AFC East: 2014 AFC Camp Confidential

Camp Confidential: New York Jets

August, 4, 2014
8/04/14
11:00
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CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Warning to the NFL: Watch out for the New York Jets.

Who says?

The Jets, of course.

Despite three straight years out of the playoffs, the Jets are back to the "swaggerlicious" ways that made them a team to watch (and listen to) in 2009 and 2010. Rex Ryan is fired up, and that means everybody around him is fired up, too. They've been yapping it up in training camp, claiming they have the best defense, the best cornerback (Dee Milliner's self-proclamation) and a future top-five quarterback (Geno Smith's opinion).

What are we to make of their outward self-confidence?

Frankly, it's not very becoming -- we're old school here -- but there's no disputing the Jets are a better team than a year ago. They added a couple of proven players on offense, Chris Johnson and Eric Decker, and their depth is better at almost every position. Smith looks more comfortable than last year and the defensive line has a chance to be scary. There's a lot to like about the Jets, who came together for Ryan at the end of last season -- and saved his job.

There's more roster and coaching-staff continuity than a year ago, prompting Ryan to say the team is "a zillion miles" ahead of last year at this time. There's a positive vibe around the team, replacing the uncertainty that filled the minds of many last year. Ryan's job status, a major theme throughout 2013, is a backburner issue. The focus is on the field, as the Jets attempt to return to the postseason.

"We've been gone too long," linebacker Calvin Pace said.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. The defense can control the line of scrimmage against anybody. Led by Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, the Jets have one of the best young lines in the league. They finished third against the run last season, and it would be a disappointment if they slip from that perch. The front seven can go from good to outstanding if a pair of third-year linebackers, Quinton Coples and Demario Davis, improve their consistency. Davis has been one of the best players in camp, showing better instincts than in the past. Coples is an enigma: Gifted, but his motor runs hot and cold. The Jets' middle-of-the-road pass rush needs a double-digit sack season from Coples.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY SportsThe Jets plan to get running back Chris Johnson, acquired in the offseason, out in space.
2. The offense doesn't have to play in a phone booth anymore. With Johnson in the backfield and Decker on the perimeter, it has the ability to attack all areas of the field. The key is Johnson. If his surgically repaired knee holds up, he'll give them something they've never had under Ryan -- a legitimate home-run threat at running back. The Jets plan to use him in space, occasionally flexing him out as a receiver. That could put tremendous stress on the defense, assuming Johnson -- dumped by the Tennessee Titans -- still has enough in the tank. Decker isn't a game changer, but he'll be a reliable and versatile target for Smith, especially in the red zone.

3. The quarterback situation is solid. Barring an injury, Smith probably will be the opening-day starter -- even though the team continues the charade of a Smith-Michael Vick competition. Smith will be better than last year, when he was a turnover-prone rookie, but there are still questions about his decision-making and ability to read defenses. If he stumbles, Ryan will turn to Vick, 34, who knows Marty Mornhinweg's offense and already has the respect of his new teammates. Unlike last year, when there was no proven backup, the starting job won't be a season-long appointment for Smith. Vick, a smart offseason pick up, is lurking.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The Jets, once known for great cornerback play, will have trouble covering people. And that's not a good thing, considering some of the premier wide receivers on their first-half schedule -- Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Jordy Nelson and Demaryius Thomas. For the first time since 2006, they don't have Darrelle Revis and/or Antonio Cromartie at corner. It's a rebuilt group headed by Milliner, who has talent but still has a lot to prove. After him, it's all stop gaps and unproven players. If they don't get help from the pass rush, the Jets will regret not signing one of the big-name corners in free agency.

2. They're still waiting for a No. 2 option in the passing game to emerge. Will it be rookie tight end Jace Amaro? Slot receiver Jeremy Kerley? Will Stephen Hill finally reach his potential? If no one steps up, the offense will be too Decker-reliant, and that will result in defenses rolling their coverage to Decker. That didn't happen to him in Denver, where he was the third or fourth option in Peyton Manning's prolific passing attack. The Jets say they can scheme up ways to keep Decker in single coverage, but the best way would be to have a legit weapon on the other side.

3. The oversized draft class (12 picks) is off to a slow start. Injuries can be blamed for part of that. Safety Calvin Pryor, projected as a Week 1 starter, has missed a week due to a concussion. Cornerback Dexter McDougle and wide receiver Shaq Evans also have been slowed by injuries, although neither one was lighting it up before getting hurt. Amaro, too, is struggling, trying to master a complex position in Mornhinweg's system. No one expected them to duplicate the 2013 draft, which produced five starters, but the early returns haven't been too encouraging.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeGeno Smith, Michael Vick
    Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY SportsHow will Geno Smith (left) and Michael Vick handle questions about the Jets' quarterback position?
    Smith and Vick have a good rapport. That's important because it will allow them to weather the inevitable storm. What storm? Come on, we're talking about the Jets' quarterback position. There's always turbulence on the horizon. The beat writers chart every pass and every rep in practice; that's what you call scrutiny.
  • Johnson, he of six straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons, is the most accomplished player on offense, but that doesn't mean he'll be the every-down work horse. No, those days are over. He'll share time with Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell, which should keep Johnson fresh for the long haul.
  • There's a three-way guard competition between Willie Colon, Brian Winters and Oday Aboushi. Look for Colon and Winters to nail down the starting jobs, but Aboushi has impressed with his ability to block in space and get to the second level. That intrigues the coaches.
  • The coaches have placed a big emphasis on takeaways. Since Ryan took over in 2009, the Jets rank only 15th in that category. They're hoping that Pryor, their first-round pick, can help remedy the problem, but he's not a big interception guy. In college, he made his bones as a "box" safety.
  • In an attempt to revitalize their once-formidable special teams, the Jets may employ starters more than usual on various units. The focus is on the punt-returning unit, which disappeared last season.
  • The most improved players are Aboushi, Demario Davis, safety Jaiquawn Jarrett and tight end Zach Sudfeld. Geno Smith needs to be on that list.

Camp Confidential: Miami Dolphins

August, 4, 2014
8/04/14
11:00
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DAVIE, Fla. -- Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross knew he was walking a fine line at the start of training camp. Ross met with the Miami media knowing questions were coming about the future of his head coach Joe Philbin, who enters a crucial third year after posting a 15-17 record his first two seasons.

It's no secret that Philbin enters this season on the hot seat. In addition to his mediocre record, Philbin has the stains of last year's bullying scandal and late-season collapse on his resume. Philbin must prove he is Miami's long-term solution or 2014 could be his final shot.

That led to the Ross carefully choosing his words when talking about his head coach.

"I'm not going to say here he has to [make the playoffs] because I can understand what the headlines are," Ross explained. "I like Joe Philbin very much. I believe the ingredients of being a winning organization is having consistency. I'm expecting Joe Philbin to be here a long time. Every year, you want to see improvement."

Make no mistake: It's playoffs or bust for many within the Dolphins' organization. Improving on last season's 8-8 record by notching nine or 10 wins would most likely lead to a postseason berth.

The Dolphins certainly have talent. There is quality depth at defensive end, defensive tackle, wide receiver, cornerback and quarterback. This is also a team that was just one win away from making the playoffs during the 2013 season.

Much rests on the shoulders of third-year starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is learning a new offense. Many within the Dolphins' organization believe Tannehill is due for a breakout season, and he has big goals.

"We want to play deep into January and February," Tannehill said. "And that's our goal at this point, is to go out, win the division and then play the playoffs from there. There is a big season ahead of us, and I think anything less than that is not up to our standards."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. The Dolphins are very excited about first-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. The former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback coach is bringing in many of the same principles he learned last season under Chip Kelly. The Dolphins are trying to push the tempo as much as possible and dictate to the defense. They are running a lot of motions, quick snaps and predetermined reads. It also will be Lazor's responsibility to help Tannehill take his game to the next level. Lazor did a tremendous job last year with Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. "It's my job to show them they can go faster," Lazor explained in the first week of camp. "It's my job to take them to places that maybe they didn't think they could go. Anytime you do that with a player, you see their eyes kind of widen."

2. Miami has tremendous depth on the defensive line. This should be one of deepest and most-talented areas of the team. The Dolphins have a strong group at defensive end with Pro Bowler Cameron Wake, 2013 sack leader Olivier Vernon and valuable backup Derrick Shelby. They also have a good rotation at defensive tackle with Earl Mitchell, Jared Odrick and Randy Starks. Winning in the trenches on defense would go a long way towards controlling the pace of games this season.

[+] EnlargeRyan Tannehill
AP Photo/Don WrightRyan Tannehill's development will impact whether the Dolphins make the postseason.
3. There is still optimism in Miami that Tannehill can develop into a franchise quarterback. He's 15-17 as a starter but had to deal with a lot of issues beyond his control in 2013. He had arguably the NFL's worst offensive line and little help from the running game. But 2014 also is a make-or-break year for Tannehill to prove he's the long-term solution. The waiting game is over after two seasons. Now is the time for Tannehill to reach his potential, or the Dolphins may have to go in another direction next year. Tannehill has been decent but not spectacular in training camp. As expected, there have been some growing pains learning Lazor's new offense. But quarterbacks often make a nice jump in Year 3. Improvement at quarterback is the quickest way for the Dolphins to get over the hump and end their five-year playoff drought.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The Dolphins are trying something rare this season. They will have five new starters on their offensive line compared to last season. Granted, Miami's offensive line was horrendous in 2013. The Dolphins set a franchise record with 58 quarterback sacks allowed. They also were 27th in rushing. However, continuity is a major issue. Miami added new offensive tackles with Pro Bowler Branden Albert at left tackle and first-round pick Ja'Wuan James at right tackle. Currently Dallas Thomas and veteran free agent Daryn Colledge are the starting guards, but the center position remains wide open. The Dolphins lost Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey for the first 4-8 games of the regular season after hip surgery. The Dolphins tried mixing and matching at center with Nate Garner, Sam Brenner and Shelley Smith with questionable results. There were approximately a dozen bad snaps in the first week of training camp. Therefore, the Dolphins signed veteran center Samson Satele on Saturday to bring stability to the position. Satele is the early favorite to be the Week 1 starter.

2. Miami's linebacker experiment is still a work in progress. The Dolphins invested a lot of money in Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler and Koa Misi last season, and this trio underachieved. Miami had trouble stopping the run and covering tight ends and slot receivers. The Dolphins are hoping a shake-up to move Ellerbe to outside linebacker and Misi in the middle will help this unit make more plays. The run defense has looked better so far. But we'll know more once the Dolphins face different offenses in the preseason and regular season.

3. The past two seasons the Dolphins proved they were not built to thrive in the AFC East. Miami is 4-8 against division opponents in that time -- including a 2-4 mark last season. The Dolphins have two division games to start the regular season at home against the New England Patriots in Week 1 and on the road against the Buffalo Bills in Week 2. These are two teams that have Miami's number, and the Dolphins will know right away if they will change this trend. It also doesn't help that Miami has the NFL's 12th-toughest strength of schedule. It's going to be tough for the Dolphins to get to 10 wins and make the playoffs if they can't beat the Patriots, New York Jets and Bills.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeDion Jordan
    Marc Serota/Getty ImagesDion Jordan has performed well in training camp despite a looming, four-game suspension.
    The Dolphins have an interesting dilemma with 2013 first-round pick Dion Jordan. The second-year defensive end was suspended four games for violating the NFL's policy on performing enhancing substances. Miami is trying to balance reps to get Jordan ready for the season as well as fellow defensive ends who will be available in the first four games of the regular season. Jordan is available to practice and play in the preseason. To his credit, Jordan hasn't gone in the tank. He's made several nice plays in camp so far, including an interception off Tannehill for a touchdown. "He's been great," Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said. "Dion has done nothing but come to work every day. He's a lunch pail kind of guy as it is. There is no prima donna in Dion Jordan, from the time he came here a year ago he was out here jumping on the scout team before he was even asked to do it."
  • The biggest rookie standout so far has been second-round pick Jarvis Landry. The rookie wide receiver has displayed strong hands, solid routes and toughness. Landry is best in the slot where he can use his savvy and strong hands in traffic. He's made several of the most impressive catches so far of training camp. Landry is currently behind veteran slot receiver Brandon Gibson. Landry's also competing with Marcus Thigpen on punt returns.
  • Dolphins incumbent starting running back Lamar Miller added about five pounds of muscle and hasn't lost any explosiveness. Miller had a strong offseason to take the lead ahead of Knowshon Moreno. With Moreno injured (knee), Miller likely will be the starting tailback in Week 1 for the second year in row. The reason Miller added a few pounds was to help with strength running the ball and with pass protection, which was a weakness last season.
  • James, Miami's first-round pick is having a tough time trying to block Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake in the first week of practice. Wake is winning most of those battles and already registered several sacks against James in team drills. The Dolphins believe Wake is making James better. Wake has been helping him along with tips after practice, as well. But it will be important for James not to lose confidence early in his career.
  • Keep an eye out for rookie free-agent running back Damien Williams. With Moreno missing the first week of camp, Williams is getting quality reps and making plays in practice. Williams is quick with a nice burst to the line of scrimmage. He appears to fit in well in Miami's spread-offensive sets. Williams may have a tough time making the 53-man roster behind Miller, Moreno and Daniel Thomas. But Williams should at least be a strong candidate for the practice squad.

Camp Confidential: Buffalo Bills

August, 4, 2014
8/04/14
11:00
AM ET
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- If you had asked about Donald Trump or Jon Bon Jovi at Buffalo Bills training camp last season, you'd have gotten some odd looks.

This summer, both are part of the conversation around a team that is making a full-speed charge at a playoff berth after 14 seasons out of the postseason.

As their pending sale and the uncertainty of a new owner hang over training camp at St. John Fisher College, the Bills are trying to push forward in their rebuilding efforts. Another 6-10 record, like that posted by first-year coach Doug Marrone and rookie quarterback EJ Manuel last season, won't be accepted.

"We haven’t been in the playoffs in a long time, and we owe it to the fans, our late Hall of Fame owner [Ralph Wilson] and everybody in this business to show that we’re not the Bills anymore," general manager Doug Whaley said last month. "We want to be a playoff team. We’re planning to be a playoff team, and that’s our goal."

Whaley and CEO Russ Brandon were brimming with excitement after they swung a draft-night trade for Sammy Watkins, college football's top receiver last season. Through two weeks of training camp, Watkins has looked the part.

That's welcome news for Manuel, a first-round pick whose uneven performance last season didn't inspire much confidence. This season, he could benefit from a big-time talent like Watkins.

"[Manuel] doesn’t have to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders and he has to go out and win," Whaley said. "We’ve surrounded him with some people where, if he does his job, we should be OK."

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
AP Photo/Bill WippertThe Bills traded up to get Sammy Watkins, and the receiver has performed as advertised so far in camp.
Three reasons for optimism

1. Another year under the belt for Manuel. That's the mantra we've heard from the Bills' brass since the start of the offseason. The expectation is that Manuel, having experienced the rigors of the rookie quarterback experience, will be more comfortable in his second season. Whaley often points out that the 2012 draft skewed the way rookie quarterbacks are evaluated, as its top quarterbacks experienced immediate success. He insists Manuel is on the right path. With a full offseason to work with offensive coordinator Nate Hackett, anything but an improvement from Manuel would be a disappointment.

2. By adding Watkins in a high-stakes, draft-day trade, the Bills gave Manuel his best chance at success in the NFL. Watkins will be Manuel's safety net, snagging anything within reach and keeping defenses honest in the deep game. The best-case scenario is that Watkins' production as a rookie is on par with some of his counterparts in recent drafts -- A.J. Green and Julio Jones. That would be a boost to a Bills offense that ranked 30th in passing touchdowns last season. But it's not the only addition; the Bills also traded for Mike Williams and added running backs Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon, injecting more talent around Manuel.

3. The Bills possess the NFL's best defensive line, possessing three players -- Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus -- who were voted to the Pro Bowl last season. This is an athletic, ferocious unit that has disrupted practices this training camp with its pressure on quarterbacks. It will be tough to match the franchise-record 57 sacks the Bills' defense posted last season, but this front line still has the potential to give opposing offensive lines major headaches. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, coming off a double-digit sack season, has looked strong this summer and shouldn't be overlooked.

Three reasons for pessimism

1. The loss of Kiko Alonso to a season-ending knee injury is crushing. The Bills don't have one player who can match his production -- playing on every defensive snap and finishing third in the NFL with 159 tackles. They'll have to do it with a mixture of Nigel Bradham, who is suspended for the season opener, and Preston Brown, a rookie. That will be a weaker point in the Bills defense, as will safety, at which the departure of Jairus Byrd through free agency can't be overstated. His return from a foot injury last October settled down a rocky pass defense, and the Bills did nothing to replace him this offseason.

[+] EnlargeEJ Manuel, Tashaun Gipson
AP Photo/David RichardE.J. Manuel will need to show marked improvement if the Bills are to make the leap to playoff contender.
2. Part of it might have been the inexperience of their quarterbacks, but the Bills allowed 48 sacks last season, fourth worst in the league. They added free-agent left guard Chris Williams, but he doesn't have a sparkling track record as a starter. At left tackle, Cordy Glenn played well last season, but his status is cloudy. He remains on the nonfootball illness list. The right side of the offensive line was suspect last season, but the Bills might not be able to find better options than incumbent guard Kraig Urbik or tackle Erik Pears. No matter what weapons Manuel has around him, poor offensive line play will doom the Bills' offense.

3. We started our reasons for optimism with Manuel, so it's only appropriate that we end our reasons for pessimism with him. Manuel is the linchpin for the Bills' success under Marrone and Whaley. Some young quarterbacks grow and become important pieces of playoff-caliber teams. Others don't. There were times last season when Manuel looked more like Mark Sanchez or Blaine Gabbert than he did Russell Wilson or Ben Roethlisberger. Despite the addition of Watkins and the quality of the Bills' other offensive pieces, does Manuel have what it takes to make the winning throws? The jury is very much still out on that one.

Observation deck

  • The Bills began last season running a no-huddle offense with some option elements. The pace slowed when Manuel was sidelined for more than a month in midseason with a knee injury. The feeling early in camp is that we'll see less designed runs from Manuel this season. The Bills have added more weapons at receiver and bolstered their backfield, so don't expect Manuel to be Cam Newton with his feet.
  • Little went right offensively for the Bills last season. One particular area of futility was in the red zone, in which they ranked 29th in touchdown efficiency. Marrone has made the red zone a "point of emphasis" in camp, adding an extra 7-on-7 period to the end of each practice. The results have begun to show, with Manuel completing four of five passes for touchdowns at one point last week.
  • When the Bills signed Corey Graham and drafted Ross Cockrell this offseason, there was some thought that slot cornerback Nickell Robey could slide down the depth chart. Graham began organized team activities in Robey's spot with the first team, but that quickly changed. Two weeks into camp, Robey looks to have that spot locked down. An undrafted rookie last season, Robey has the instincts and the ball skills of a savvy vet.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady dropped back to pass from his own 2-yard line in a recent practice and briefly hesitated as no receiver flashed open. Holding on to the ball longer than he desired, he attempted to thread a pass over the middle to receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, which turned out to be a major mistake.

Cornerback Darrelle Revis was lurking, and when Brady’s delivery was slightly behind the intended target, it was easy pickings for Revis, who jogged into the end zone for the would-be touchdown.

Curious what has stood out from the first eight practices of Patriots training camp?

That play sums it up. Revis, and the difference he could potentially make for the Patriots’ defense, has been the early story of camp.

Revis versus Brady has been fun to watch.

“I played against him a number of years when I was in New York and he’s one of the best to ever play, and then you can see it, even in practice,” Revis said. “He’s a hard worker, man, and he brings out the best in you. It’s awesome. It’s great competition.”

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Revis and the team’s other free-agent cornerback, Brandon Browner, have set a physical tone on defense. The Patriots ranked 26th in the NFL last season on third down, and it would be shocking if the unit isn’t considerably better in 2014. This looks like the most talented defense in Bill Belichick’s 15-year tenure as coach, with the possibility of as many as eight first-round draft picks on the field.

2. Brady is still Brady, and Belichick is still Belichick. There has been no noticeable decline in Tom Brady's arm strength, accuracy and decision-making, and with an improved defense, there shouldn’t be as much burden on him to carry the team. Oh, and about all that chatter of Brady no longer being among the NFL’s elite quarterbacks? You better believe the player who still carries a chip on his shoulder from being a sixth-round draft choice heard it and is motivated to prove the doubters wrong. Under Belichick and his staff, the Patriots are always well prepared each week.

3. Tight end Rob Gronkowski did not open training camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list, as he has been medically cleared to play after undergoing surgery for a torn right ACL on Jan. 9. That helped the Patriots open training camp with some momentum. Gronkowski has said he plans to play the entire 16-game regular season, and when he’s in the lineup the dynamic of the offense is dramatically altered.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesWith Rob Gronkowski's status still up in the air, do the Patriots have enough offensive firepower without him?
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Should they have added more offensive firepower in the offseason, especially when factoring in the possibility of Gronkowski being sidelined at some point? Former Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell and rookie running back James White are the main new weapons on offense, so the club is counting on a big jump from second-year receivers Aaron Dobson, Thompkins and Josh Boyce, and also banking on Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola staying healthy.

2. One of the biggest losses for the team might prove to be retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who had a knack for getting the most out of unheralded players. The middle of the offensive line didn’t hold up well in the AFC Championship Game and there hasn’t been decisive movement from the team at those spots. That’s a tough spot for first-year offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo to step into.

3. The Patriots are relying on several key players to come back strong from injuries -- Gronkowski (torn ACL), defensive linemen Vince Wilfork (ruptured Achilles), Dominique Easley (torn ACL), Will Smith (torn ACL) and Tommy Kelly (torn ACL), linebacker Jerod Mayo (torn pectoral muscle) and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (broken ankle) among them. Especially when considering remarks of players like Revis, who talked about needing two years to get back to the desired level of comfort from his torn ACL, that could be some reason for concern.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • White, the fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin, looks primed to play a significant role on offense. He’s been praised for his maturity and playmaking ability on first, second and third down. At 5-foot-10 and 206 pounds, he can sometimes be tough to locate behind big offensive linemen.
  • Rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo seems like he’ll benefit from a year learning behind the scenes. He’s had some struggles in practice, as one would expect for a young signal-caller in a complex offensive system.
  • With Dobson opening training camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list, Thompkins has elevated to a top role at receiver alongside Edelman and Amendola. Dobson underwent surgery for a stress fracture in his left foot March 10.
  • Easley, the defensive lineman who tore both ACLs in a three-season span at Florida, has yet to practice after opening camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list.
  • Second-year safety Duron Harmon is the leading candidate to start next to Devin McCourty in one of the few open competitions in camp.
  • Former Browns general manager Michael Lombardi, in his first year serving as an assistant to the coaching staff, has watched every practice and is often seen chatting with Belichick at various points.
  • Crowds have been off the charts at training camp, with 22,886 attending the team’s night in-stadium practice Aug. 1. They’re excited about their football in New England, as they should be. This looks like another strong Patriots team.

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