AFC East: X factors

Patriots: Five Super Bowl X factors

February, 5, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS -- It's almost time for kickoff in Super Bowl XLVI. Therefore, the AFC East blog wants to leave some final thoughts on under-the-radar X factors for the New England Patriots who could make an impact in this game.

1. Aaron Hernandez, TE

Analysis: We're going to start with the easiest X factor. With Rob Gronkowski limited by a left ankle injury, Hernandez needs to step up his game in the event "Gronk" struggles. Hernandez is a top-10 tight end in the NFL, although many wouldn't know it because he plays second fiddle in New England. Hernandez also is nifty and has the ability to play some running back when called upon. The Giants will be watching Gronkowski. But they probably should keep their eye even more on Hernandez, who is healthy and has big-play ability.

2. Brandon Spikes, LB

Analysis: Spikes described the past two weeks as being "caged." The high-energy linebacker is psyched to get back on the football field and play in his first Super Bowl. Spikes is New England's home-run hitter on defense. In only his second season, Spikes may not be the most consistent Patriots defender, but he makes plenty of big plays, which is needed on the big stage. Spikes led the Patriots with nine tackles and a big fourth-quarter interception in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. He's a big hitter who stays around the football. Spikes will be key in stopping New York's running game, led by the dual threat of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs.

3. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB

Analysis: It's no secret the Patriots will attack the Giants' secondary with the arm of future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. But there will be times in this game when the Patriots have to run the ball to keep New York's pass rush honest. Green-Ellis has been the most consistent Patriots running back this season, and particularly in the playoffs. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry in the AFC Championship Game against a tough Ravens defense. New England needs similar production from Green-Ellis in the Super Bowl. Green-Ellis won't get a ton of opportunities, but he needs to make his carries count.

4. Sebastian Vollmer, OT

Analysis: Vollmer hasn't played a game since Nov. 27 due to back and foot injuries. But the Super Bowl against the Giants is the perfect time for Vollmer to return. New York will bring a giant pass rush. Vollmer is listed as questionable, but he is expected to play. He will pair with rookie Nate Solder as a solid one-two punch at right tackle. Sometimes the pair could play together on the right side to provide max-protection for Brady.

5. Stephen Gostkowski, K

Analysis: Remember Adam Vinatieri? Patriots fans had the utmost confidence in the playoffs when it was time for Vinatieri to make a clutch kick. The confidence was for good reason. Vinatieri was money during New England's three Super Bowl wins. But how do Patriots fans feel about Gostkowski? It's tough to say. There's no way of knowing how Gostkowski will respond until he's in these pressure situations. He's been good so far, but Gostkowski has never kicked in the Super Bowl. We saw in the conference title games how important field goal kicking is. Gostkowski needs to be ready if his number is called.

AFC East Week 17 X factors

December, 31, 2011
It's hard to believe the 2011 regular season is over after this weekend. This will be our final post on X factors for the season.

Here are some under-the-radar players who could make an impact:

New England Patriots (12-3)

Opponent: Bills

X factor: RB Stevan Ridley

Analysis: It's amazing that the Patriots have gone on a seven-game winning streak this time of year without a consistent running game. Patriots quarterback and MVP candidate Tom Brady has been so good that New England continues to win in the winter months through the air, while many outdoor teams are forced to run. But that doesn't mean eventually New England doesn't want one of its many running backs to step up. That player might be rookie Ridley. He showed flashes all season and last week averaged 4.9 yards per carry. If Ridley gets it going, the Patriots' offense will be even more dangerous. Buffalo's defense is very susceptible to the run this season and the Bills could give up a lot of yards to New England on the ground.

Buffalo Bills (6-9)

Opponent: Patriots

X factor: S Jairus Byrd

Analysis: The Bills seem to play at their best when Byrd has a big game. Byrd made his share of mistakes this season, but he's perhaps the team's best defensive playmaker and is coming off one of his better games. Byrd recorded seven tackles and a pick six against the Denver Broncos and quarterback Tim Tebow. Both Buffalo safeties -- Byrd and George Wilson -- will get plenty of opportunities to make plays against Brady, who throws the football a lot. No one expects the Bills to pull off the season-ending upset at Gillette Stadium, but their best chance to do it is probably with big plays from Byrd and the secondary.

New York Jets (8-7)

Opponent: Dolphins

X factor: Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer

Analysis: Schottenheimer needs to finish strong -- not only for the Jets' sake, but for his as well. There are already rumblings in New York that Schottenheimer is going into the offseason on the hot seat. New York has the 27th ranked offense, which is unacceptable for a team some thought was capable of making a Super Bowl run. Instead, the Jets most likely will miss the playoffs and the offense will get the blame. Last week's play-calling was a disaster. Schottenheimer called 59 passes in a loss to the New York Giants. Schottenhiemer needs to do much better against a solid Dolphins defense.

Miami Dolphins (5-10)

Opponent: Jets

X factor: WR Brian Hartline

Analysis: It's always about the No. 2 receiver when facing the Jets. Why? Because there's a good chance Darrelle Revis is going to be all over the opponent's best receiver. Revis versus Brandon Marshall will be a great matchup. Revis will make his share of plays and so will Marshall. But the key to winning for Miami depends on what the other receivers do against New York's corners. Hartline is coming off a solid game last week where he caught four passes for 72 yards. He will see a lot of Jets corner Antonio Cromartie, who has been inconsistent. If Hartline has a big game, there is a good chance Miami can finish the season with a victory.

AFC East Week 14 X factors

December, 10, 2011
New England Patriots (9-3)

Opponent: Washington Redskins (4-8)

X factor: LB Jerod Mayo

Analysis: Although most points came in the fourth quarter, the Patriots had no business giving up 24 to quarterback Dan Orlovsky and the winless Indianapolis Colts. New England's defense needs to finish and will have a bit stiffer test against Washington. The Redskins will try to run the football. That has been a staple under coach Mike Shanahan. Mayo is one of the defensive leaders and needs to set the tone in the middle for New England. He had seven tackles and an interception last week against Indianapolis.

New York Jets (7-5)

Opponent: Kansas City Chiefs (5-7)

X factor: QB Mark Sanchez

Analysis: It is rare that I list a quarterback for an X factor. But Sanchez has been hard to figure out lately and is really important in this game. The Jets are in a must-win mode and Sanchez has struggled early in back-to-back games. The good news is he's come through in the fourth quarter. But the Jets can't rely on late heroics every week. Sanchez and the Jets' offense need to start fast against a team they should beat in Kansas City. If the offense can't move the ball or score early, things could get tense for New York.

Buffalo Bills (5-7)

Opponent: San Diego Chargers (5-7)

X factor: WR Steve Johnson

Analysis: The Bills aren't stopping anyone lately on defense. That trend is likely to continue Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, who scored 38 points last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Bills' best chance is to win this game in a shootout. For that to happen, Johnson, Buffalo's No. 1 receiver, needs to have a big game. Johnson hasn't had a 100-yard receiving game all season. Now would be a good time for the talented Johnson if Buffalo wants to end its five-game losing streak.

Miami Dolphins (4-8)

Opponent: vs. Philadelphia Eagles (4-8)

X factor: RB Daniel Thomas

Analysis: The Eagles have issues stopping the run, and that happens to be one of Miami's strengths. Miami had 209 rushing yards against the Oakland Raiders. Dolphins starter Reggie Bush will get his opportunities, but so will Thomas. The rookie second-round pick is coming off a solid, 73-yard performance against Oakland. Thomas is more of the inside runner for the Dolphins.

AFC East Week 13 X factors

December, 3, 2011
New England Patriots (8-3)

Opponent: Indianapolis Colts (0-11)

X factor: LB Rob Ninkovich

Analysis: The Patriots do not really need an X factor against the winless Colts. But a player who is quietly playing well in recent weeks is Ninkovich. He's a heady player who stays around the football, which has resulted in some big plays for New England's defense. Ninkovich has two sacks, two interceptions and a defensive touchdown the past three games. Keep an eye on Ninkovich this week and down the stretch.

New York Jets (6-5)

Opponent: at Washington Redskins (4-7)

X factor: RB LaDainian Tomlinson

Analysis: Tomlinson is back, and he returns at a good time. The Jets are in must-win mode and need their running game. Starting tailback Shonn Greene is banged up and Joe McKnight still is inexperienced. Tomlinson can be a solid bridge between the two. He's proven and has fresh legs. He's sat out the past two games with a knee injury and only has 46 carries this season. Look for the Jets to rely on Tomlinson more down the stretch.

Buffalo Bills (5-6)

Opponent: Tennessee Titans (6-5)

X factor: DL Marcell Dareus

Analysis: Buffalo's defense can't stop anyone right now. The Bills are struggling against the run and pass and need someone to step up and turn it around. This is where Dareus has to come in. Yes, he is a rookie. But Dareus is this year's No. 3 overall pick and one of the few difference-makers on Buffalo's defense. Dareus has shown flashes of dominance — but the Bills need him to be consistently stout in the middle, especially this week against the Titans and Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson.

Miami Dolphins (3-8)

Opponent: Oakland Raiders (7-4)

X factor: S Yeremiah Bell

Analysis: Bell is playing solid football. He has eight tackles and an interception his past two games. But here is why Bell is very important this weekend: Oakland has tremendous speed on offense. Expect the Raiders to challenge the Dolphins vertically with deep threats such as receivers Denarius Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Jacoby Ford. It will be key for Bell to maintain his deep responsibility. Oakland's offense thrives on big plays.

AFC East Week 11 X factors

November, 19, 2011
The New York Jets kicked off Week 11 Thursday night against the Denver Broncos. Now it's time for the three remaining teams in the AFC East to take the field.

Here are some potential X factors in this weekend's games:

Buffalo Bills (5-4)

Opponent: Miami Dolphins (2-7)

X factor: LB Nick Barnett

Analysis: Buffalo's defense was embarrassed last week in a 44-7 trouncing by the Dallas Cowboys. It was the most points the Bills allowed all season. But the mentally tough teams can overcome these kinds of clunkers. That is where Barnett comes in. The veteran free agent from the Green Bay Packers has done a solid job providing leadership in Buffalo. His leadership is needed now more than ever with the Bills falling out of the playoff race. Barnett needs to have a good game to set the tone for Buffalo's defense on the road in Miami.

Miami Dolphins (2-7)

Opponent: Bills

X factor: CB Vontae Davis

Analysis: Good cornerback play always is important when playing Buffalo's spread offense. The New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys had great secondary play against the Bills. Miami will try to do the same. Davis has had his issues with the team this season. He's been in and out of the lineup with a hamstring injury and was suspended one game for reportedly getting into a scuffle at practice with receiver Brandon Marshall. But the Dolphins need Davis to be on his game. The Bills like to throw the football, and there will be plenty of opportunities for Davis and Miami's secondary to make big plays to impact the game.

New England Patriots (6-3)

Opponent: Kansas City Chiefs (4-5)

X factor: DT Vince Wilfork

Analysis: Kansas City will be huge underdogs Monday night at Gillette Stadium without starting quarterback Matt Cassel (hand). Essentially the Chiefs' only chance to pull the upset is by running the football, which happens to be the best asset of New England's defense. Wilfork has been steady force for the Patriots in the middle. He has 25 tackles, 1.5 sacks and, surprisingly, two interceptions. New England is ninth in the NFL in run defense in large part because Wilfork is hard to move. With Chiefs backup Tyler Palko at quarterback, this game is tailor made for New England's defense to hide its weakness (pass defense) and play to its strength (run defense).

AFC East Week 10 X factors

November, 12, 2011
We have a three-way tie in the AFC East. That makes Week 10 a crucial week for the division.

Here are some under-the-radar players who could have an impact in Sunday's games:

New England Patriots (5-3)

Opponent: at Jets

X factor: TE Rob Gronkowski

Analysis: The Jets are very talented in the secondary. But Gronkowski's size advantage could present problems for New York. Gronkowski is most dangerous in the red zone. According to ESPN's Stats & Information, Gronkowski leads the NFL with 14 red zone touchdowns since the beginning of the 2010 season. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady looks for Gronkowski a lot in the clutch. Gronkowski has 44 receptions for 596 yards and six touchdowns this season. Thirty-four of his 44 catches are for first downs.

New York Jets (5-3)

Opponent: Patriots

X factor: WR Santonio Holmes

Analysis: New England's pass defense is awful. It's been that way all season. That will provide plenty of opportunities for Holmes to make plays. Fellow receiver Plaxico Burress has an ailing back. Burress is expected to play but he won't be 100 percent. This is a big game and Holmes is a big-game player. Look for Holmes to step up and take advantage of New England's leaky pass defense.

Buffalo Bills (5-3)

Opponent: at Dallas Cowboys

X factor: WR Donald Jones

Analysis: Jones looked rusty in his first game back from a high-ankle sprain. He caught one pass for 6 yards in a loss to the Jets. But Jones is Buffalo's best deep threat. He could get opportunities for big plays Sunday against the Cowboys' aggressive defense. Buffalo's offense hasn't made many big plays since Jones went down Oct. 9.

Miami Dolphins (1-7)

Opponent: Washington Redskins

X factor: LB Kevin Burnett

Analysis: Burnett, Miami's major free-agent signing, is coming off his best game as a Dolphin against the Kansas City Chiefs. Burnett recorded 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks in Miami's first win of the season. Burnett has a chance to carry that momentum against Washington. The Redskins are struggling on offense and scored just 11 points the past two games. Washington's offense line is hurting. That should open things up for Dolphins defenders like Burnett to make plays against the run and get to Redskins quarterback John Beck.

AFC East Week 9 X factors

November, 2, 2011
The bye weeks are complete in the AFC East. All four teams will be in action this weekend.

Here are four X factors to keep an eye on:

Buffalo Bills (5-2)

X factor: WR David Nelson

Analysis: Jets Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis could be matched up a lot this week with Bills No. 1 receiver Steve Johnson. That means other receivers, like Nelson, have to step up for Buffalo to be successful. Neslon could see a lot of Kyle Wilson in the slot. Both are among the most improved players in the AFC East this year. Nelson's battles in the slot will be crucial on third down. Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick often looks over the middle to Nelson and tight end Scott Chandler to move the chains.

New York Jets (4-3)

X factor: C Nick Mangold

Analysis: The Jets are back to their ground-and-pound ways and at the center of it is Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold. It's no secret New York will try to control the line of scrimmage against the inconsistent Buffalo defense. But the Bills are coming off their best game of the season -- a 23-0 shutout against the Washington Redskins. Mangold has a tough assignment against Buffalo No. 3 overall pick Marcell Dareus, who recorded 2.5 sacks last week.

New England Patriots (5-2)

X factor: CB Devin McCourty

Analysis: It's time to McCourty to step up. New England's No. 1 corner hasn't made any significant plays this year. He has zero interceptions and only three pass defenses. McCourty is suffering from a major sophomore slump. He recorded eight interceptions as a rookie in 2010. The New York Giants had a solid passing game but No. 1 receiver Hakeem Nicks is ailing with a hamstring injury. McCourty has to win his matchup with Giants receivers for New England's pass defense to be successful.

Miami Dolphins (0-7)

X factor: RB Reggie Bush

Analysis: Bush produced his first 100-yard rushing game of the season against the Giants. He rushed for 103 yards on 15 carries. It helped Miami control the game for three quarters. The Dolphins will need control the clock with their running game again to have a chance to beat the Kansas City Chiefs (4-3) at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs have the NFL's 22nd-ranked run defense. Miami, despite its many struggles, actually has an underrated running game. The Dolphins are 12th in the league in rushing.

AFC East Week 8 X factors

October, 27, 2011
Three AFC East teams will be in action in Week 8. The New York Jets, who are on a two-game winning streak, will get some rest during their bye.

Here are three X factors to watch this weekend:

New England Patriots (5-1)

X factor: TE Aaron Hernandez

Analysis: Hernandez is quickly becoming one of quarterback Tom Brady's favorite targets. He averages nearly seven receptions per contest and has a touchdown in three of his four games. Hernandez and fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski could have some mismatches in the middle of the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots' tight ends are more athletic than Pittsburgh's linebackers and have the size advantage over the Steelers' backup cornerbacks.

Buffalo Bills (4-2)

X factor: OL Andy Levitre

Analysis: Levitre, who is Buffalo's best guard, is expected to start at left tackle Sunday against the Washington Redskins. The Bills have been ailing at the position all season and hope to take advantage of Levitre's versatility. He will be Buffalo's third starter at left tackle in seven games. Levitre won't have an easy assignment. He will see a lot of Washington outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, who has 4.5 sacks this season.

Miami Dolphins (0-6)

X factor: LB Cameron Wake

Analysis: On paper, there are not many ways the winless Dolphins can beat the New York Giants (4-2), who are coming off their bye. But New York is beatable in games when quarterback Eli Manning suffers a meltdown. The best way to do that is to pressure Manning. Miami is coming off a season-high six sacks against Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. Wake had two of the Dolphins' sacks last week. If Wake can be disruptive to Manning, maybe Miami has a shot at an upset.