2012 Division Preview: AFC East
Patriots pass for a ton of yards, but also give up a lot through the air on defense
Buffalo's backfield duo isn't the most well-known, but they do their jobs effectively
Even if the QB situation works out, Jets desperately lack playmakers on offense
In the first 10 seasons of the reconfigured four-team AFC East (2002-11), the red-white-blue-and-silver-clad colossus from New England has ruled all. While the Bills, Dolphins and Jets have combined to employ 14 head coaches and enough starting quarterbacks to stock a whole rival league, there has been Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in New England. Still standing, and still winning. Ever winning.
The Patriots have yet to have a losing season in the realigned AFC East, and their eight playoff trips and four Super Bowl appearances since 2002 dwarf the accomplishments of the rest of the division. The Bills (a league-high 12-year playoff drought), Dolphins (one playoff berth) and Jets (five playoff trips) together can't come close to matching what the folks in Foxboro have done in the postseason. The Patriots also own the six best regular season records in the division's history: logging a 16-0 in 2007, 14-2 marks in 2010, 2004 and 2003, a 13-3 in 2011, and a 12-4 in 2006. Put another way, New England's nine double-digit win seasons in that span are four more than the rest of the division combined, and none of the other three have finished better than 11-5.
"Do I respect New England and the fact that [it] has won our division a zillion times?'' Jets head coach Rex Ryan said early in this year's training camp. "The three years I've been here, they've won it all three years -- and I don't think it's been close. They've been clearly dominating this division for years and years. So you have to beat them. It always goes through them.''
It certainly does, and here's a news flash: The Jets haven't exactly narrowed the gap, losing the division to New England by one game in 2009, three games in 2010 and five games in 2011. That's not the direction Ryan and Co. want to be heading, even if they did upset the Pats in the 2010 playoffs. And it's hard to see the division being anything but New England-centric again this season. Buffalo should be improved on defense with the Mario Williams signing, but the Jets have their issues on offense with the challenge of the Tebow factor, and Miami is starting over again with a new head coach (Joe Philbin) and a rookie quarterback (Ryan Tannehill). Add it all up, and it's a good bet the dynasty rolls on.
What the Patriots do best: Hang up some crooked numbers.
Is is possible we have started taking New England's offense for granted? For the third time in five seasons, the Patriots topped 500 points scored last year (513), joining the Greatest Show on Turf St. Louis Rams of 1999-2001 as the only other club to accomplish that feat. New England's Tom Brady-led passing game is a well-oiled machine, with the Patriots finishing third overall (and first in the AFC) in scoring, second in total yards (6,848), second in first downs (399), second in passing yards (5,084), and fourth in touchdown passes (39). New England had nine games with at least 34 points, including playoffs, and cracked 400 yards of offense 12 times including the postseason.
What the Patriots need to improve: Their pass defense.
New England wasn't as bad on defense as some of its 2011 numbers indicated, finishing a middle of the pack 15th in points allowed (21.4 per game) and a decent enough 17th against the run (117.1). But the pass defense did struggle mightily last year, giving up 293.9 yards per game, ranking only slightly ahead of Green Bay's rock bottom effort in that category. Then again, the Packers and Patriots went a combined 28-4 in the regular season, so draw your own conclusions. Still, New England's defense wants a considerable drop from the 8.0 passing yards per attempt (29th) it allowed last year, as well as its 43.1 percent third-down conversion rate (28th). The Patriots devoted most of its draft to defense, with the thought being that front-seven players like first-round defensive end Chandler Jones and first-round linebacker Dont'a Hightower improve New England's speed and athleticism in passing situations.
Which Patriot needs to step up: Shane Vereen, running back.
The Patriots have used the preseason to find out who will replace the departed BenJarvus Green-Ellis as their lead running back, and it now appears that Vereen, a second-round pick in 2011, might have nosed ahead of Stevan Ridley in that competition. Vereen started New England's Week 2 preseason game against the visiting Eagles and turned in a solid performance, with 20 yards rushing and 29 more on four receptions. Ridley is still in the race, but Vereen's 84 yards rushing now leads all Patriots runners this preseason and it was perhaps telling that Ridley was in the Eagles game during fourth-quarter mop-up duty, when New England's inclination is usually to rest and protect key players for the regular season. The Patriots running game will never be all that vital with Brady around, but New England needs someone in the backfield to keep defenses honest, pick up the critical short-yardage situations, and help sell the play-action calls.
Predicted record: 13-3.
The Patriots have rolled to an NFL-best 27-5 regular season record the past two years, and there's no end in sight to their dominance of the AFC East. The Bills should be competitive in the division, and maybe the Jets will make a little noise at some point, but New England is by far the class of this four-team grouping. A check of the Patriots schedule shows opponents that went just 116-140 last year, making it the league's easiest by that often deceiving measure. But in drawing AFC South and NFC West opponents this year, New England doesn't have a murderer's row to plow through outside its division. Maybe the Bills, Ravens or 49ers could give Bill Belichick's talented team a tussle on a given Sunday this season, but the losing efforts will again be few in Foxboro.
What the Bills do best: Field an underrated pair of playmakers in the backfield.
Though the tandem of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller may not scream star material to some, plenty of teams would swap their top two rushers for the productive Buffalo duo. In a heartbeat. Jackson is a versatile and valuable rusher, receiver and blocker, and in just 10 games last year he accounted for a whopping 1,376 yards of offense, with six touchdowns and a 5.5-yard average carry. When Jackson went down with a broken fibula in November last season, the Bills offense lost its most dangerous weapon and became easier to defend.
Spiller picked up some of the slack, contributing 830 yards from scrimmage, with six touchdowns of his own and a very effective 5.2-yard average rush. Buffalo's running game works well out of the spread offense favored by coach Chan Gailey, with both Jackson and Spiller adept in a one-back formation, and as threats in the short passing game. Even with the Jackson injury, the Bills run game finished a respectable 13th last season with 120 yards per game, and its 4.9-yard average rush ranked fifth.
What the Bills need to improve: Getting to the quarterback.
It wasn't difficult to decipher the focus of the Bills' offseason. Buffalo finished with a meager 29 sacks last season -- better than only two other NFL teams -- and 10 of those came in one remarkable game against Washington. So the Bills went shopping in free agency and spent lavishly to land two of the biggest prizes available when it came to pass rushers: defensive ends Mario Williams, the former Houston No. 1 overall pick, and Mark Anderson, fresh off a 10-sack season in New England last year.
The Bills already had two quality defensive tackles in emerging 2011 first-round pick Marcell Dareus and unsung veteran Kyle Williams, so the move back to a 4-3 defensive scheme under new coordinator Dave Wannstedt dovetailed nicely with the personnel acquisitions. The thinking is straight forward: If the Bills' remodeled pass rush can turn up the heat, everything about a Buffalo defense that ranked 26th in yards allowed and 30th in scoring should take a sizable step forward this season.
Which Bill needs to step up: Cordy Glenn, offensive left tackle.
Buffalo has named Glenn, a rookie, its protector of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's blind side, and that's always a bit of a hold-your-breath decision. Especially when the team has legitimate playoff hopes, and especially when the new left tackle played the majority of his collegiate career at guard. But the Bills believe their second-round pick has the build (6-foot-6, 343 pounds), aptitude and athleticism to handle the offensive line's key position, and they seem willing to endure any early season growing pains he might have.
Predicted record: 10-6.
The Bills cruelly have teased their fans with fast starts and season-killing slides a time or two recently (from 5-2 to 6-10 in 2011), but it says right here their NFL-high 12-year playoff drought will end this time around. (I think.) Buffalo's defense might take a little time to jell, but its defensive line has a chance to be a force by midseason, and a softer-than-usual second-half schedule gives the Bills a great opportunity to stay away from any losing streak longer than two or three games. An AFC wild-card berth will have long-suffering Buffalo fans partying like it's, well, 1999 -- the year of the Bills' most recent playoff appearance.