2012 NFL Previews: AFC East
Written by Aaron Fischman
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The AFC East has been all over sports media this summer, and the defending AFC champion New England Patriots have probably been the least covered team of the four. Ever since the New York Jets traded for Tim Tebow in March, the former Bronco signal-caller’s image has been transmitted all over the Internet and TV. The Miami Dolphins will be featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” all season long, and although it’s negative attention, Chad Johnson’s recent arrest and subsequent release is only fueling the team’s publicity. Even the Buffalo Bills (yes, I know, the Buffalo Bills), who have not made the playoffs since Bill Clinton was president, made national news when they signed former No. 1 overall pick defensive end Mario Williams.
The Patriots are the clear favorite in this division. In eight of New England’s last nine seasons, Bill Belichick has led his squad to the postseason. Although the Pats have not won a Super Bowl since 2004, the team boasts arguably the best quarterback and tight end in the game. While Tom Brady’s on-the-field exploits have been well documented, Rob Gronkowski had a season for the ages last year (1,327 receiving yards along with 17 touchdowns). In fact, many believe the Patriots would have been champions had the Gronk not gone down with a high ankle sprain in last year’s AFC Championship game.
Even though Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski turned in stellar 2012 seasons, Brady never really had a deep ball threat last season. The Patriots addressed that concern by bringing in Brandon Lloyd, who has racked up 2,414 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns over the last two years. Interestingly enough, Josh McDaniels was Lloyd’s head coach through the first 12 games of his outstanding 2010 season. McDaniels will team up with the wide receiver again, this time as New England’s offensive coordinator. The 36-year-old coach also served as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator during the 2007-08 campaign when Brady threw for an NFL-record 50 touchdowns.
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Last season, New England’s defense ranked second-worst in yards allowed, but their secondary was the major culprit, as the defense surrendered nearly 294 passing yards per game. Only the Green Bay Packers allowed more yards through the air. Patriots brass believe that drafting defensive ends Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette will indirectly aid the secondary. They argue that the corners and safeties won’t have to cover their guys for as long if the pass rush improves. Cornerback Devin McCourty will likely move to free safety, 34-year-old slot cornerback Will Allen was added and safety Tavon Wilson (Illinois) was drafted in the second round.
Buffalo has not made the postseason since the 1999-00 season, but according to AccuScore’s preseason forecast, it has the sixth-best chance of making the playoffs (six teams make the playoffs from each conference). One also has to go back to the 2004-05 campaign to find the last time the Bills won more games than they lost. Even so, there is reason for optimism. Although Mario Williams has incurred a season-ending injury in each of the past two seasons, when healthy, he has performed extraordinarily well. In addition, the inflamed hernia and torn pectoral are unrelated, and the Bills do not appear to fear their new guy is an injury waiting to happen. Through Mario’s first four years in the league, he played 16 games per season. If Williams can remain healthy, he will surely help a Buffalo defense that ranked near the bottom of the NFL in sacks last season (only the Titans and Buccaneers recorded fewer sacks than the Bills). Buffalo’s defense desperately needs to improve upon last season’s performance, a year in which they allowed 27.1 points per contest (tied for 29th in the league).
The Jets finished an even 8-8 last year, without a postseason appearance, after competing in the AFC Championship game in each of the previous two years. The Jets’ quarterback situation has already garnered intense scrutiny. While quarterback Mark Sanchez has improved his TD rate and completion percentage every year, neither number is good on its own. In addition, Sanchez is still turning the ball over like crazy. Last season, the former Trojan threw 18 interceptions, but even worse, he lost eight fumbles. The addition of Tim Tebow could add a much-needed dimension to the Jets’ offense, but it could also create deep divisions within the team.
On the defensive side of the ball, New York drafted defensive end Quintin Coples out of North Carolina. Rex Ryan and company hope the 6-foot-6, 286-lb newbie can come in and make an immediate impact pressuring quarterbacks. In addition, safeties LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell were brought in to shore up the secondary.
Miami has made the playoffs a grand total of one time in its last 10 seasons. The Dolphins snatched Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill with the eighth overall pick in this year’s draft. The franchise hopes he will be under center for many years to come, but as of now it remains uncertain who will be the team’s starting quarterback come opening day. Matt Moore, who played well last season, and David Garrard are also in the mix. If the decision were up to this humble writer, I’d start Tannehill in an effort to prepare for the future. Then again, new head coach Joe Philbin may decide to start whomever is most NFL-ready by Week 1.