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Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Maybe a couple? An AFC East mea culpa



AP Photo/Mike Groll
If Rex Ryan's New York Jets score a win this Sunday, the AFC East will send two teams to the playoffs. Who knew?
Welcome to the portion of the AFC East blog where I fall on my sword.

Shame on me for not giving the division I cover more credit. All along, from the dog days of summer until three days ago, I predicted a solitary AFC East team would make the playoffs. I was certain the only way to reach the postseason was the division title, and there wasn't much disagreement.

The New England Patriots were the clear favorite, Las Vegas' choice to win the Super Bowl. They won 11 games without Tom Brady the year before, and he played enough like his old self in training camp to make fans salivate.

Beyond that? The other divisions were more stacked. The wild cards were coming from the AFC North and AFC South. Each had sent two teams in 2008 and seemed even more competitive.

AFC East teams, meanwhile, had four of the league's seven toughest schedules based on last year's win-loss records. Compiling a record worthy of a wild card seemed impossible, and that was before the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos zoomed out of the blocks to make the wild-card scene even more crowded.

So I had my reasons. Good reasons -- at the time.

Turns out, they were wrong reasons.

Three AFC East teams could have made the playoffs this year and two probably will. The Patriots already are in. Improbable as it seemed before Christmas, the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins still are alive.

But guess what? I didn't predict the Dolphins, 1-15 in 2007, were going to win the AFC East in 2008 either.

What am I? Some kind of moron?

Maybe so.

"How could you even think the Jets would be out of the playoffs?" CBS Sports analyst and former Buffalo Bills special-teams star Steve Tasker asked me. "How dare you, with a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback and the remains of an Eric Mangini-coached football team? Who could not see that coming?"

As expected, the Patriots clinched the division championship on Sunday. About four hours later, the Jets, whose head coach had pronounced them dead, were in control of their own destiny with one winnable game to play.

That it took an absurdly fortuitous series of events for the Jets to be in this situation is irrelevant. Fact is, if they defeat the Bengals at the Meadowlands on Sunday night, the Jets are headed to the postseason with a 9-7 record. The Patriots won 11 games last year and didn't qualify.

Three weeks ago, the Dolphins had a marvelous shot to be in the Jets' position but bumbled the opportunity.

The Dolphins could have been only the fourth team to overcome a 0-3 start and make the postseason since the NFL adopted its current playoff format. They were so doomed in September, having dug themselves a rarely escaped hole and having lost MVP Chad Pennington for the year with a should injury.

Still, had Miami not sleepwalked into their past two games, we might be talking about the possibility of three AFC East teams qualifying for the tournament.

Who could have foreseen it? Certainly not the likes of me.

"It is a joke," Tasker said of preseason predictions. "It's an exercise in futility. You don't know who's going to show up. The Patriots were a lead-pipe cinch to win the division, and they almost fall flat, too. If the Patriots lose that game to Buffalo on opening day, they're done.

"You have no business picking two AFC East teams to make the playoffs this year. If you did, then you might as well have picked Cleveland, Oakland, Kansas City and Buffalo. And JaMarcus Russell for MVP."

The AFC East doesn't get the credit it deserves for its competitiveness. ESPN.com's power rankings panel grades the AFC East as the third-worst division ahead of the NFC West and (barely) the AFC West.

The panel rates the AFC South as best, but the AFC East can finish with a .500 record against the division with victories over the Houston Texans (at home versus the Patriots) and the Colts (visiting the Bills and vulnerable if they decide to empty their bench or put their punter at quarterback or something). The AFC East also went 9-7 against the NFC South, valued as the fourth-best division.

And yet the AFC East is on the verge of sending two clubs to the postseason. The NFC South will send only the New Orleans Saints. The Indianapolis Colts probably will be the AFC South's lone representative.

Of course, the Jets could lose Sunday.

Maybe I will have been right all along.