1. New England Patriots OTC Projected Record: 10-6
Calling Card: Passing Game
Franchise Player: Tom Brady
There was a day when the New England Patriots’ defense would have been listed among the team’s calling cards, but those days are no more. The last time we saw the dynastic Pats, they were getting destroyed by the Ravens in Foxborough and the once cornerstone defense was at the center of the torching. In many ways it marked the end of a an era in New England. Not an era of winning, but an era of dominance, especially come playoff time. Entering the season, there are more questions than ever for the Patriots, but that does not mean they are without answers.
Tom Brady? Check. Randy Moss? Check. Wes Welker? Not yet, but if I had to put money on it right now, I say he plays all 16 regular season games despite his ACL and MCL tear at the end of last year. There are no problems in the passing game as far as the skill position players, but other potential problems lurk. The running game is still mediocre at best, but the biggest worries come on the offensive line. The incumbents aren’t getting any younger, and one of them even went on record criticizing the franchise for how they were handling his contract. Do you have any idea how serious something has to be to hear a Patriots player speak out? Even Tedy Bruschi remarked on ESPN about how serious he knew Logan Mankins was because of how public he made it. Without protection, he Patriots offense looks more like the one that the Giants attacked in Super Bowl XLII than the offense that got them to that Super Bowl. However, all these questions do not equate to problems. A healthy Fred Taylor should give the running game a boost, and a full season of Wes Welker is great news for the Pats, who play a very tough schedule. The offense will not be breaking any records this year, but they should be just fine.
Here is where the questions abound. They did lose Jerod Mayo last year, but the defense as a whole was really not up to snuff. The numbers do not look bad (11th in total yardage and 5th in total points) but they gave up far more big plays than normal and had problems tackling, which are things that you never see Bill Belichick teams struggling with. Most teams would call those numbers a massive improvement, but for the Patriots, it signaled a regression. They sought help in the form of Devin McCourty, their first round pick out of Rutgers, although Kyle Wilson would have been a better pick (as I pointed out in the NFL Draft recap). However, the guys up front will have to do their part if they are to keep up with the offense this year.
Should be solid, but not spectacular. There is not a ton to talk about with most teams here, but as they are a crucial part of the game, we would be remiss to ignore them entirely.
The Pats are not what they once were, but they are still the best team in the division, especially given Revis’ contract situation (more on that in a second) and the perennial uncertainty around the Dolphins leaves the Pats as the still-favorites in the division.
Just for the record, as a Colts fan, I hate the Patriots, but I still picked them to win the division, so any claims of bias have to go through this.
2. New York Jets OTC Projected Record:10-6
Calling Card: Defense
Weakness: Passing Game
Franchise Player: Darrelle Revis (at this point at least)
It’s a Hard Knocks life for the Jets this year, but not in the bad way. The HBO hit show is looking at Rex Ryan and the Jets, and given their record of outlandish predictions and big characters, the producers could not have picked a better team to focus on. The Jets are as loud as they are confident, but that does not necessarily translate to success, especially when in the same division as the now-nemesis Patriots. In some sense, it is fitting that the Jets and Patriots are rivals. For everything that the Patriots are (offensively talented, quiet, business-like), the Jets are the exact opposite (offensively boring, loud, and not at all business-like). However, both are very solid clubs that will have a shot at the AFC East.
It is all about the running game here. Thomas Jones is gone, but Shonn Greene is ready to take over the lion’s share of the carries, and LaDanian Tomlinson is ready to step in on 3rd downs as a back that can catch the ball (unlike Greene). Many are also expecting good things out of Mark Sanchez this year with new additions Santonio Holmes and returning wideout Braylon Edwards out wide in support. However, I am not among the Sanchez supporters. I think Sanchez can improve his numbers from last year (especially the turnovers), but not to a level where the Jets are anything but a run-first team. They will be just fine running the ball, but expecting any major improvements out of the passing game is a little wishful. The Jets will be fine, but no world beaters like people are making them out to be.
Darrelle Revis. Will he sign or not? If he does, I could see the Jets winning the division, but without him, 10-6 is about as well as I can see them doing. Bringing in Antonio Cromartie and drafting Kyle Wilson were huge adds, especially given the holdout, but they are certainly not replacements for Revis. Let’s not get crazy here. He is a great player, but he is still just a cornerback, not a guy whose presence, or lack thereof, can completely sink a team. I do not think he is going to play this year, and that the Jets will be just fine without him, though not as good as they were last year defensively. The defense will still be good, and will still be the strength of the team, with or without Revis Island.
Field position is very important for a team like the Jets who do not have much big-play potential. The difference between a short field and a long one is huge for a team like the Jets, so the special teams units will play a huge role.
I like them this year, just not as much as some people do. Reaching the AFC Championship Game would be a huge success, even though it would mark “no progress” from last year. 2nd to the Patriots on tie-break.
3. Miami Dolphins OTC Projected Record:10-6
Calling Card: Running Game
Franchise Player: Ronnie Brown
They are the perennial dark horses of the AFC East, and that is still the case. Think of them as the Houston Texans. Every offseason, they look like they have made the move to contender, but they secretly still have too many holes to really take that step forward needed to make it. They have some interesting options on offense that look great on paper, and a new linebacker in Karlos Dansby who hopes to step in and solidify a fairly weak defense. Whether or not those things end up panning out is anyone’s guess.
The running game is still there, and the wildcat thrives on South Beach like it does in few other places. Even when injuries hit the Dolphins, like they do every year, they do just fine running the ball, so there are no worries there. However, they have a few franchise QB in Chad Henne and a big new target for him in Brandon Marshall, neither of whom is a sure thing. Henne had a great close to the year, but as defenses get a better look at him, he is sure to struggle like any almost-first-year QB would. Marshall is even trickier to predict. Call it a thinly veiled comparison, but imagine you have a troubled athlete in a medium sized city. Now take him and put him on South Beach, in the middle of that nightlife and everything that comes with it. Does that sound like a recipe for success? For some guys, just getting out of the city fixes the issue, but it is impossible to know, and few would argue things are easier for him off the field in Miami. Even if his numbers are up, that locker room might be down with Marshall’s history. The offense could be a juggernaut, but it could just as easily be one-dimensional like last year. Let’s assume it is somewhere in between and move on because the real issues here are not on this side of the ball.
The Raiders and Browns had pretty bad teams last year and that included their defenses, though both had moments. You know who gave up more points than them? The Dolphins. In fact, only the Lions, Rams, Giants, Chiefs, Titans, and Buccaneers gave up more points, and the #1, 2, 3, and 5 overall picks in the draft are represented there. Karlos Dansby is a very good player, but he is not the answer to a litany of defensive issues. To me, there is one example from last year that perfectly frames this issue. It was that game against the Colts where the Dolphins did whatever they wanted with the ball, pummeling the ball down the Colts’ throat. It was a truly dominating performance, and the Dolphins held the ball for over 75% of the game. They lost. They lost because they could not stop the Colts for anything, and they only had the ball for so long because they could not go a thing to stop the Colts. Granted, not every team is the Colts, but until they can completely dominate a game and not lose it does to shoddy defense, they cannot be a contender. Their defense is fairly young and will get better, but it is not where it needs to be to be a real contender for the playoffs.
The loss of Ted Ginn means that they need a new returner, but Tony Sparano claims to have a few guys lined up (source here). I am not sure how convinced I am, so I think the special teams will take a slight step down, though not to a damaging level.
Though they are not as good as the Jets or Patriots, they always play well at home, and have a pretty weak schedule that can get them to 10-6 this year, though it could be a lower win total.
4. Buffalo Bills OTC Projected Record: 3-13
Calling Card: Disappointment
Franchise Player: Paul Posluszny (if not franchise, then best)
Everyone loves drafting a skill position player. No one likes drafting a skill position guy that the team has no need for and they need a different skill position. Welcome to the Buffalo Bills. CJ Spiller is an exciting tailback out of Clemson with a home run hitter skill set. No word on if he can throw the ball at all, though, and if he cannot, then he was the wrong pick. Trent Edwards is really not the man to bring the Bills back to respectability, and with guys like Jimmy Clausen available, the Bills should have traded down at the very least to get the guy they needed instead of the guy that the fans will like, because while Spiller could bring some excitement to the Ralph this year, he will not bring them more wins. However, let’s get to the rest of the team and stop harping on management.
Fred Jackson is a very good running back, and Spiller looks promising. Hell, with a little bit of blocking, the Bills might even be able to muster a respectable running game like year one of the Marshawn Lynch regime. New offensive coordinator Chan Gailey has a tall task, but not one that is impossible. However, I am not sure if he could have picked a team with players less suited for his system. He likes to use one running back more than the rest, and the Bills have 2 1/2 (including Lynch) legitimate running backs. He loves using the TE as a receiving option. The Bills have not had a legitimate threat at TE in forever. Bills fans need to be patient with Gailey because while he has a good track record, he is going to need some time to mold this team to his liking. The running game should be solid, but there is plenty of toom for improvement across the board.
The defense might actually be respectable this year if it can stay healthy as a unit. Donte Whitner is a very good safety (whose numbers get a little inflated by the front 7 letting too many guys through) and Paul Posluszny is a leader at LB. The secondary is far from shabby given the pressure they are constantly under, and the front line looks set to improve. However, this unit never seems to stay healthy and to expect it this year would be unrealistic. This year is a step forward for Buffalo’s defense, it just might not show up on the field.
A pretty well kept secret. The Bills routinely have some of the best special teams in the NFL. It should continue. Oh, and Mr. Spiller could help too.
They will be a pretty good 3-13 team, but looking at that schedule, having to play the AFC and NFC North and not getting a very favorable home schedule, 3-13 is probably around where they will fall. Another season of despair in Buffalo.