- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is each figure too high, too low or spot on?
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: New England, 13-3 last season, made several upgrades this offseason -- particularly on defense and at wide receiver -- to patch up its few weaknesses. On paper, this season's team should be even better than the 2011 version.
Clayton expects the Patriots to again be one of the NFL's elite. New England is tied with the Green Bay Packers (12-4) for Clayton's highest projected win total. No other teams will have more than 10 wins, according to Clayton's projections. The Patriots also have the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL.
New England's key is dominating the AFC East. I often call this the "Brady and Belichick" division, because quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick have won nine of the past 11 division titles since 2001. The AFC East should be more competitive this season. But the other three rivals are still significantly behind New England, mainly because of inconsistent quarterback play.
More or less? It's hard to argue with 12 projected wins. It's a safe number for the Patriots. But I'm going to go slightly higher and peg New England for 13 victories. This team is deeper than last season's group that went 13-3. It also doesn't hurt that the Patriots have a cupcake schedule. Injuries are the only thing I see stopping New England from matching or exceeding Clayton's win total.
BUFFALO BILLS: It's no secret Buffalo is my sleeper pick for 2012, but Clayton took it a step further by projecting the Bills as the final wild card in the AFC. I was one of the first media members on Buffalo’s offseason bandwagon. Coming off a stellar offseason, Buffalo will end its 13-year postseason drought, according to Clayton. Bills fans would be ecstatic if that were the case. But I have two concerns about Buffalo.
First, is starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick a franchise quarterback? Fitzpatrick must prove he can be consistent over 16 games, something he has never been in his career. Second, Buffalo has struggled within the division. The Bills were 1-5 last season against the AFC East, getting swept by the Dolphins and Jets, teams the Bills must beat to get to the next level.
More or less? I agree with Clayton that nine is a good number for Buffalo. This is a good year for someone to surprise and make a move in the AFC East. The Patriots will be a juggernaut. But second place is wide open, and Buffalo has as good a chance as anyone.
NEW YORK JETS: The Jets are one of the hardest teams to gauge. They have the talent on paper to make a playoff run, as evidenced by their back-to-back AFC title-game appearances in 2009 and 2010. But, as evidenced last season, New York also has the personalities to implode.
I liked some things I saw last week from the Jets in mandatory minicamp. The vibe and camaraderie in Florham Park were much better than I expected, especially compared with the divided locker room I witnessed last season. New offensive coordinator Tony Sparano is making a big impact on cleaning up the offense, and the quarterbacks (Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow) appear to be in the best shape of their careers.
A brutal stretch to start the season could define the Jets. They play three playoff teams (Pittsburgh Houston, San Francisco) and two division rivals (Buffalo, Miami) in the first five weeks. But the Jets were humbled last season and have toned down their bragging ways. They are much more workmanlike this offseason, and that can only help.
More or less? I doubt the Jets will hit eight wins this year. This is a boom-or-bust team that could finish 5-11 or 11-5. The Jets are capable of imploding or exploding on their opponents.
MIAMI DOLPHINS: Clayton, like many people, has a lot of questions about the Dolphins. Any team with a wide-open quarterback competition could struggle; QB will be the focal point of training camp. The Dolphins also are going through a regime change under head coach Joe Philbin, who is installing a new West Coast offense and a 4-3 defense.
The Dolphins did a decent job plugging holes in the draft. But overall this is a team lacking star power and big-time playmakers. Miami traded Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall (81 receptions, 1,214 yards in 2011) and signed Chad Ochocinco (15 receptions, 276 yards) to replace him. The Dolphins also cut leading tackler Yeremiah Bell and have questions at safety.
But really it comes down to the quarterbacks. If Matt Moore or David Garrard wins the job and goes on to have a great year, the Dolphins have a chance to surprise. But if the Dolphins get shoddy production from their quarterbacks and play musical chairs with Moore, Garrard and perhaps rookie Ryan Tannehill, it will be another tough year of football in South Florida.
More or less? I think Clayton's projection is too low for Miami. I have been as critical of the Dolphins as anyone this offseason. But this is a tough group that usually plays hard. Miami lacks dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball but should be a tough out most weeks. I think another 6-10 season is possible.