Seven things we learned about AFC East
December, 4, 2011
By James Walker | ESPN.com
Howard Smith/US PresswireCoach Rex Ryan and the Jets have momentum entering the last quarter of the regular season.MIAMI -- Week 13 told us a lot about the AFC East. With the playoff race heating up, we got a much better understanding of the pretenders and contenders.
Here are seven things we learned:
1. The Jets are back in it
It was a great weekend for the New York Jets. Not only did New York handle its business by beating the Washington Redskins, 34-19, but the Jets got help in the AFC wild-card race. The Cincinnati Bengals entered the weekend with the edge for the final wild card but were crushed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, 35-7. The Jets (7-5), Bengals (7-5), Broncos (7-5) and Raiders (7-5) are in the running for the sixth seed. (Denver or Oakland will win the AFC West.) The Jets don't hold many tiebreakers, but they will be in good shape if they continue to win. New York has two winnable games coming up against Kansas City Chiefs (5-7) and at the Philadelphia Eagles (4-8). Their final two games are against the New York Giants and at the surging Miami Dolphins.
2. Sanchez is clutch
Say what you want about Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. But he's proven over the past three seasons to play his best football in the biggest moments. After another uneven first three quarters, Sanchez came alive again in the fourth Sunday, leading the Jets to two key touchdown drives. Sanchez's best throw was a 30-yard touchdown pass to receiver Santonio Holmes for the go-ahead score. New York running back Shonn Greene punched in the final touchdown to put the game away. Sanchez's final numbers (165 yards, one touchdown) were not impressive. But the Jets have a good chance to make a postseason push if Sanchez continues to play well in the fourth quarter.
3. The Dolphins are dangerous
Their playoff hopes are over and changes are expected after the season. But the Dolphins are a team the Jets and Patriots should be wary of when they meet in the final two weeks of the regular season. The Dolphins dominated the AFC West-leading Raiders in a 34-14 win Sunday. The Dolphins (4-8) are 4-1 in their past five games. The winning streak has quieted talk of changes at head coach and quarterback until the season is over.
"We're having fun," Miami linebacker Kevin Burnett said. "I can't explain how much that takes away the pain and the feeling of being on the losing end of the spectrum."
4. Miami’s defense should stay together
Whatever Miami owner Stephen Ross decides to do after this season, the team should find a way to keep its defense intact. If that means a new head coach and/or general manager must retain most of Miami’s defensive players, so be it. If that means keeping veteran defensive coordinator Mike Nolan on next year's coaching staff, so be it. The Dolphins have the answers on that side of the football. Miami was ranked sixth in the NFL defensively last season. After a slow start, this group is rounding back to its usual form. The Dolphins held the Raiders to 304 yards, including 46 rushing.
"That's our personality: We're a tough, hard-nose type of defense," Dolphins linebacker Cameron Wake said. "When teams come in here and try to run the ball, stopping them is something we take a lot of pride in."
5. The Bills are finished
The AFC East blog said the Buffalo Bills were done following last week's loss to the Jets. But it's pretty much official after Sunday’s 23-17 home loss to the Tennessee Titans. Buffalo is 2-7 since its surprising 3-0 start. The defense needs a major overhaul. Buffalo hasn't stopped anyone consistently all season, and it needs to take a hard look at its scheme and players. Injuries to the offensive line, running back Fred Jackson and receiver Donald Jones have hurt the offense. Buffalo must improve its depth in the offseason to compete in the division for the long haul.
6. Patriots will get a first-round bye
Don't be alarmed by the Indianapolis Colts' late run Sunday. The New England Patriots are cruising. New England led by 28 points entering the fourth quarter before taking its foot off the pedal in a 31-24 win against the winless Colts (0-12). The victory keeps the Patriots (9-3), who have the easiest remaining schedule, in the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Baltimore Ravens Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans are also 9-3.
7. Gronkowski is elite
I usually like to wait until a player has a few seasons in the NFL before calling him "elite." But Patriots second-year tight end Rob Gronkowski is developing into something special. He scored three more touchdowns -- two receiving, one rushing -- against Indianapolis. Gronkowski has 13 TD catches in 2011, tying him with Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis for the season record for tight ends. Gronkowski is a lock for his first Pro Bowl. Quarterback Tom Brady and Gronkowski are the most dangerous red-zone combination in the NFL this season.