2011 AFC East Division Preview and Predictions

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2011 AFC East Division Preview and Predictions ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

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By Mike Ivcic

1) New York Jets
Those of you that have read my columns on this site before know that I am a New York fan. The Mets are the frontrunners of my rooting interest, but the Jets are right there as a close second. That said, those that have read my work also know that I strive to be as objective as possible, and quite honestly I just don’t see as many holes on this club as I do with the Patriots, so I’m picking the Jets to win the division. I still believe both will make the playoffs, but in this lockout-shortened offseason, the Jets bring back 10 starters from their defense, losing only Shaun Ellis to the Pats. The lack of a legitimate pass rush is a bit concerning, but the Jets cover that weakness well with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie at the corners and cleverly disguised blitz packages featuring the best middle linebacker that no one talks about in David Harris. The Jets dearly missed safety Jim Leonhard in the Steelers playoff game last season, and his return means that arguably the top defense in the league from last year returns virtually intact this season, and in a year where continuity is more important than ever, that will mean a lot.

Conversely, the offense does have some trouble spots, mainly because of the lack of continuity. I’m still confused why Jets management thought Derrek Mason was an upgrade over Jerricho Cotchery, who had been in the system since day one, but they made the move and will now have to live with the consequences, either good or bad. The Plaxico Burress move was a smart one, as they get a receiver with a tremendous upside and a chip on his shoulder, which should only serve to elevate his performance. Provided the running backs stay healthy, this team will score enough points to give the defense the breathing room it needs to win games and return to the postseason.

The schedule shakes out better for New York than New England as well. The Jets avoid the Steelers and Colts, instead drawing the Ravens and Titans – both cases advantage New York. The key game will come in week 5, as the Jets finish a three-game road portion of their schedule in New England. For the first time in five seasons, the two teams will meet in New England first and play the rematch in New York, so if the Jets can take the early game, it will put even more pressure on the Patriots for the Sunday nighter on November 13. The Jets play only five games against playoff teams from last year, and if Rex Ryan has learned anything from the last two seasons, it’s that winning three road playoff games is really difficult to do, so expect Gang Green to shoot for the division to ensure at least one, if not more, home games in the 2012 playoffs.

2) New England Patriots
If I didn’t know any better – and really, I don’t, so what I’m about to say could be true – I would say that Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft are under some sort of hypnotic spell. How else to explain the head-scratching decisions to add Chad Johnson (I refuse to call him by his number in Spanish) and Albert Haynesworth-less to this team? It’s almost as if Belichick is saying, “I already won with the blueprint of having a team-oriented group of veterans and scrappy young players, so now I’m just gonna try to win with a bunch of guys no one else want.” Granted, if the offseason additions by the Pats front office play up to their potential or ability, this will be the best team in football. But there’s a much higher likelihood of those players become internal problems and causing dissension among the unit than there is of these guys returning to superstar status. This is an organization that hasn’t won a playoff game since losing to the Giants at 18-0 in the Super Bowl in 2008, losing Brady to the knee injury for the entire ’08 season and barely missing the ’09 playoffs, then getting bounced by Baltimore and the Jets in their first game in ’10 and ’11, respectively. If the Patriots want to change the course of their postseason luck, they might want to think about finding a true playmaker at linebacker and a legitimate top-flight running back. I like Danny Woodhead’s story, and having more players like him is what used to make a Bill Belichick-coached team so dangerous, but Woodhead is simply not a starting running back in the NFL, and every other team knows it. That puts too much pressure on Brady, and without a deep threat like Randy Moss, the offense simply isn’t all that good.

Aside from the Steelers and Colts draw as fellow division winners, the Pats join the rest of the AFC East in playing the entire NFC East and AFC West. After opening the season on Monday night in Miami, New England will hit their soft spot early, hosting San Diego (who never plays well in Foxboro) and then visiting Oakland and Buffalo before round one with the Jets. Anything less than perfect to that point for the Pats could spell trouble, especially after their week seven bye. The six-game stretch coming out of the break features six straight double-digit win teams from 2010 – at Pittsburgh, NY Giants, at NY Jets, Kansas City, @ Philadelphia, Indianapolis. Simply brutal. The four game finish (at Washington, at Denver, Miami, Buffalo) is quite nice, however, and should allow the Pats to make up ground, if needed, or at the very least cruise into the postseason without too much stress.

3) Miami Dolphins
After writing almost a thousand words on the first two teams, it seems almost unfair to give the next two more than one hundred. The Dolphins need to stick with Chad Henne and let the guy play – he’s got a strong arm and, when protected, makes terrific throws. He’s never going to be the most mobile quarterback in the world, but that’s why the Dolphins should have been focusing intently on upgrading the entire offensive line not named Jake Long. After all, Tony Sparano was a former line coach – shouldn’t be able to get a five-man unit coached up enough to protect the most important player on the field for longer than 2.5 seconds?

The other problem for Miami is the city itself. If you live in or around the city, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but “South Beach” is a terrible sports town, no matter who takes their talents there. The Marlins just drew 347 people to a game in late August – good thing they’re getting a new stadium, they might reach a four-figured attendance number. I’m convinced the Heat hand out those white playoff t-shirts just to prove to the viewing audience that people are in the building, because they’re certainly not making a whole lot of noise. And the Panthers can’t even find someone to throw a rat on the ice anymore, because even the rats don’t show up to watch hockey down there. Dolphins fans are actually probably the best group of fans of the four major sports, but that’s like being the tallest midget – you’re still looking up at the normal-sized people, which is what Miami fans are doing to fans of real NFL teams in real NFL markets.

All of that said, this team does, in fact, have a chance to become like the 2008-09 team, or as we Jets fans like to call it, “The year between Green Bay and Minnesota.” With that team, Chad Pennington played more than 12 games for the third and final time in his career, leading the Dolphins to an 11-5 record and the tiebreaker over New England, giving Miami the title. Both the Jets and Patriots are better this year than they were in ’08, while Miami isn’t as good, but IF the Dolphins can protect Henne, develop a running game, and create enough turnovers to compensate for a defense that will give up points, then the Dolphins could surprise one of the two heavyweights and make a playoff push. It’s far more likely, though, that 6-10 and a top 10 draft pick is in this franchise’s immediate future. And maybe the commissioner will choose to have the draft at Sun Life Stadium – it’ll probably draw more fans than the Marlins.

4) Buffalo Bills
I read on a popular sports website that the Buffalo Bills appear to have found the model for success in the NFL, and then gone and done the complete opposite of what every successful team has done. Some examples of this include the following. Spend one first or second-round draft pick every eight to ten years on a franchise quarterback – nope. Hire a head coach to either his first head coaching gig after years as a successful coordinator or find a coach with a Super Bowl ring – nope. Spend a bulk of the middle-round draft picks on offensive linemen, defensive linemen, and linebackers – nope. Don’t draft more than one running back in the first round in a five-year span – nope. If signing a big-time free agent, make sure he plays outside the tackles (RB, WR, CB) to minimize the risk of injury – nope. Avoid drafting or signing players who are high injury risks – nope. It’s almost hard to believe the Bills have actually won ANY games after completely ignoring the basic fundamentals of player personnel over virtually the last decade.

The funny (or sad, depending upon your rooting interest) aspect of this whole thing is that they’ve never been quite bad enough to wind up with the top overall pick. They’re usually top five, but haven’t managed to be worse than 31 other teams yet, and likely won’t pull it off this year either thanks to the idiocy of Bengals owner Mike Brown. But maybe, in a sense, that’s a good thing, because I’d be too afraid of watching the 2012 draft with the Bills holding the number one overall pick and hearing them NOT call Andrew Luck’s name. Instead they just need to lose more games than Seattle, Washington, Minnesota, and San Francisco to ensure that they will get the chance to select Luck somewhere around 3 or 4 (Carolina, Cincinnati, and Jacksonville – other contenders for a top five pick – already have their future QB’s). And maybe they will, just as soon as they stop reading that blueprint backwards.

Monday, September 5: AFC North
Monday, September 5: NFC North
Tuesday, September 6: AFC South
Tuesday, September 6: NFC South
Wednesday, September 7: AFC East
Wednesday, September 7: NFC East
Thursday, September 8: AFC West
Thursday, September 8: NFC West
Friday, September 9: Playoffs and Super Bowl

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