NickSaban's Dolphins won their final six games of 2005 to finish 9-7 and serve notice that the AFC East is no longer the exclusive playground of the New England Patriots. From the outset of Saban's first season in Miami, it was clear he had a plan to transform the Fish into a tough, tenacious team capable of battling an opponent for the full 60 minutes. The next step in the Dolphins' return to playoff contention likely hinges on newly acquired quarterback Daunte Culpepper rebounding from last year's season-ending knee injury. Maybe the coup of the offseason for Miami was the hiring of two quality coordinators: former head coaches Dom Capers (defense) and Mike Mularkey (offense).
Team in transition
We believe reports of the Patriots' demise are greatly exaggerated, but the three-time Super Bowl winners suffered an undeniable talent drain in free agency this year. They lost such key components as kicker Adam Vinatieri, receiver DavidGivens and linebacker and locker-room leader Willie McGinest. With the Dolphins likely to be on New England's heels from opening day on, the Patriots can't afford to take the first half of the season to get their defensive act together, as they did in 2005. If veteran safety Rodney Harrison can return from a knee injury by October to solidify a pass defense that finished 31st last season, and new coordinator Dean Pees makes a smooth transition from linebackers coach, New England's defense still has enough playmakers to be the class of the East. The Patriots' defense of their division title will also be aided by not having a repeat of last year's killer schedule. (They play only five games against 2005 playoff teams, with three of those at home.)
Coach in the spotlight
ERIC MANGINI, NEW YORK JETS
New York's 35-year-old rookie head coach may be a clone of his mentor, Bill Belichick, but let's not lose sight of the fact that Belichick didn't win right away in either Cleveland or New England. The Jets got old in a hurry and bottomed out at 4-12 last year, making a mockery out of all that Super Bowl talk in the preseason. With uncertainty at quarterback and a tough early-season schedule (games against New England, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Miami in the first six weeks), a quick turnaround appears to be out of the question. Patience will be required in a market not known for its willingness to wait.