Tuesday, September 1, 2009

AFC East Preview

Previewing the AFC East is actually quite easy for one simple reason: Tom Brady.
As long as Brady's injury doesn't bother him the New England Patriots have the other three teams playing for second.

The Miami Dolphins are the defending champs of the division, but that came with Brady going down in the opener of the 2008 season with a nasty knee injury. Even then, the Pats went 11-5 with a quarterback (Matt Cassel) who hadn't started a game since high school, turning him into a bonus baby with the Kansas City Chiefs, and only losing out on a division title to the Dolphins on tiebreakers. There will be none of that this season.

New England is the deepest, most talented team in the game. The offense with Brady throwing to Randy Moss and Wes Welker should be close to the explosive unit that helped the Patriots to an undefeated regular season in 2007.
Brady threw a record-setting 50 touchdown passes that season. Duplicating that will be tough, but he's a sure bet to land in the 40s somewhere. He did suffer a slight shoulder injury in last week's preseason game against the Washington Redskins, and indicated in a radio interview Monday that there is a chance he might not play the opener. But I think he'll be fine.
If Brady were to miss a game, it would be Andrew Walter right now as his backup. The Patriots also could add a veteran.
Another key for the Patriots this season will be the addition of the veterans Belichick brought in as free agents, players like running back Fred Taylor, cornerback Shawn Springs, defensive end Derrick Burgess and tight end Chris Baker.

New England is a melting pot of old and young talent with a football genius running things.
Who can compete with that?
On paper, the Dolphins are the second-best team, but their schedule is murderous and that Wildcat offense isn't going to surprise anybody this season.
That means they have to throw it better. Chad Pennington is the starter, but Chad Henne is waiting for his time. If Pennington starts slow, there could be an early change. That could impact this season.
The Buffalo Bills and New York Jets look to be a notch below the Dolphins, but with upgraded quarterback play either could surprise. The Jets will start rookie Mark Sanchez, while the Bills are hoping Trent Edwards can take his game up a notch after a disappointing second half in 2008.
It must be nice to be Belichick and look around the division and see passing games with question marks when you know yours will have another loud exclamation point.
Now we know why the Pats are the team to beat.
Brady is back.

New England Patriots
Significant additions: RB Fred Taylor, CB Shawn Springs, CB Leigh Bodden, DE Derrick Burgess, OLB Tully Banta-Cain, WR Joey Galloway, S Patrick Chung and CB Darius Butler.
Significant losses: QB Matt Cassel, CB Ellis Hobbs, LB Tedy Bruschi (retirement) and OLB Mike Vrabel.
Biggest offseason move: Getting Taylor. He will provide veteran pop to the running game and help Laurence Maroney get better.
Will go to the playoffs if ... Tom Brady stays healthy. It's that simple.
Rookie to watch: Chung. He will be a monster on special teams and one day will be a quality safety.
Overview: This is the best team in football and has the best coach. What's not to like? The defense didn't look good in the preseason defeat of the Redskins, but they'll be fine. The secondary remains a little bit of a concern, but there is enough young and old talent to make it work. Brady to Moss and Welker will make this team unstoppable on offense again. They'll be in the AFC Championship Game -- bare minimum.

Miami Dolphins
Significant additions: C Jake Grove, OLB Cameron Wake, S Gibril Wilson, WR Brian Hartline, CB Sean Smith, CB Vontae Davis, QB Pat White.
Significant losses: S Renaldo Hill, CB Andre Goodman.
Biggest offseason move: It has to be taking rookie corners Davis and Smith in the first two rounds. One will start and the other will likely be the nickel corner. They are an upgrade over what was in the secondary a year ago.
Will go to the playoffs if ... They can handle a brutal schedule and Pennington shows he can still play at a high level and his playoff failure was an aberration.
Rookie to watch: WR Brian Hartline. The Dolphins love this kid. He isn't a burner, but he knows how to get open. He will push for time as a rookie.
Overview: This team is a year away. Bill Parcells is building this the right way, through the draft. It will take one more offseason before the Dolphins are a real Super Bowl threat. They are stout on both lines, an important part, but I'm not sure they can score enough. The Wildcat will be figured out this season, which means they will have to win with more conventional offense. Can they? The defense should be better, but the schedule will mean no playoffs. Watch out in 2010.

New York Jets
Significant additions: Sanchez, ILB Bart Scott, S Jim Leonhard and CB Lito Sheppard.
Significant losses: TE Chris Baker, WR Laveranues Coles, QB Brett Favre, DE Kenyon Coleman.
Biggest offseason move: Trading up to get Sanchez and not having to play Favre. Two plusses.
Will go to the playoffs if ... Sanchez can play like Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco did as rookies last season. That's asking a lot.
Rookie to watch: Sanchez. The kid has a chance to be a really good player. But it will be interesting to see how well he responds early in the season to the pressure of being a rookie starter.
Overview: It's always tough to lead a team with a rookie quarterback. But Sanchez doesn't seem to be fazed by the big stage -- so far. I like him. But to expect him to do what Flacco and Ryan did a year ago is asking a lot. The best-case scenario for the Jets is a wild-card spot, but that will be tough. Rex Ryan is the right guy for this job, but this is a team that is a year away as well.

Buffalo Bills
Significant additions: WR Terrell Owens, CB Drayton Florence, C Geoff Hangartner, DE Aaron Maybin, G Eric Wood, TE Shawn Nelson, G Andy Levitre.
Significant losses: T Jason Peters, G Derrick Dockery, TE Robert Royal and G Duke Preston.
Biggest offseason move: It's one of the biggest in the league and that's bringing Owens to Buffalo. It's a move that can pay off big time if he can stay out of trouble He also needs to get healthy. His toe has been an issue this summer and that can be lingering.
Will go to the playoffs if ... QB Trent Edwards turns into Jim Kelly. That isn't likely.
Rookie to watch: It has to be Maybin. The Bills need to get much more from their pass rush and he has the speed off the edge.
Overview: The Bills haven't looked good in the preseason, especially on offense. That has to be disconcerting for a team that needs to get more scoring. Edwards hasn't played well, which is really a concern. If he doesn't, there will be a new staff in Buffalo next season. The defense should be better with the addition of Maybin, but they might need to be if the offense struggles. I just don't have a good feeling about this team, even if Owens becomes a force down the field. They're not good enough on offense.
-Pete Prisco

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