2014 AFC East Preview: Bill and Tom’s Excellent Adventure

Posted: August 14, 2014 in Uncategorized
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One of the few constants in the NFL over the course of the last 15-years has been the success of the New England Patriots. In 2013, that imperialistic dominance over the AFC East continued; as the Patriots conquered their division for the 11th time in 13 years. Also-rans Miami, New York, and Buffalo will set their sights on a rebellion of sorts. Their rise from the depths of the division will be predicated on the maturity and growth of their young quarterbacks. Regardless, it might not matter come January.

Like it or not, the AFC East still belongs to New England. Under the tutelage of Bill Belichick and the leadership of Tom Brady, New England has established a hegemony over their division for the better part of this century. How long can this dominance last? No one knows the answer to that question. One thing is almost certain; the Patriots will once again conquer the East in 2014.

Bill-Belichick-Tom-BradyWhen New England walked off the turf at Sports Authority Field in Denver last January, their mission was clear; improve the defense at all costs. After the Patriots’ porous secondary allowed Payton Manning and the Broncos free reign over the thin Denver airspace, Belichick knew that the only way to wash away the bitter taste of defeat was with the acquisition of game changers in the secondary. Enter Darrelle Revis, who was released by Tampa following one forgettable season in the Sunshine State.

Revis might not be the player that he was 5-years ago. But, New England doesn’t need him to be. By reputation alone, the former Pitt Panther will stiffen a formerly limp pass defense. The addition of Brandon Browner from Seattle should also prove critical; as the former Seahawks’ starter will be picked quite a bit playing opposite of Revis. These pickups allowed former starters Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan to assimilate to roles they’ll be more comfortable with as nickle and dime defensive backs.

The biggest question in New England this season may be the health of Rob Gronkowski, who has been seen more in dance clubs recently than on the field (as long as he’s not murdering someone afterwards like his former teammate, Aaron Hernandez, I think Belichick is okay with it). If “Gronk” can remain on the field for at least 13 games this season, there should be nothing standing between the Pats and a home playoff game or two at Gillette Stadium in January.

tnnehillMore people will remember the Miami Dolphins’ 2013 season for the Richie Incognito fiasco rather than their rather meteoric collapse down the stretch. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Dolphins were 8-6, needing just one win (or help from other teams) to clinch their first playoff berth since 2008. Instead, the team’s much maligned offensive line caved like Incognito at a buffet line. The Dolphins scored just one touchdown in their final two games against New York and Buffalo, being outscored 39-7 as their playoff hopes eroded.

In 2014, the Dolphins feature an improved secondary (with the signing of Cortland Finnegan and Louis Delmas) and a hopefully rebuilt offensive line. Their first round selection of JaWuan James coupled with the free agent signing of Branden Albert from Kansas City should serve them well after they allowed the most sacks in football a year ago. Still, the Dolphins’ biggest question might remain under center, where Ryan Tannehill has firmly established himself as the starter.

The 26-year old gunslinger improved in nearly every facet of the game in 2013, throwing 24 touchdowns to just 17 interceptions. However, his propensity to hang onto the ball too long has led to 93 sacks over his first two seasons, the highest amount in football over that time frame. He’ll need to learn to throw the ball away if the Dolphins are going to keep him under center for 16 more games this season.

For the New York Jets, winning has never been more important. In fact, there hasn’t been a more critical season for a Ryan since Rex’s father Buddy failed to win a playoff game in 1991 for the Philadelphia Eagles, leading to his unceremonious departure. After years of bloviating, the Jets’ coach may have finally learned to shut up and coach, as you’ll hear no guarantees about New York’s success in 2014.

If Ryan is going to keep his job, he’ll need to win at least 9 games. To do that, the Jets will need to see marked improvement from sophomore signal caller Geno Smith. The former WVU Mountaineer is certainly going to have to show that the turnover problems of 2013 were merely rookie growing pains, and not a sign of things to come. If Smith struggles early, expect the vociferous New York fan base to begin calling for Michael Vick, who was signed from Philadelphia over the spring. Take it from someone who’s watched him over the last four years, the last thing anyone should want is Michael Vick under center. Besides, it’s not as though he’ll finally be able to stay healthy for 16-games. Eagles fans were telling themselves that “this is the year,” during his entire tenure with the franchise. Smith/Vick is joined by Chris Johnson (formerly CJ2K, now just another washed up tailback) and Eric Decker; both of whom were signed away from fellow AFC rivals.

deemillThe Jets’ defense is as good as ever, with 2nd-year CB Dee Milliner expected to continue his growth into one of the better cover corners in the game. If the Jets’ offseason spending spree on offense pays off, they should find themselves once again in contention come December. If Smith struggles and/or Vick can’t stay healthy, expect the pink slips to be permeating throughout the Meadowlands come Christmas.

Finally, we have the ultimate cellar dweller, the once proud Buffalo Bills. It was a tough offseason for the Bills’ faithful. Not only did they lose their owner, as the death of Ralph Wilson put an ominous dark cloud over the future of the franchise in northern New York. But, they also saw their front office commit a large gamble to rookie WR Sammy Watkins, trading a 2015 first round pick for the draft pick to acquire him.

Now, Watkins could turn out to be the next Randy Moss. But, odds are that his rookie production levels will be more in line with the norm. That’s all well and good, especially if he eventually develops into a Julio Jones type talent. But, for a team with so Bills-Sammy-Watkins-Bill-Wippertmany question marks, was it really such a good idea to deal away a future first for the chance to select a receiver? Who knows? Perhaps the addition of Watkins will propel 2013 first rounder EJ Manuel to the Pro Bowl. He’d have to stay healthy first, as Manuel’s fast paced, scrambling style doesn’t exactly lay credence to that hope. Still, Buffalo’s offense under Doug Marrone is in the rebuilding phase. With CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson still in the backfield, they should be good enough to keep pace with anyone short of Denver in the AFC.

On defense, the Bills spent big to improve what was a calamitous unit in 2013. The loss of Kiko Alonso for the season due to injury will prove damaging. But, the additions of Brandon Spikes (New England), Corey Graham (Baltimore), and Keith Rivers (New York Giants) should provide the Bills with enough depth to get by. It should be noted that Spikes was rated the best inside linebacker against the run by Pro Football Focus in 2013, and that stopping the run was the Bills’ weak point last season.

All in all, the 2014 AFC East race looks to once again be a battle for second place. But, in a conference with so much competitiveness in the other three divisions, second place in the East might just be enough to take a wild card spot in the AFC.

 

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