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AFC East hot spots

Plots, subplots lend to eventful season on the horizon

Click here for more on this story


  Buffalo Bills fans may have a tough time seeing Thurman Thomas in a Miami Dolphins uniform. David Leeds/Allsport

Sports Illustrated's Don Banks will offer his insights, opinions and analysis of the NFL this season in "Bank on it," a recurring feature on CNNSI.com. Here, as part of our division-by-division NFL training camp previews, is Banks' take on the state of the AFC East.

By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated

The AFC East had half of the conference's six playoff teams last season, but didn't exactly come up stout in the playoffs. Buffalo got either cheated out of or out-foxed in its first-round game at Tennessee. Indianapolis wasted its hard-fought homefield advantage in the divisional round against the Titans. Miami collapsed in historic porportions at Jacksonville after pulling a minor upset at Seattle.

Three of the AFC East's five teams changed coaches, with third-year veterans Wade Phillips of the Bills and Jim Mora of the Colts already the deans of the division. From the looks of it, the division will be hard pressed to repeat its three playoff qualifiers of a year ago.

You could make a case that four of the teams -- all but Indianapolis -- are rebuilding or heading the wrong direction. Buffalo or New England could pull a surprise and push the Colts. Miami and the Jets aren't going to scare anybody any time soon.

Buffalo Bills

File the Bills' offseason under the heading of the best moves are the ones you don't make. Or at least that's the company line in Orchard Park.

Bank On It
Don Banks' predicted AFC East order of finish:
1. Indianapolis
2. Buffalo
3. New England
4. Miami
5. New York Jets 
 
 

After getting about the ugly but necessary business of whacking the big three -- Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed -- the Bills were very, very quiet this offseason. Yes, they did decide to take their draft picks, but that was about it for the new faces. Unless you sort of count quarterback Rob Johnson, who gets the nod as starter over Doug Flutie from the outset this time around. Agree or disagree with coach Wade Phillips' bold move to bench Flutie for the playoffs, Johnson did enough to engineer an upset at Tennessee. Well, almost enough. But most coaches don't have the guts to put their starting quarterback on the kickoff coverage unit.

Buffalo has 21 victories and a pair of playoff berths in Phillips' first two seasons, and he's already lasted longer than he did in Denver. But with the divisions's toughest schedule and a younger team than Bills fans have grown used to, a third trip to the first round is anything but assured.

Indianapolis Colts

There are plenty more than three reasons that the Colts should run away and hide in this division, but the best three are named Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison.

The last time Jim Mora found himself this loaded he was in the USFL. Then again, that's the last time he won a playoff game, too. Mora, at 0-5 in the postseason, really has no excuse for not exorcising that demon this year.

The Colts have been so hot on the personnel front the past few years that they drafted 28th this offseason and still came away with one of the players they coveted most, middle linebacker Rob Morris of BYU. The Colts only potential pitfall? Being judged and found lacking only in comparision with their huge 1999 regular-season success.

Miami Dolphins

Poor Dave Wannstedt. Will replacing Jimmy Johnson in Miami be any easier than replacing Mike Ditka in Chicago? Yes, but that's because Jimmy's act went stale while he was going ring-less with the Fish, while Ditka will forever be the coach of the beloved 1985 Bears. So that's a no contest.

 
AFC East Previews
Buffalo Bills

Indianpolis Colts

Miami Dolphins

New England Patriots

New York Jets

CNNSI.com's NFL Preview  
 

Still, Wannstedt's timing is once again dubious at best. At first glance, the Dolphins have no quarterback, still no running game and middle of the road talent at receiver. After spending half its draft on running backs in '99, to no avail, Miami at least isn't boring us all to death with their annual, tired crusade to commit to the running game. Delvin Williams, where are you?

The fun part for Dol-fans this preseason will be watching the spirited battle at quarterback between Damon Huard and Jay Fiedler. The last time we had to handicap this position, of course, was when we gave David Woodley the slight edge over that kid named Marino.

New England Patriots

It's no more Mr. Nice guy in Foxboro. Everybody's best pal, Pete Carroll, made his exit after three uneventful seasons. But then again, we keep hearing about the new Bill Belichick. A kinder, gentler Mr. Bill. No more of the ogre-like behavior he was known for in Cleveland. This guy actually answers questions with multi-word sentences and smiles once in a while. Who said people skills can't be learned? The Patriots better hope so.

This is a team that has never been known for having much of a spine. Bill Parcells' Super Bowl season notwithstanding, New England historically doesn't respond to a game of hardball. As a head coach, Belichick has proven himself to be a heck of a defensive coordinator. But let's give him a second chance.

If he gets his team's tender psyche just right, no small feat, the Patsies could still make some noise in this division.

New York Jets

What do Ray Handley, Pete Carroll and Al Groh have in common?

After this season, maybe plenty, much to Groh's chagrin. Following in Bill Parcells' jaunty footsteps has become one of the NFL's most danger-fraught coaching endeavors. The question Groh must answer and answer early is whether or not this is his team and his team alone.

Groh got off to a clunky start with how he handled the Keyshawn Johnson trade talk this spring. He sounded tight, a tad defensive and something less than in control. So what's it going to be, Al? A Phil Bengtson or Les Steckel number, or do you have a Jimmy Johnson [in Dallas] or George Seifert-like performance in you? The early line says its Handley all over again.

Don Banks covers pro football for CNNSI.com.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer.


 
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