2010 Division Preview: AFC East
Jets' return to the postseason will hinge on second-year QB Mark Sanchez
Spotlight will be on the Patriots defense, which has struggled rushing the passer
Under new coach Chan Gailey, the transitioning Bills are expected to struggle
SI.com is previewing all eight NFL divisions, beginning today with the AFC East and NFC East. The AFC South and NFC South follow Wednesday, AFC North and NFC North on Thursday and the AFC West and NFC West on Friday.
"This is as tough as it gets, right here," Jets head coach Rex Ryan opined during training camp of the state of the AFC East. "All the teams are getting better. You look at what Miami did, bringing in Brandon Marshall, it's going to be a war when we go play them. We go against New England, all they have is Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, enough said. Buffalo, we don't know what they're going to be, because they have [new head coach] Chan Gailey -- but I know one thing, they're going to play hard. This is definitely the old black and blue division, that's what this is going to be. We're going to beat on one another, and whoever comes out with the best record in this division probably wins it."
"It," one can safely assume, being an AFC Championship, a reachable goal for each of the AFC East's teams -- except for the Bills, although even Ryan wouldn't dare suggest that. This division has sent two surprise teams to the playoffs the past two seasons, including the division champion Dolphins in 2008 (who somehow went 11-5 despite outscoring opponents by a combined 28 points) and the wild-card-winning Jets in '09, and now features three teams, in the Jets, Dolphins and Patriots, who all appear to be more talented than they were in either of those years.
What the Jets do best: Run the ball.
You'd think it would be "play defense," right? Ryan's defense was the NFL's best by a significant margin in 2009 (it allowed just 252.3 yards per game, more than 30 fewer than the second-ranked Packers), and was bolstered by the offseason acquisitions of cornerback Antonio Cromartie and safety Brodney Pool, but it seems sure to start the season without two central contributors: All-Pro corner Darrelle Revis, whose holdout shows few signs of ending, and outside linebacker and team sacks leader Calvin Pace, who will miss a minimum of six weeks after breaking his foot last Friday.
The D should still be very good, but the team's major strength might now be its running game, which was also the league's best in '09. The Jets are so confident in beefy second-year back Shonn Greene -- who rushed for 304 yards and two touchdowns in three playoff games -- that they exhibited very little interest in re-signing Thomas Jones, who will aim for his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season in Kansas City. Their rushing attack shouldn't miss a beat.
What the Jets need to improve: Quarterback play.
Though he's just 23 and a member of a team loaded with established veterans, Mark Sanchez certainly acts like a leader. In July he invited eight of his teammates (including new receiver Santonio Holmes) to Newport Beach's Pelican Hill resort for a week of workouts he dubbed "Jets West" (the group also attended baseball's All-Star Game and the ESPYs), and during training camp he rather conspicuously made sure that he was always the first to offer a hug to his teammates after they'd made a big play. "Just getting a completion against our defense is like a win in itself," he explained. "So when it happens, you need to let guys know."
"You gotta understand," says defensive tackle Kris Jenkins. "Sanchez is not trying to be the leader. Sanchez is the leader, and doing what a leader is supposed to do. He's a young guy, but he's stepped into those shoes, and he's wearing them."
The question, of course, is whether Sanchez's burgeoning leadership skills will be matched by his performance. For the Jets to reach the Super Bowl they've so often predicted for themselves, he will need to significantly improve upon a rookie year in which he ranked 28th in quarterback rating, and in the regular season's second half failed to throw more than one touchdown in a single game.
Which Jet needs to step up: Outside linebacker Jason Taylor.
Taylor is the NFL's active sacks leader with 127.5, but he'll turn 36 on Wednesday and mustered a combined 10.5 sacks in 2008 and '09 -- fewer than he'd recorded in each of his three preceding seasons. The Jets signed him mainly to provide themselves with some veteran depth and mentoring -- "I'm here 'cause Rex wanted me here. To be wanted and embraced, it was easy," he explains -- but Pace's injury means that they are now bereft of any player but Taylor who constitutes a real threat to reach double-digits in sacks. At least in the early going, Taylor will be counted on for more than he -- or the Jets -- bargained.
Predicted record: 11-5.
New York's offseason motto was "212 degrees." Left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson explains: "It's the temperature at which water boils -- that one extra degree that changes everything. Last year Rex Ryan said, 'What was the difference between us being in the Super Bowl and just being in the AFC Championship? Just this much.' So we need to do that much more."
The Jets surged to that Championship game last January and had a 17-13 lead over the Colts before wilting in the second half, losing 30-17. Now they return as the most talented, across the board, team in the NFL, and even though critics love to point out all the reasons why they won't fulfill their promise -- the situations with Revis, Pace and Sanchez (legitimate); their predilection for talking themselves up (not as legitimate) -- there is no reason to believe that they won't be among the NFL's elite, and the Super Bowl contender they believe they are.
They could get off to a rough start without Pace and Revis (and Holmes, who will be suspended for the season's first four games), and it's not hard to imagine them emerging from a difficult early schedule (Ravens, Patriots, Dolphins, Bills, Vikings) at 1-4. But things get easier from there, and they should only get stronger.
What the Dolphins do best: Everything.
This is not to say that Miami does everything exceedingly well; more that they appear to be very solid, in all areas, without any particularly outstanding strengths. On offense, the offseason trade for former Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall -- who is just 26, and who last season became the fifth player ever to catch 100 balls in three consecutive seasons -- and the continued development of quarterback Chad Henne, whom the Dolphins seem to revere and trust as much as any second-year starting quarterback can be revered and trusted, should pay dividends. It'll likely elevate the passing game to a level that approaches that of the Ronnie Brown- and Ricky Williams-led rushing attack, which was last season the NFL's fourth-most productive.
"Our main focus is still the run game," says Henne, "but we definitely put in some plays that are attacking down the field." There is also little doubt that a remade defense -- one that ought to feature six new starters -- will be much better than last season's unit, which ranked a disappointing 22nd overall and was the central reason the Dolphins were unable to build upon their surprising 2008 AFC East title.
What the Dolphins need to improve: Overall defense.
That '09 defense was mediocre against the pass (overall ranking: 24th) and the rush (18th), and even though Bill Parcells -- beginning his third season as the franchise's Executive V.P. -- made his biggest offseason splash with his signing of the talented Marshall, his main focus was on the other side of the ball. Seven of his eight draft picks were defensive players, as was his other significant free-agent signing, that of former Cardinals inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, who will be charged with leading all that youth.
"It feels like I'm the old guy, and I'm not that old!" says Dansby, 28. "It's cool to me. It revives me, man. It rejuvenates me." The Dolphins also have a lot of defense-minded brainpower on their coaching staff -- including new coordinator Mike Nolan and new linebackers coach Bill Sheridan, the Giants' coordinator last season -- and that should contribute to a rejuvenation not just for Dansby, but also the entire unit.
Which Dolphin needs to step up: Outside linebacker Koa Misi.
Misi, a second-round pick out of Utah, is one of two rookie defenders (the other is first-round defensive end Jared Odrick) who, as of a couple of weeks ago, appeared to have locked down a starting job. But he has yet to make much of an impact in the Dolphins' exhibition season (through three games he has seven tackles, and no sacks, interceptions or forced fumbles), and is now reportedly being pushed by third-year pro Ikalka Alama-Francis, a former Lions backup. Dansby is doing his best to tutor his young linebacking mate -- particularly, Dansby says, "with pass-rushing things, the way he needs to drop into coverage." The 6-foot-3, 251-pound Misi made all of his 36 starts in college on the defensive line, and he must accelerate his learning curve to justify the early hype that surrounds him.
Predicted record: 9-7.
Though their personnel is rather different, this Dolphins team in many ways resembles that '08 AFC champion. It looks to be a grinding group that won't blow anyone out, but it has the anchors in place -- in Henne, in Marshall, in Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long, in all those young defenders -- to initiate a sustained run of success, starting this year.