Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Sizing up the AFC East
By James Walker
How Ryan Tannehill, Tom Brady and Mark Sanchez perform in the second half of the season will go a long way in deciding the AFC East race.
We are entering Week 7 of the NFL season and absolutely nothing has been decided in the AFC East.
All four teams have identical records and are in a four-way tie for first place -- and last place. The AFC East is either extremely competitive or extremely mediocre this season, depending on your perspective.
So which division teams are contenders and which are pretenders? The AFC East blog pulled out its crystal ball this week to rank all four teams and size up their chances to win the division and make the postseason:
Reason for hope: There is certainly no reason to panic in New England. The Patriots’ three losses were by a total of four points. Any of those games could have gone in New England’s favor. The Patriots have an elite head coach (Bill Belichick) and an elite quarterback (Tom Brady). As long as this pair is together, the Patriots are the favorites in the division. No other team in the division can make that claim. New England’s offense is elite. The Patriots have found balance this year and are third in passing and fourth in rushing. It’s a dynamic attack with an abundance of skill players. The easy part of New England’s schedule is next. The Patriots do not play an opponent currently with a winning record until Dec. 10. This is the perfect time to string together wins and create distance from the other three AFC East teams. It starts this week at home against the New York Jets. New England is a huge favorite and swept New York last season.
Reason for concern: New England is underachieving -- big time. Some pundits thought the Patriots had a chance to go 16-0 this year. A more realistic preseason projection was 13 wins, based on their easy schedule. Even that’s out of reach unless New England goes undefeated the rest of the way. It’s time to come to grips with the fact that New England is not nearly as dominant as last year. This team still has holes. The pass defense remains a big issue and is 28th in the NFL. The pass protection for Brady is average at best. New England’s inability to win close games also is a concern for a team once known for staying cool under pressure. But at long as Brady stays healthy, this team is too talented not to win the AFC East and make the playoffs. The Patriots remain the class of the division.
Reason for hope: The overachieving Dolphins are the hottest team in AFC East. They have won two in a row and have been in every game since a Week 1 loss to the Houston Texans. The Dolphins are tough to beat because they can run the ball and stop the run. That frustrates opponents. Miami rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill looks legit. He’s getting better every week and has the ability to make all the throws. Tannehill also has the even-keeled mentality that you want from a quarterback. If Tannehill continue to improves, so will the Dolphins. This is a dangerous team to keep an eye on in the second half of the season. The arrow certainly is pointing up in Miami.
Reason for concern: Miami has been fortunate with injuries thus far. But this team severely lacks depth behind the starters. A few big injuries just about anywhere on the roster (offensive line, linebacker, secondary, wide receiver) could really derail the Dolphins. The pass defense is 27th in the NFL and allows too many big plays. Four of Miami’s six opposing quarterbacks have thrown for 300 yards or more this season. You also wonder if Tannehill will hit a rookie wall at any point. Tannehill, like most rookies, could have a few bad games in a row that will make it tough for Miami to win. But it’s so far, so good for the rookie quarterback.
Reason for hope: The Bills have talent. On paper, they’re probably the second most talented team in the division behind the Patriots. Buffalo running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are both starting-caliber players who can carry the offense on the ground. Spiller has made the jump in his third year and needs more carries. With the exception of Darrelle Revis, Bills defensive end Mario Williams is the most dynamic defensive player in the AFC East. He is a game-changing talent who can get sacks in bunches. In Buffalo's three wins, Williams has 3.5 sacks. In Buffalo’s three losses, Williams has zero sacks. It’s clear that Williams sets the tone for the entire defense. "Super Mario" should be more of a force in the second half of the season.
Reason for concern: Buffalo is awful against division opponents. The Bills are 2-12 versus AFC East foes since 2010 and this may be the team’s undoing. Buffalo already is 0-2 in the division this year with losses to the Patriots and Jets. If the Bills can’t win in the AFC East, they can’t win the division and have little chance of making the playoffs. Mental and physical toughness also have been issues. The Bills tend to let things snowball, where a competitive game in the first half can turn into a three- or four-touchdown blowout. Buffalo answered some of those questions Sunday in an overtime win over the Arizona Cardinals. But the Bills still have something to prove in that department over a 16-game season. Also, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is 16-24 as a starter in Buffalo and needs to be more consistent for the Bills to make the playoffs or win the division. Fitzpatrick has the propensity to throw interceptions in bunches. He already has two multi-interception games this year where he threw seven picks in that stretch. Buffalo is struggling with the deep ball and doesn’t get many big plays in the passing game.
Playoffs chances: 40 percent
Chances to win AFC East: 10 percent
New York Jets
Walker's Week 7 Power Ranking: No. 4
Reason for hope: The Jets currently are in first place thanks to their ability to win in the division. New York has played well against familiar AFC East foes, and that can go a long way if the team continues that trend this season. The Jets already have wins over the Bills and Dolphins. New York will look to improve to 3-0 in the division Sunday against the Patriots. New York is at its best when it can pound the football, and running back Shonn Greene finally has it going. After a frustrating start, Greene exploded for 161 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Indianapolis Colts. The Jets are built to win now and have a lot of proud veterans in their locker room. They won't go away easy.
Reason for concern: But injuries have derailed the Jets, and I doubt they will recover. The losses of Revis and No. 1 receiver Santonio Holmes for the season change the entire dynamic of the Jets. They have to play different on defense and even more conservative on offense. The Jets aren't the physical team they used to be. Opponents can now run on the Jets, who are a surprising 28th against the run and allowing 150.5 rushing yards per game. The Jets’ running game also has been inconsistent. They are middle of the pack (15th) running the ball, but those numbers are skewed after Greene just had his big day against Indianapolis. Quarterback Mark Sanchez is in his fourth season and still hasn't shown the ability to take over games with his arm. That makes the Jets very limited on offense. Caveman football can only go so far in 2012. The Jets will try to ground and pound their way to an AFC East title, but they don't have enough talent and healthy bodies to do it.
Playoffs chances: 20 percent
Chances to win AFC East: 5 percent
Seven weeks into the season, it is still anybody’s game. So who will step up and take the AFC East division?