The New England Patriots have been the dominant force in the AFC East for the past dozen years. Since head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady formed their power pairing in 2001, the Patriots have won 10 division titles, made five Super Bowl appearances and won three championships.
No AFC East team has come close to matching New England’s consistency over that span. But there appears to be a young, up-and-coming group on the horizon in the Miami Dolphins, who were very aggressive this offseason. Miami spent more than $200 million in free-agent contracts, including $117 million in guaranteed money, and traded up to get No. 3 overall draft pick Dion Jordan to boost its pass rush. The Dolphins made all of their offseason moves with the goal of closing the gap with New England.
Can Miami provide a legitimate threat to the Patriots in 2013? ESPN.com AFC East blogger James Walker and ESPNBoston.com’s Mike Reiss debate.
James Walker: Mike, I think we both called this back in December when the Patriots pulled out a tough 23-16 win against the Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. We saw something that Sunday that showed Miami could be a problem for New England in future seasons. The effort was there, but Miami just didn’t have the horses to beat the Patriots, and that’s a big reason the Dolphins used so many resources in the draft and free agency to boost their roster. The Dolphins got much better in the passing game by adding tight end Dustin Keller and receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson. They are younger and more athletic at linebacker with Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, and cornerback Brent Grimes could be a stud in the secondary this season if he stays healthy. The Jordan pick was also made to improve Miami’s pass rush and to pressure Brady twice a season. Miami made a lot of smart moves this offseason. But, Mike, should the consistently dominant Patriots be concerned about the Dolphins?
Mike Reiss: James, for 2013, the Dolphins clearly look like the AFC East opponent closest to the Patriots. One contrast that stands out to me is the moves both teams made on offense this offseason -- the Dolphins decisively added more weapons, while the Patriots currently have an abundance of questions in the passing game. So looking at this from a Dolphins perspective, I think that’s something to feel good about right now. Of course, it all comes back to the development of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. If he doesn’t take the next step, and the Dolphins struggle to protect him, it won’t matter much. The other part that I think looks good for Miami is when the games against the Patriots will be played -- Oct. 27 in New England and Dec. 15 in South Florida. That’s probably how you want it set up, avoiding the cold-weather game in the Northeast late in the season.
Walker: That’s a very good point, Mike. Miami played in Foxborough in the final game of the 2012 regular season and was pounded 28-0. I don’t see the Dolphins winning at Gillette Stadium this season, but their chances do increase in October. However, that December meeting at Sun Life Stadium could be very important, with both teams possibly fighting for playoff positioning and the division title. I agree that the most important player for Miami this season is Tannehill. The biggest advantage the Patriots have had for a long time in the AFC East is at quarterback. Brady, in my mind, is one of the top five all-time quarterbacks. The Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets do not have anyone close to matching Brady over the past dozen seasons. But Miami might have something in Tannehill. The game didn’t look too big for him last season. Tannehill has a good poise about him, and physically he’s a good athlete who can make all the throws. With vastly improved weapons, I expect Tannehill to make a nice jump this season. As he improves, so will the Dolphins. But we can’t have a “Double Coverage” involving the Patriots without discussing Brady, who will be 36 in August. I’ve said several times in the AFC East blog that New England’s passing attack will take a step back this season. The Patriots lost too much production at receiver and have various issues involving star tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Mike, how do you view Brady and New England’s passing attack in 2013?
Reiss: Based on what we saw in June’s minicamps, the Patriots’ passing attack wasn’t up to the standard we’ve seen in recent seasons. In the three-receiver set, the top players Brady was throwing to were 10-year veteran Michael Jenkins, free-agent signee Danny Amendola and either third-year man Kamar Aiken or rookie free agent Kenbrell Thompkins. The Patriots also didn’t have top tight ends Gronkowski (back/forearm) and Hernandez (recovering from shoulder surgery) on the field. If that’s the way it unfolds when the games start to count, I think it’s fair to expect a step back. But, as we’ve seen in the past, things can change from June to September, and I’d expect that to be the case for the Patriots. I still think they’ll be tough to defend. Amendola looks terrific at this point. Hernandez, assuming some of these recent legal issues don’t keep him off the field, makes a big difference. I think Julian Edelman can help them if healthy. There’s always the possibility of an acquisition, similar to the early-season signing of Jabar Gaffney in 2006 that paid solid dividends for them. No doubt, there are a lot of questions right now, and I think the concern some have in New England about the passing attack is fair. But as you’ve pointed out, they still have Brady throwing the football, and that’s one guy I wouldn’t bet against. He’s done more with less in the past (e.g., 2006). It’s interesting to me that we’ve reached this point without touching on the defense; in the end, you wonder if that will ultimately be the key for both of these teams.
Walker: Absolutely, Mike. It usually comes down to defense late in the season, and that’s where New England fell short. The Patriots rely too much on their offense, and it cost them last season in the AFC Championship Game loss to the Baltimore Ravens and two seasons ago against the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. We were both at those games, and the problem was the same: pass defense. New England was 29th against the pass last season and 27th in yards allowed after the catch (YAC), according to ESPN Stats & Information. That means the Patriots’ defensive backs are not covering well or tackling well. The addition of safety Adrian Wilson should help from a tackling and physicality perspective, but I don’t think he’s much of an upgrade in coverage. Ironically, Miami has similar issues defending the pass. The Dolphins were ranked 27th in pass defense in 2012. Miami’s cornerbacks were too inconsistent, which is why the Dolphins signed Grimes in free agency and drafted cornerbacks -- Jamar Taylor and Will Davis -- in the second and third rounds. Grimes looks really good in offseason workouts coming off an Achilles injury. He must stay healthy for Miami’s secondary to have success. Veteran Richard Marshall is average, but he’s the other starting cornerback right now. The Dolphins hope one of their young draft picks can step up in sub packages or eventually into the starting lineup. It’s strange to think how similar these defenses are, Mike. Both the Patriots and Dolphins are solid against the run but need to improve their pass rush and pass coverage.
Reiss: For the Patriots, the hope is that continuity leads to success. They return their entire starting defense, with the one change coming at defensive tackle next to Vince Wilfork because the team decided to move on from co-starters Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick. So you have the same secondary together again, with a full season of No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib, who was acquired midway through last season and changed the way they played defense in some respects. You’re also committing to Devin McCourty for a full season at safety, at which he showed promise in 2012. Add in the size and physicality of Wilson (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) in some form at safety, which was something they didn’t have last season, and it looks like a net gain for the Patriots. In theory, that should lead to better communication and better results. Then, of course, it comes back to the pass rush that has been a consistent topic around the team over the past five seasons or so. Does 2012 first-round draft choice Chandler Jones become the dominant pass-rusher the Patriots hope he can be? He was impressive in the first half of last season before an ankle injury slowed him down a bit. Does fellow 2012 first-rounder Dont'a Hightower become a true three-down linebacker? The defense looked much further ahead of the offense in spring workouts, which hasn’t been the case in recent seasons. There is some positive momentum for them, but can they sustain it when it counts?
Walker: Mike, in terms 2013 outlook, I think the AFC East has a chance to put two teams in the playoffs this season. I view the Patriots as a little worse than last season's team, and the Dolphins are improved. That alone should close the gap. But it was so wide to begin with that the Patriots are still preseason favorites in my book. However, the Dolphins are a young team on the rise with a lot of potential. A good season for Miami would be to grab a wild card in the AFC and split its two games with New England in the division. If that's the case, then we could see the start of a new and competitive rivalry in the AFC East for the next several seasons.
Reiss: It seems like every season has brought a new challenger to the Patriots, James, but none of the other three teams in the AFC East has been able to sustain. In fact, last year at this time, I think many of us were saying some of the same things about the Bills (after signing Mario Williams, among other moves) as we are about the Dolphins now. So I’m interested to see if the Dolphins can be that team to not just close the gap in 2013, but in future years as well. Maybe part of the reason I have doubts is that we’ve seen this script play out before and it hasn’t happened. The Patriots do have some big questions, and those can’t be overlooked, but I still think they win the division by at least two games.