2011 Division Preview: AFC East
The Pats and Jets will again dominate the division, with the Pats holding an edge
Miami quietly plays very good defense, and that unit could be elite this year
The Bills have a tough schedule that will make it hard to improve on 2010's record
SI.com is previewing all eight divisions throughout the week in anticipation of the 2011 season kicking off. (Send comments to email@example.com)
The AFC East has, for two years now, been a division evenly split between haves (Patriots, Jets) and have-nots (Dolphins, Bills), and there seems little reason to expect anything will change in 2011, at least as far as the final standings. New England and New York remain among the NFL's elite teams, constructed to make the Super Bowl runs that have recently fallen short for both, while Miami and Buffalo simply try to make the playoffs for the first time in, respectively, three and 12 seasons.
If there is to be any change, it might be in the overall quality of the division's defenses. While the Jets and Dolphins already field top defenses -- the Jets ranked third overall last season, the Dolphins sixth -- the Patriots (2011 ranking: 25th) and the Bills (24th) have made improvements that could push them into the NFL's top half.
"I coached in the NFC East for awhile there in Dallas, and I always thought that was a tremendous division -- a really hard, physical division to have to play all those teams twice," says Tony Sparano, the Dolphins' fourth-year head coach. "This division is exactly that way. You've got great coaches, you have outstanding defenses and hard running games. Nobody in our division is going to get by anybody without a real fight."
Still, even if it might prove somewhat more difficult on a play-to-play basis, the Patriots and Jets should make the playoffs, despite a relative leveling of the defensive playing field.
What the Patriots do best: Pass the ball.
To a Tom Brady-led passing game that produced a league-best 37 touchdowns, against a league-low five interceptions, the Patriots added a wideout who ranks fourth among active players in receiving yards (10,783) and fourth in touchdown catches (66). But whatever production the Patriots receive out of Chad Ochocinco, acquired from the Bengals for a fifth- and sixth-round pick, will be more of a nice bonus than essential.
That's because New England has one of the deepest pools of talented receiving options in the league. It starts with Wes Welker, continues through second-year rising deep threat Taylor Price and ends with second-year tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the best tandem of pass-catching tight ends in the league and each a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. With the 34-year-old Brady still in his prime (even if his career is nearing its downswing), the Patriots' passing game should approach its performance in 2007, when it produced 4,859 yards through the air, the 12th-most ever.
What the Patriots need to improve: Their defensive line.
Make that, what the Patriots needed to improve. The line proved to be the team's fatal flaw last season, when it was overwhelmed by the Jets in their stunning second-round playoff victory in Foxborough -- New York rushed 29 times for 120 yards, including 17 attempts and 66 yards up the middle, and Mark Sanchez wasn't sacked once. After a long offseason, Bill Belichick acted decisively in restocking his line around centerpiece Vince Wilfork, adding tackle Albert Haynesworth and veteran pass-rushing ends Mark Anderson, Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis. The nature of that personnel suggests that Belichick plans to move away from his base 3-4 alignment into a 4-3, but Belichick promises fluidity.
"How, strategically, we want to move guys around and put them in certain alignments, or how to configure them relative to certain formations and tie it in with coverage and things like that -- I think there's flexibility there," the coach says, in his usual cards-concealing way. Still, it looks as if New England's major problem has been solved. "I envision it as being one of the best defenses around," says Wilfork. "I hope."
Which Patriot needs to step up: Punter Zoltan Mesko.
Mesko wasn't called upon much as a rookie, due to the Patriots' highly efficient offense: he was 26th in the league in punts. That meant that when Mesko did trot onto the field, something had gone wrong -- as it might in the several playoff games for which these Patriots surely seem headed. "It definitely requires a greater degree of focus on the sideline," Mesko says of his lack of use. "But I'm getting mental reps if I'm not in there, or if I am."
Predicted record: 14-2
The Patriots seem certain to win the season's first four games, and its last four (if they need to). Their only potential roadblocks might come in a relatively difficult mid-season stretch, particularly in games at Pittsburgh (Week 8), at the Jets (Week 10) and at Philadelphia (Week 12). Then will come the playoffs -- in which, it must be said, New England hasn't won a game since 2007.
What the Jets do best: Confuse opposing offenses.
When the Jets' defense is running coach Rex Ryan's 3-4 scheme at its full-strength best, no other is more bewildering to opposing offenses. That is how New York ranked eighth in the league in sacks last season, despite having only one player in the league's top 40 in the category (Bryan Thomas, whose six sacks tied for 39th). When the Jets lose a key cog or two, though, the defense struggles to maintain its standard level of confusion, and the result can be an uncharacteristic lapse, such as the one they experienced in the first half of last January's AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers raced out to an insurmountable 24-3 lead and Ben Roethlisberger wasn't sacked once. "We wore down a little bit," Ryan says. "Pittsburgh put it to us. They were the more physical team that day, which usually doesn't happen. By the time we rebounded, it was too late."
Linebacker Calvin Pace managed a second-half sack in that game despite playing on a fractured foot that was by then only 20 percent healed, according to Ryan. Pace is healthy now, and that should prove crucial to a defense that was "embarrassed" (Ryan's term) by an overall ranking of third.
"He's our best pass rusher, and we're excited for him to have a big year this year," says cornerback Darrelle Revis. If he does, and if the Jets don't again suffer injuries to many of their central components, the defense should once more contend to be the NFL's best.
What the Jets need to improve: Red-zone offense.
Mark Sanchez ranked 32nd in completion percentage inside the 20-yard line last season among quarterbacks with more than 15 red zone pass attempts, at 47.7 percent. He was much worse inside the 10, where he completed just 7 of 26 throws. "The coverages get tight, a lot of guys in there," says Ryan. "For any second-year quarterback, you look at anybody that's ever played this game, there's a lot of easier things to do than be a quarterback in the red zone. I think this year, you'll see those numbers go up."
Helping Sanchez's progression will be Plaxico Burress, whom the Jets signed fresh off a 22-month stint in the Oneida Correctional Facility. Even if Burress has lost a step at 34, he's still 6'5" and skilled. "When he's covered, he's open," says Ryan.
Which Jet needs to step up: Tight end Dustin Keller.
The Jets made their annual offseason splash by signing Burress, but he and 37-year-old fellow free agent Derrick Mason might not make up for the 94 catches and 1,337 receiving yards the Jets lost in departed wideouts Jerricho Cotchery and Braylon Edwards. That's where Keller will come in. Keller, now New York's longest-tenured skill position player, caught 19 balls for 254 yards and five touchdowns in the team's first four games last year, but saw his role reduced when Santonio Holmes returned from a season-opening suspension. Now, Keller should be a primary target for Sanchez all season long, a season that Burress predicts will end with a Pro Bowl appearance.
Predicted record: 11-5
A relatively easy road schedule -- the Jets' only real tests away from the Meadowlands could come at Baltimore (Week 4), at New England (Week 5) and at Philadelphia (Week 15) -- should ensure they will win 11 games for the second straight season. If their lack of defensive depth doesn't become an issue, they could win more than that.