by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

1-NEW ENGLAND (13-3 in 2011; Lost Super Bowl to N.Y. Giants)... The Patriots are the clear-cut favorite once again in the AFC East. Tom Brady (5235 YP last season, 65.6%, 39 TDs, 12 ints.; 35 years old) says he would like to play several more years, perhaps into his 40s. And that is understandable, considering that the ultra-competitive Brady owns three Super Bowl rings, plus two excruciating losses to Eli Manning and the Giants. Coach Bill Belichick reportedly does not disagree with Brady’s thinking, at least not yet. Insiders say Belichick believes Brady has at least three good years left and is not even contemplating closing the window on his future Hall-of-Fame QB.

But just because the Patriots have an elite QB in a division of flawed QBs does not mean the AFC East is going to be a walkover. After all, the Pats were 31st in total defense and 31st in pass defense last year. And N.E. has some OL issues to deal with following the retirement of G Brian Waters and LY’s ACL suffered by G Logan Mankins.

As for the defense, Belichick spent his first six draft choices on that unit, trading up a couple of times to grab the player he wanted, including No. 1 pick DE Chandler Jones (impressive early in camp) and No. 2, burly Alabama LB Dont’a Hightower (Belichick is good friends with Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban). No. 3 DE Jake Bequette of Arkansas has potential as a needed pass rusher. And note that Belichick’s team was third in takeaways last season (with 34), with the coach valuing versatile players in an era when teams use less of their base defense and must be able to morph into different forms to match the many, varied, uptempo attacks in the NFL these days.

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However, until it is obvious otherwise, the Brady/Belichick combination is working with something no team in the NFL can match--namely, the dominating TE duo of Rob Gronkowski (90 recs., TE record 17 TDs last year) and Aaron Hernandez (79 & 7). Gronkowski’s limitations (lingering high ankle sprain) might have cost the Pats the Super Bowl last season. And this season, Belichick has beefed up his WR corps with the addition of deep threat Brandon Lloyd, one-time Pat Jabar Gaffney, and other veteran depth.

New England defeated only one team with a winning record last season (Baltimore, in the playoffs, aided by Billy Cundiff’s missed chip-shot FG), but the added talent on defense and veterans at receiver make the Pats the team to beat.

2-NEW YORK JETS (8-8 in 2011)...After making it to the AFC title game the two previous seasons, the Jets lost control of their playoff fate in last season’s 29-14 Game 15 loss the intra-city rival Giants. Then, WR Santonio Holmes had 0 recs. and was pulled from the ensuing game in the must-win season finale at Miami. That set up an offseason of major changes on offense in New York, with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer ousted in favor of fiery former Miami head coach Tony Sparano, the coach who first employed Wildcat variations in the NFL.

When the Jets traded for poor-passing Bronco hero Tim Tebow in March, the QB debate began in the Big Apple, especially since Mark Sanchez, once “The Sanchise,” completed only 56.7% with 26 TDs and 18 interceptions in 2011. Those numbers did not reflect enough third-year development as far as the Jets were concerned, so get ready for the hurricane of media over-coverage of the New York QB situation. One thing is sure. Fans will overreact if Tebow shines. They will overreact if he stumbles and looks awful. In fact, there is so much attention focused on the Sanchez/Tebow situation, that there is likely to be an overreaction to everything.

Many fans might even forget that Tebow has been brought in to help with some specific problems. Inconsistent running. Poor third-down conversion. Problems in the red zone. In truth, you can blame the disappointing Jets’ OL and receivers for a good deal of 2011's difficulty. And problems in those areas remain to be solved. But Sparano’s plan to utilize the beefed-up Tebow (250 pounds) in short-yardage, goal-line, and fourth-down situations should help--if it doesn’t split the team.

After twice predicting the Super Bowl for his team, HC Rex Ryan backed off last season, and he’s done so again this year, while losing more than 100 pounds of his once-substantial girth by August. But his pet defense was 20th in points allowed last season and rarely generated much pass pressure without blitzing. Ryan is hopeful that will change this season with the return to health of DE Muhammad Wilkerson, the continuing maturation of OLB Aaron Maybin (six sacks last year for the former Bill), the addition of No. 1 pick DE Quinton Coples, and an upgrade at safety in LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell.

The best-guess forecast is that there will be an inordinate supply of QB drama and controversy in New York this season. And Ryan’s in-your-face Jets’ defense will continue to be rugged. But without improvement at RB, OL and WR, it’s second place in the East and a dogfight to make the playoffs for the Jets.

3-BUFFALO (6-10 in 2011)...Is this going to be another Curse of the Bambino or Curse of the Billy Goat deal? The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since 1999, when they lost 22-16 in the controversial “Music City Miracle” game in Nashville. And even though Buffalo is definitely improved this season, the Bills will need a lot of things to go right in order to break through their 12-year post-season glass ceiling.

Hope comes in the form of seven starters returning from season-ending injuries in 2011. All told, 17 Bills’ players were placed on injured reserve last season, including key performers such as RB Fred Jackson (one of the top all-around RBs in the NFL), C Eric Wood, DT Kyle Williams, and OLB Shawne Merriman. Plus, there was an aggressive offseason (in Buffalo terms), landing the likes of DE Mario Williams, DE Mark Anderson (10 sacks last season with the Pats), and change-of-pace QB Vince Young. With the addition of No. 2 pick OT Cordy Glenn (Georgia), the Bills have now stockpiled a group of young, rugged, highly-selected OLmen. Merriman has finally undergone surgery for his nagging Achilles issue, was told to bulk up, and will join Mario & Kyle Williams in a DL that also includes 2011 draft prize Marcell Dareus in promising front four that will likely reduce 2011's 27.1 ppg (only three teams were worse).

Yes, in the pits, the Bills are now healthier and deeper than in 2011. But can Chan Gailey’s offense cut its mistakes and help enough to boost Buffalo in the AFC East standings? Yes, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (3832 YP last season) has a strong arm, charisma, and guts. But he also led the NFL in interceptions last season with 23 (frequently playing from behind). It shouldn’t go unnoticed that one addition to Gailey’s staff this season is David Lee as QB coach. It was Lee who inserted RB Darren McFadden in the shotgun at Arkansas several years ago, and then did the same thing a couple of years later in the NFL with Ronnie Brown and the Dolphins. So look for plenty of surprises in the backfield this year in Buffalo with both Vince Young and Brad Smith available.

The Bills will make things more difficult this season for everyone in the AFC East. They might even surpass the Jets if New York’s QB situation implodes. But, considering that the Bills have beaten the Patriots only once since 2003, it’s hard to project Buffalo into the playoffs just yet.

4-MIAMI (6-10 in 2011)...It’s understandable that owner Stephen Ross is impatient, as Miami last made the playoffs in 2008. The Dolphins haven’t enjoyed a lot of glory since, often playing well, but not well enough. The respected Bill Parcells helped steady things and assemble a base of talent, but inconsistencies finally cost Parcells’ pick Tony Sparano his job. Now, it’s up to former Green Bay offensive coordinator Joe Philbin and former Green Bay and Texas A&M head coach Mike Sherman to bring back the Phins’ fans, who have become borderline angry with the team due to repeated recent failures. Sherman, who was once Philbin’s high school English teacher, gave Philbin his first NFL job.

Expect the two to work well together to fire up the Miami offense. Enough for the Dolphins to eventually be a pest this season, but likely not good enough for Miami to escape the AFC East cellar just yet. There is a decent base present, with RBs Reggie Bush (1086 YR) & Daniel Thomas (581), plus outstanding LT Jake Long and others. But the additions of QB David Garrard (34) and the once-again Chad Johnson (his name changed back from Ochocinco now that he’s married) at WR smack of some degree of desperation for an offense in need of new playmakers. Garrard will battle it out with returning QB Matt Moore (12 starts; 6-3 his last nine games) and top draft pick Ryan Tannehill (Sherman’s QB at A&M) for the starting job.

Just about everyone agrees that role will eventually be filled by Tannehill, unless the Aggie QB is a complete bust. Draft-day scouts were a little dubious of his overall accuracy, so there’s that issue to overcome, in addition to his adjustment to NFL defenses in the very likely event he is force-fed in terms of development.

The Miami defense (sixth in points at 19.6) is solid enough, with CB addition Richard Marshall (via the Cardinals) giving Miami three quality corners in a pass-happy league. But one must worry about the Dolphin defenders becoming overworked in the Miami heat if any Tannehill turnovers of youth become a problem. The Dolphins have not had a playoff win since 2000. Tack on another year of frustration, although if it gets a little quality QBing, Miami will be one of the better fourth-place teams in the NFL.


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