Monday, August 25, 2014

Long And Suite Preview: The AFC East

Tom Brady is still under center for the Patriots, but it will be New England's defense that will need to carry them if they want to make it back to the Super Bowl.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The AFC East will (in overwhelming likelihood) not be hotly contested. The division title, for years, has been the reward the New England Patriots receive simply for showing up with a healthy quarterback. The Patriots have won 12 or more games in eight of the last eleven seasons. No other team in the division has even done it once. They've won the division in 11 of the last 13. The two years they didn't they came damn close - in 2008, they went 11-5 but lost the division to the also 11-5 Dolphins, despite the Patriots posting a far superior scoring margin. In 2002, there was a three-way tie at 9-7 atop the division, but the Patriots lost out to the Jets on tiebreakers despite, again, a superior scoring margin.

Nobody really expects anyone to challenge the Patriots, which is why they have the second-steepest odds to win their division - Vegas sees only Denver as a bigger lock to win their division. But after the Patriots, the division is very much in flux. And with the conference so up in the air outside of New England and Denver, whoever grabs second in the AFC East could very well be a dangerous Wild Card team.

Here's how the division breaks down - separated into two groups. Teams better than you think they are, and teams not as good as you think they are:

(It should be noted here, and will be repeated, that how a team is classified here is not indicative of their relative quality within the division. For example, the Bills are listed as being better than advertised, and the Jets are listed as being worse. That doesn't necessarily mean that the Bills will be better than the Jets. It just means that one team is over-valued and one team is under-valued.)

These Teams Are Better Than You Think They Are

New England Patriots

2013 Outcome: 12-4, 1st in AFC Easst, Lost AFC Championship Game
Odds To Win Division: -350
Over/Under Wins: 11

The Patriots got rather thoroughly embarrassed  in the AFC Championship Game against Denver last January - their win probability topped out at 9.2 percent during the second half, and once the fourth quarter started, it never got above one percent. Their offense, which carried them for most of the season, was pitiful. They fell behind and were forced to throw on every down (the Patriots called just 14 running plays all game, just two in the fourth quarter), a nightmare for a team with no real dynamic weapons on the outside. And even if they wanted to run the ball, it probably wouldn't have mattered, because Terrence Knighton absolutely man-handled Logan Mankins (continuing Mankins' streak of looking like an All-Pro guard against middling competition but becoming an absolute turnstile against an elite opponent in a big game - just ask Justin Tuck... twice).

But this Patriot team is better than the one that lost to Denver eight months ago, on both sides of the ball. If the Gods shine on Foxborough, they'll get a full season out of Rob Gronkowski for the first time since 2011, when he caught 17 touchdown passes. Over the last two years, he's played in 18 games, hauled in 94 balls for 1542 yards and 15 scores, pretty much his 2011 pace, pro-rated. Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins will be a year older, a year better. Brandon LaFell gives them another big target on the outside. They'll likely get a full season out of Shane Vereen, who caught an astounding 47 passes in just eight games last season. At no point in 2013 did Tom Brady have his full compliment of offensive weapons, and it showed - he posted his lowest completion percentage since 2003, his lowest yards per attempt since 2006, his lowest Quarterback Rating since 2003, and his lowest Touchdown Percentage of his career. He also was sacked on 6.0 percent of his drop-backs, the highest number since his first full season in 2001. It was certainly not the Brady of yesteryear, but with a full cupboard, he might get back there.

The defense should improve by leaps and bounds. Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard were the Patriots' two cornerbacks for most of the AFC title game after Aqib Talib left with an injury. Dennard can play passable defense against bad receivers and bad defense against passable ones. Against good receivers he's hopeless. And Arrington is even worse. This year, the Patriots will trot out all-world Darrelle Revis, and Brandon Browner will join the team in October following a four-game suspension. The two of them will make everything easier for the front seven, which will once again be solidified up the middle by Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, who missed 22 games between them in 2013. Chandler Jones is a budding star as a pass-rusher, and the rest of the spots are filled in with improving role players. The Patriots defense very well could return to the level it was at when they won three Super Bowls.

With most of Denver's record-setting offense returning, plus the additions of Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware on defense, most people seem to be penciling in the Broncos for a return to the Big Game. But they might be speaking too soon. New England should be right there with them.


Buffalo Bills

2013 Outcome: 6-10, 4th in AFC East, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +1000
Over/Under Wins: 6.5

Every year, it seems like a last-place team from the previous year puts a few pieces together and rides an easy schedule to a playoff berth. The Chiefs and Eagles did it last year, the Colts and Vikings did it the year before that, the Texans and 49ers both pulled it off in 2011.

The Bills will not be that team.

But they will be competitive.

The AFC East plays the AFC West and NFC North, which means the Bills would need to trudge through Denver, Kansas City, San Diego, Green Bay, Chicago, and Detroit and finish 3-3 in those games to have any realistic hope (assuming they lose both to the Patriots and split with either Miami or New York or both).

But they will be better. A full season of E.J. Manuel means they won't have to deal with the Thaddeus Lewis/Jeff Tuel train wreck. C.J. Spiller will likely have a season closer to his 2011 campaign (6.0 yards per carry, 10.7 yards per reception) than his 2012 (4.6 yards per carry, 5.6 yards per reception). And Sammy Watkins will give them a true threat on the outside to deflect attention away from the Manuel/Spiller/Fred Jackson engine in the middle of the field.

Defensively, they might struggle. They had an average defense last year, but star safety Jarius Byrd skipped town for New Orleans, and after a very strong rookie season, Kiko Alonso tore his ACL in the offseason and will miss the entire year.

They finished 6-10 last year, and I wouldn't expect them to do much better than that this year (8-8 or a gentleman's 9-7 seems like their best-case scenario if *everything* goes right) - but with an improved offense, they'll at least be in every game. And with a diminished defense, most of them will be high scoring. So even if they aren't good, they'll be entertaining.


These Teams Aren't As Good As You Think They Are

Miami Dolphins

2013 Outcome: 8-8, 2nd in AFC East, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +500
Over/Under Wins: 7.5

I keep wanting to say that the Dolphins will be improved (I grew up in South Florida), but with the absolute destruction of their offensive line and glaring holes in the middle of their defense, I just don't see it.

We all know the story of Richie Incognito's alleged hazing of Jonathan Martin and how it threw a potentially solid line into flux last year. This season, the Dolphins are still trying to figure out who will start at both guard spots with Dallas Thomas, Shelley Smith and Billy Turner fighting it out.

The bad news there is all of them have looked awful in the preseason, and their relative lack of speed and functional strength was on full display last week when Gerald McCoy and the rest of Tampa Bay's starting defensive line ran roughshod through the heart of the new Dolphins front. Oh, and Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey may be out three months after hip surgery. No big deal.

The additions of left tackle Branden Albert and running back Knowshon Moreno, along with the continued improvement of quarterback Ryan Tannehill and receiver Mike Wallace are all reasons for optimism, but with a line that has zero talent outside of the left tackle spot, moving the ball consistently will be a problem.

On defense, Miami can always hang its hat on star pass rusher Cam Wake, but the rest of the linebacking corps could be an issue. With a bevy of guys better suited to play inside (Koa Misi, Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler) Miami may have trouble containing perimeter runs or defending the flats in the passing game. The four-game suspension of second-year DE Dion Jordan is also a concern, but even when he returns from his PED punishment, Miami would be foolish to expect much from a guy that has a world of potential, but never even produced eight sacks at the college level.

From the outside, Miami would seem like a team on the rise. With a young quarterback, speed at receiver, a pair of solid backs, a star pass rusher and solid corner, the Dolphins have all the pieces to succeed. But, with glaring deficiencies on both sides of the ball that will stunt the growth of their young players, expect another year of learning before Tannehill and Co. can truly break out and make the playoffs.


New York Jets

2013 Outcome: 8-8, 3rd in AFC East, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +800
Over/Under Wins: 7

The 2013 Jets did finish 8-8. Nobody will ever take that away from them. But they had the scoring margin of a 5-11 team. Only three of their five wins was by more than a touchdown. Meanwhile, only one of their eight losses was by less than a touchdown. Their three biggest winning margins were 11, 10, and 10. Their three biggest losing margins were... 40, 25, and 24. When they won, they barely won. When they lost, they got blown out.

Here's the good news: Geno Smith will be a year older. They added Chris Johnson. Dee Milner and Sheldon Richardson will continue to improve. Calvin Pryor should bolster the secondary. Muhammad Wilkerson continues to be one of the best defensive players in the league.

Here's the bad news: Geno Smith still isn't that good. Chris Johnson was washed up three years ago. Milner, Richardson, and Pryor are good but not game-changers (yet). And, yeah, Wilkerson is awesome - there's no real bad news there.

Like, you can play the "Geno Smith will be better" card, but if you're going to do that, you need to realize that Smith might have been the worst starting quarterback in the league last year - Football Outsiders had him ranked 43rd of 45 quarterbacks who threw at least 100 passes last year. Only Terrelle Pryor and Brandon Weeden were worse. That means Case Keenum, Josh Freeman, and Chad Henne were better. Let that sit for a while.

Even if Smith does improve, and adding Eric Decker certainly doesn't hurt, he'll need to be an above-average quarterback for the Jets to sustain the level of success they had last year, and that would be a *huge* leap for Smith. The Jets need their offense to catch up to their defense, and that doesn't seem in the cards for them this season.


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