to the hype? A lot of that will rest on the arm of Mark Sanchez. The Jets QB improved in his sophomore season throwing for 800 more yards, 5 more touchdowns, and 7 fewer interceptions compared to his rookie campaign. If he can stay on that trajectory and continue to improve and protect the ball for the Jets fourth ranked rushing attack and sixth ranked team defense, the Jets could finally find themselves standing at the alter in Indianapolis.    

Player to Watch:  Plaxico Burress. The Jets lose two playmakers in Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith but Burress has the potential to be a different sort of caliber playmaker and perhaps the best target Sanchez has ever had. The 6'5" receiver missed a lot of training camp early on with an ankle injury and is coming off nearly two years in prison so rust is definitely a concern. However, in the Jets second preseason game and his first game action since catching the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII, Burress looked just fine. Sanchez was able to drop back and just launch a pass in Burress' general vicinity and the receiver made the catch as he was falling into the end zone. Burress will be able to cover up some of Sanchez' inaccurate passes and will play a key role in the Jets success this season. 

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 10. I could see the Jets potentially taking a step back this season. Rex Ryan's bravado is great but I could see it starting to wear thin in the locker room especially with key veterans Shaun Ellis and Kris Jenkins no longer with the team. Not to mention that those departures leave some major questions about the Jets D-line. However, I like the Burress signing and believe it will take some of the pressure off Sanchez. Can the Jets finally live up to all the preseason hype? Only time will tell.

Miami Dolphins

Record Last Season: 7-9

Key Additions: Reggie Bush, Daniel Thomas, Mike Pouncey, Matt Moore, Marc Colombo

Key Losses: Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Channing Crowder, Tyler Thigpen

The Skinny:  Good thing there's plenty to do in Miami as far as beaches and clubs are concerned because the football scene doesn't look too promising. The real pro football team in Miami, the Hurricanes, are embroiled in a widespread controversy. Fans hoping to find solace with the Dolphins will have to look elsewhere. There's no more glaring problem than the QB situation. Chad Henne looked good in the second preseason game but it's the preseason and it was against the Panthers. Before that, Henne was getting booed by his own fans who were chanting for Kyle Orton. Brandon Marshall is an all-pro receiver so there's that. Also maybe a change of scenery is just what Reggie Bush needed to finally start reaching his potential. Remember when the Texans were blasted for taking Mario Williams before him? Yeah I think that worked out just fine. The sad news for Dolphins fans is that while their team won't make the playoffs this year they are probably too good to have a legitimate shot at finishing last and drafting Andrew Luck. Which means another mediocre season in Miami and another offseason of trying to find that franchise quarterback. 

Player to Watch: Reggie Bush. He will finally be free from the disappointment of unreached expectations in New Orleans. Bush will get a much needed fresh start in Miami. There's no denying Bush has the athletic ability and talent to be a productive NFL player but injuries have dogged him most of his career. If he stays healthy he has the chance to provide big plays out of the backfield both as a runner and a receiver. His pass-catching abilities will make him a great safety valve for Henne. As long as he doesn't spend too much time in the training room or the clubs, Bush could finally have a breakout season. 

Over/Under Regular Season Wins:  6. Losing the Brown/Williams combo in the backfield will be hard to replace. The Dolphins will rely on Bush, rookie Daniel Thomas, and even veteran Larry Johnson to fill that void but they won't be able to produce as well. Chad Henne is still their starting QB but it's unclear if Henne deserves to be a starter in the NFL. The best thing for Dolphins fans would be getting the #1 pick in 2012. Unfortunately for them a six win season seems more likely.

Buffalo Bills

Record Last Season: 4-12

Key Additions: Brad Smith, Nick Barnett, Marcell Dareus 

Key Losses: Lee Evans, Donte Whitner, Paul Posluszny, Aaron Maybin. 

The Skinny: Lee Evans, Aaron Maybin, Donte Whitner, Mike Williams, J.P. Losman, and John McCargo. Who are Buffalo Bills first round draft picks from 2000-2010 that are no longer with the team? Ding, ding, ding, you are correct. Bad teams are supposed to rebuild through the draft and this where the Bills have struggled most. That is an abysmal draft history with only C.J. Spiller, Leodis McKelvin, Eric Wood and most recently Marcell Dareus still with the team. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a serviceable NFL quarterback but can't be counted on as a franchise guy. Things will only get harder for Fitzpatrick following the trade of Evans and the ability for defenses to double Steve Johnson now. I hope Andrew Luck doesn't mind leaving sunny Palo Alto for the cold tundra of Buffalo because that is what Bills fans should be rooting for this season.,  

Player to Watch: Shawne Merriman. Did you forget that the former Pro Bowler was now a member of the Bills? Don't worry so did I. After three all-pro seasons to start his career, injuries have plagued Merriman during the past the three years. That led to Buffalo picking him up off waivers last year from the Chargers. Merriman is the healthiest he's been and the Bills hope he returns to form. In the first preseason game he recorded two sacks and showed flashes of his past brilliance. He's worth keeping an eye on for football reasons and also because he's recently gotten caught up in steroids rumors

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 3. The Bills only won four games last year. Brad Smith is a downgrade compared to Lee Evans. They lost a starting safety in Donte Whitner. It is only fair to assume a decrease in wins from last season.

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