The balance of power in the AFC East has not changed. It’s still the Patriots, then everyone else.
“Everyone else” now includes one of the NFL’s most feared pass rushers, a rookie quarterback with a aspiring-model wife and a cultural icon who threatens to make Elvis Presley look like Elvis Grbac. But despite all the bells and whistles, everybody knows the rules in this division: Line up behind the guy in the gray hoodie.
New England Patriots
Tweet-sized Preview: Flights from Boston to New Orleans in late January are available for $129 right now. Just sayin’.
Biggest Change from 2011: Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels returns after a petty dictator stint in Denver and a brief exile on the NFL’s version of Elba, the St. Louis Rams. McDaniels brings back his interpretation of the Patriots’ wide-open offense, as well as Brandon Lloyd, the Randy Moss surrogate who follows McDaniels from town to town. Visanthe Shiancoe adds a third receiving tight end to a roster that cannot get enough of them. On defense, first-round picks Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower will help restore credibility to a unit that had grown content with allowing 24 points and still winning by double digits.
Oversold Story: The Summer of Gronk. A guy catches 17 touchdowns and becomes the dominant weapon in an offense that scores 513 points, but if he dances shirtless in a nightclub, he’s a party boy who isn’t committed to winning. Sports fans expect players to vacuum-seal themselves in fitness centers with game film and playbooks for the entire offseason. But players don’t do that, folks, and the problem is our expectations, not their fashion choices.
Undersold Story: The Patriots have plugged in obscure running backs for so long that no one is too worried about Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead sitting atop the depth chart. Then again, tight end Aaron Hernandez could well end up leading the team in rushing; he took reps at running back and punt returner during camp.
Telling Stat: The Patriots’ offense faced nickel, dime or larger coin defenses on 79 percent of its snaps last season. If your third cornerback isn’t ready to face the Patriots, then your defense isn’t ready to face the Patriots.
Breakout Player: Ridley began siphoning carries away from BenJarvus Green-Ellis (now in Cincinnati) at the end of last year, rushing 39 times for 210 yards in the Patriots’ final three games. The 225-pounder will be the chairman of the committee backfield and is likely to take over Green-Ellis’ role near the goal line, meaning he is capable of producing a Green-Ellis-like 667-yard, 11-touchdown season.
Bottom Line: The Patriots are now like a college football powerhouse. If they go 13-3, fans rend their garments about the three losses, and anything less than a Super Bowl results in weeks of Boston-area navel-gazing. As usual, they are odds-on favorites to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. As usual, everyone south or west of Hartford, Conn., is rooting against them. And as usual, nothing of real consequence will happen to the Patriots until sometime in January. PREDICTION: 12-4.
Tweet-sized Preview: Forget the Jets. The scariest defense in the AFC East is the Upstate New York Sack Exchange.
Biggest Change from 2011: Free agents Mario Williams and Mark Anderson join incumbents Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Chris Kelsay to give the Bills a fearsome pass rush. New defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt brings a no-nonsense 4-3 approach to a defense that in recent years changed schemes the way Katy Perry changes costumes.
Overblown Story: Ryan Fitzpatrick’s production dropped sharply soon after he signed a contract with $24 million in guaranteed money last season. Some see a connection. Others blame cracked ribs, an unreported injury that Fitzpatrick suffered midyear. The ribs might have ached, but Fitzpatrick’s slide was just a reality check: He’s pretty good, but his seven-touchdown, one-interception start in 2011 set national expectations far too high.
Undersold Story: Kyle Williams, one of the best all-purpose defensive tackles in the NFL, missed the second half of 2011 with a foot injury; a defense that was weak with Williams became terrible without him, allowing more than 31 points per game over the final eight weeks. Mario Williams and Anderson are the key newcomers, but Kyle’s return to form is just as crucial to Buffalo’s success.
Telling Stat: The Bills used empty backfields more than any other team last year (on 19 percent of offensive plays). They also used the wildcat more than any other team, with 21 direct-snap plays. Head coach Chan Gailey is like one of those guys living off a dirt road on “American Pickers”: He cannot bear to part with his strange gadgets.
Breakout Player: C.J. Spiller. Starting running back Fred Jackson is 31 years old and coming off an injury. Spiller had some excellent games in relief of Jackson late last year: 167 total yards and two touchdowns against the Dolphins; 138 yards and a touchdown against the Broncos. Spiller’s versatility as a runner and receiver make him an ideal fit in Gailey’s system. If you wrote him off as a first-round bust two years ago, write him back on.
Bottom Line: The Bills finally have the personnel in place to end their 12-year playoff drought. PREDICTION: 10-6.
New York Jets
Tweet-sized Preview: First in talk. First in hype. Third in the AFC East.
Biggest Change from 2011: Offensive coordinator Tony Sparano brings a run-oriented offense loaded with wildcat gizmos that should provide a ball-control complement to Rex Ryan’s defense. Safeties Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry make the best secondary in the NFL even better, allowing Ryan to do what he wants to do with his front seven (and what he wants to do is blitz, then blitz some more). The Jets also have a new backup quarterback who may double as a goal-line specialist and personal protector on punts.
Overblown Story: Five letters, two syllables, rhymes with “placebo.”
Undersold Story: Right tackle Wayne Hunter, who provided all of the stopping power of a “Caution: Wet Floor” sign last year, was mercy-benched before the third preseason game. Austin Howard took his place, but the fact that it took Howard so long to replace an obvious weak link in an otherwise strong offensive line does not bode well. If the Jets don’t solve this problem, their Ground ‘n’ Pound philosophy will devolve into “Don’t Get Pounded” self-defense.
Telling Stat: Across the NFL, teams ran only 84 wildcat plays for 339 yards last year. (With “wildcat” defined as “direct snap to someone other than the quarterback.”) That figure is down from 337 plays for 1,628 yards during the wildcat fad of 2009. Going back to the wildcat is like reopening your MySpace account, but for all we know Rex Ryan is doing that, too.
Breakout Player: Bilal Powell. The running back looked lost when he earned a handful of carries in last November’s loss to the Broncos, but other rookies had similar problems because of the lockout-shortened offseason. This year Powell looked like the best running back at Jets camp, and with LaDainian Tomlinson retired, there is a large role in a run-oriented offense just waiting for him to claim it.
Bottom Line: The Jets’ locker room is always one inflammatory Tweet from spontaneous combustion, but the team on the field is both willing and able to grind out punishing wins. As ridiculous as the Tim Tebow experiment may seem at first glance, it makes sense for a team that’s content to grunt through 13-10 victories. The Jets did nothing to close the Patriots gap, however, and a tough division will put them behind the Ravens, Steelers and other power-defense teams slugging it out in the wild-card race. PREDICTION: 8-8.
Tweet-sized Preview: If you’re the one cooking the meal, don’t send Jeff Ireland to buy the groceries.
Biggest Change from 2011: New head coach Joe Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman bring an updated West Coast approach that provides a welcome departure from Tony Sparano’s trench warfare. Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill knows Sherman’s terminology so well from their days at Texas A&M that he was teaching the system to the veterans. Of course, Tannehill also blew four double-digit leads for the Aggies last year, so maybe everyone has some learning to do.
Overblown Story: After the Dolphins failed to land Peyton Manning or Matt Flynn, internet smart alecks (guilty!) got plenty of mileage out of Ireland’s bumbling Inspector Clouseau routine. But what’s done is done. There are far more ridiculous scenarios around the NFL than baptizing Ryan Tannehill under fire, with Matt Moore as insurance. Check out the Cardinals and Browns, and don’t even mention the Jets. The Dolphins are rebuilding, and they should be judged on what they do going forward, not a few high-profile mishaps.
Undersold Story: Kevin Coyle’s switch to a hybrid 4-3 defense will benefit defenders such as Paul Soliai, who will be able to do more than get pummeled by double-teams this year, and Cameron Wake, who will move around as an end/backer. Coyle’s background as a secondary coach has also aided the development of young players such as cornerback Sean Smith. A respectable defense can keep Miami competitive through its offensive growing pains.
Telling Stat: The Dolphins tied for the league low with an average of 4.3 yards after the catch in 2011. They also finished 28th in the league in YAC in 2010 and 31st in 2009. Better passing and a more open system should help, but their attempt to add a high-profile, big-play receiver did not work out very well.
Breakout Player: Tight end Charles Clay caught 46-, 31-, 30- and 29-yard passes among his 16 receptions last year, adding a few goal-line touchdowns late in the season. He is versatile enough to line up all over the formation and fast enough to be the seam-stretcher in the Sherman-Philbin offense.
Bottom Line: The Dolphins are neither here nor there. Philbin and Tannehill’s arrival signals a rebuilding phase, but much of the team’s core is 30 or older, and Ireland has not been able to consistently draft or acquire impact players. Tannehill’s wife, Lauren, may emerge as the face of this faceless team by season’s end. That may not be a terrible thing. PREDICTION: 6-10.
All stats provided by Football Outsiders.