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Tuesday, December 30, 2008
AFC East team evaluations


Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
Miami Dolphins (11-5)
Not even Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga thought they could accomplish anything close to an AFC East championship. Huizenga admitted Sunday he thought a .500 record was something to aspire to after they went 1-15 last year. His team will host a playoff game Sunday. The Dolphins pulled off the greatest turnaround in NFL history. Bill Parcells' arrival as football operations boss begat head coach Tony Sparano and quarterback Chad Pennington eventually dropped into their laps. That, plus linebacker Joey Porter's revival, turned them into a force. Grade: A

Biggest surprise: Porter was viewed as the biggest bust of the 2007 free agency class. The Dolphins landed him with a five-year, $32 million contract with $20 million in guarantees. He answered with 5.5 sacks, giving him 12.5 in his previous two seasons. But Porter thrived under new defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni and generated defensive player of the year buzz for much of the season. Porter finished with 17.5 sacks, most in the AFC and second to DeMarcus Ware for the NFL title.

Biggest disappointment: The Dolphins made Ernest Wilford one of their first free-agent signings for four years, $13 million with almost half of that guaranteed. He finished the regular season with three catches for 25 yards and was a healthy scratch for nine games. The only reason he played in his last five games was because top receiver Greg Camarillo suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 12. For the critical season finale, Wilford was in street clothes again.

Biggest need: A big receiver with yards-after-catch ability would be nice. The Dolphins' game-day receiving corps is comprised of undrafted overachievers and one drafted player (Ted Ginn) many are still wondering about.

Biggest innovation: While several organizations will look upon the Dolphins for inspiration when it comes to rebuilding, many teams already have swiped their Wildcat offense and implemented it. The Dolphins caught the NFL's attention with the gadget offense in Week 3, and it became all the rage.

New England Patriots (11-5)
To finish 11-5 was nothing short of spectacular given the series of injuries that befell the Patriots from the start. To not make the playoffs was a wicked fate. The Patriots were overshadowed in the AFC East by the Dolphins' amazing U-turn and the Jets' appalling collapse. But coach Bill Belichick somehow kept winning with his patchwork roster and unheralded quarterback.

Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury on opening day, spurring predictions of a Patriots collapse. However, Matt Cassel dropped his clipboard and executed the offense. Rookie linebacker Jerod Mayo emerged as a stud. Second-year safety Brandon Meriweather helped Patriots Nation get over the loss of Rodney Harrison. Undrafted rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis contributed to victories. It didn't seem to matter who the Patriots inserted. They just won. Grade: A

Biggest surprise: For the Patriots, for the NFL, for the universe, Cassel is the obvious choice. He looked awful in training camp, and if not for a rookie being the Patriots' next best option, Cassel might not have made the roster. When Cassel stepped in for Brady, even casual fans learned he hadn't started a game since high school. Everybody snickered when Belichick declared his confidence in Cassel, who now has won 10 NFL starts and might become a free agent if the Patriots don't put the franchise tag on him.

Biggest disappointment: Benjamin Watson, a first-round pick in 2004, never factored in the Patriots' offense. He finished with 22 catches, his lowest output since he played one game his rookie season. Watson gained 209 yards and scored two touchdowns. He caught two passes over the final four games.

Biggest need: Tedy Bruschi is nearing the end of the line. The veteran inside linebacker finished the season with a knee injury. The options behind him were Junior Seau, signed late in the season out of desperation, and undrafted rookie Gary Guyton.

Shoulder shrug: There wasn't much more the Patriots could have done. Every one of their five losses was legit. They were beaten by the two best teams in the AFC (Colts, Steelers) and two other playoff teams (split with Dolphins, Chargers) and New York when the Jets were playing like world b
eaters.

New York Jets (9-7)
Although the Bills' scalding start and frigid finish would give the Jets competition, Gang Green proved to be the AFC's biggest tease. They had so much momentum. They looked so impressive in knocking off the Patriots and Titans on the road in consecutive weeks. Brett Favre and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer seemed to have melded and found their happy place. Favre was making throws. Thomas Jones was dominant on the ground. All of those big-ticket offseason acquisitions were paying off.

Then -- poof! -- those Jets vanished, never to return. The Jets should have lost each of the last five games. Had backup quarterback J.P. Losman not fumbled away a probable Bills victory, the Jets would have finished with a .500 record. Grade: B-

Biggest surprise: The Jets' reluctance to pound the ball when Favre began to flounder defied logic. Thomas Jones had one of the greatest seasons in Jets history with 1,312 rushing yards and 15 combined touchdowns. The offensive line was built to run.

Jones had 30 attempts in the sudden-death victory over the Patriots and 27 attempts to help his team beat the Titans. Over the last five games he carried 16, 10, 20, 16 and 10 times. And if his number was called because defenses were keying on him, then Favre's season-ending slump becomes even more unforgivable.

Biggest disappointment: When the Jets needed him most, Favre was horrible over the final five games. He threw two touchdown passes and nine interceptions. He was uninspiring at best. With the season and his career possibly on the line Sunday against the Dolphins, his pregame pep talk essentially was "Meh ... Let's go see what happens."

Biggest need: Regardless of what the MRI reveals about Favre's arm or what he decides about retirement, the Jets must address football's most important position. Owner Woody Johnson and general manager Mike Tannenbaum said at Monday's news conference they want Favre back, but even if they can convince him to return, they need a backup plan because he can't be relied upon.

Kellen Clemens showed little when given the opportunity to supplant Chad Pennington in 2007 and couldn't win the job in training camp even though the Jets didn't want Pennington to be their quarterback.

Most thrilling player: Win or lose, Leon Washington sure was fun to watch. Whether he was running, catching or returning, he was electric. He rushed for 448 rushing yards, a 5.9-yard average and six touchdowns, including runs of 47, 60 and 61 yards. He had 47 catches for 355 yards and two touchdowns. He also had a 94-yard kick return for a score and was almost as sensational fielding punts.

Buffalo Bills (7-9)
What do the Bills have to show for all the early season buzz they created? Nothing, not even a modest improvement from last year's record. Three straight seasons of 7-9 are what the Bills have provided. One win shy of average -- good enough to stay out of the top 10 if the NFL draft order yet still losers.

Meanwhile, the rest of the AFC East has retooled itself and lapped the stagnant Bills, who have gone nine straight seasons without a playoff game. The Dolphins went from 1-15 to division champs. The Jets went from four wins to nine and went into the final week with a shot at the postseason. The Patriots went 11-5 while grooming new stars. The Bills remain on the treadmill of mediocrity. Grade: D+

Biggest surprise: While the Patriots could go four deep at running back and still have a player who could rush for 100 yards, Fred Jackson was all the Bills had behind workhorse Marshawn Lynch. Many observers found that disconcerting until Jackson, who three years ago was playing in the United Indoor Football League, emerged as a viable weapon. He ran 131 times for 571 yards and three touchdowns and caught 37 passes for 317 yards.

Biggest disappointment: After the Bills opened their season 5-1, all they needed to do to make the playoffs was go a tad better than .500 over their final 10 games. A 6-4 record -- with even a couple victories over the Patriots or Dolphins -- would've put them at 11-5, perhaps knocked the other AFC East teams down a peg and given them tiebreakers. Instead they went 0-6 against the division.

Biggest need: The Bills are desperate for depth. They were lauded for their balanced roster at the start of the season -- a team with no superstars who could win with offense, defense or special teams any given week. But an injury here and an injury there and the Bills seemed overwhelmed. Their starters were above average, but most backups were a huge drop in talent. Some blamed the Bills slump on the temporary loss of No. 2 receiver Josh Reed. Now, that's a bad sign.

Didn't get any better than this: Bills linebacker Kawika Mitchell came up with a crucial interception of Philip Rivers to seal a Week 7 victory over the Chargers. The Bills raised their record to 5-1 and were capturing their fans' imagination. That was Oct. 19. There has been little to cheer about since.