by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Following is our TGS 2013 AFC East preview, with teams presented in order of predicted finish. Last year's straight-up, spread, and "over/under" records are included for each team...

NEW ENGLAND (Straight-Up Record 12-4 in Regular Season; Pointspread Record 9-7 in Regular Season; Over/Under 11-5 in Regular Season; Lost AFC Championship Game 28-13 vs. Baltimore)...The method might be a bit different in 2013, but the result is quite likely to be the same--another AFC East title for the Patriots. The departure of slot man par excellence Wes Welker (111 or more receptions in 5 of his 6 years in Foxborough), the release of accused TE-gone-O.J. Aaron Hernandez, and the recurring injury difficulty of record-setting TE Ron Gronkowski (38 TDC in 43 career games) are going to mean substantial changes for the Pats’ two-TE, hurry-up offense. N.E. produced 30 or more points 10 times LY. Tom Brady & Co. easily led the NFL in scoring at 34.8 ppg and margin of victory at 14.1.

However, with a new cast of wideouts and an altered approach due to the different-than-envisioned TE availability, there are going to be plenty of changes. But don’t doubt that Bill Belichick and staff won’t get the job done. It will just be in a slightly different way. And that new way will take advantage of the rebuilding Belichick has been doing regarding other aspects of his team in recent seasons. Young 6-8 OTs Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are now among the best protectors in the league. RB Steven Ridley (1263 YR in 2012), speedy Shane Vereen, third-down back and return man Leon Washington, and power guy LeGarrette Blount represent one of the NFL’s deepest and most versatile backfield groups. New slot guy Danny Amendola (via the Rams)--from the same Texas Tech roots that produced Welker--has shown the ability to run the Welker routes if Amendola can only stay healthy. It’s true the WRs are unproven, but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and staff have a demonstrated ability to “coach them up.” The N.E. aerial game might be less spectacular in 2013, but it will still be plenty potent.

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After several “whiffs” with some recent high picks on defense, Belichick finally has one of those physical, tight-covering units that gained him fame when he was an assistant with the Giants and in his early days with the Pats. The young LB corps of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower, and this year’s second-round pick of Jamie Collins (Southern Miss) is big and physical. Same for the DT spot, especially if Raider salary-cap casualty Tommy Kelly (32 years old) has enough gas left in the tank to hold down a spot alongside still-dominating monster Vince Wilfork. 2012 top pick DE Chandler Jones (6 sacks LY) flashed an upside in his rookie year, while former retread Rob Ninkovich (8 sacks LY) seems to have found a home on the other side.

For several years it was the near-constant leaks in his secondary that annoyed HC Belichick, causing the long-time defensive coordinator to often play extra-cautiously. There is a great chance this season those days might be over for a while. Last year’s midseason acquisition of CB Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay has tightened up one corner. Just as importantly, it has allowed former CB Devin McCourty (5 ints. LY) to move to safety, where McCourty’s speed and coverage skills have narrowed the windows in the middle for opposing QBs. Second-year CB Alonzo Dennard (3 ints. LY), while owning good potential, has some off-the-field issues following a summer DUI arrest. But the major X-factor in the secondary is former all-pro S Adrian Wilson, now 33, but a savvy, 6-2, 230-pound force if he can play near his old form as a valuable leader and versatile intimidator with Arizona. The Pats were 22nd in total defense last season (9th in points at 20.7 ppg), but those numbers could improve if Belichick turns to more running on offense while his veteran-enhanced defense (now with six No. 1 picks) earns more stops.

Belichick knows that the window is closing on the career of Brady (36 this year), and the coach is even more aware of his team’s recent postseason disappointments (no Super Bowl win since the 2004 season; only one Super Bowl appearance the last five seasons). But even with 2013's receiver issues, and even if N.E.’s veteran additions don’t work out on defense, the Pats still have enough to pull away in their own division.
However, once again, the postseason might be a different matter.

Note that the Patriots were 12-6 "OVER" (including playoffs) last season, including a stretch of nine straight "OVER" games from September 23 through November 22.

MIAMI (SUR 7-9; PSU 8-8; O/U 5-10-1)...There is still plenty of skepticism around the league concerning whether Dolphin QB Ryan Tannehill (58.3%, 12 TDs, 13 ints.) will develop into a top-quality QB. But not in the Miami offices, where HC Joe Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman are both confident they can build quickly with Tannehill in control of this year’s faster-paced, speedier attack. Remember, Tannehill only played QB for 1½ seasons at Texas A&M, helping out at WR before that, catching 112 passes his first 2+ seasons. Also, both Sherman and Philbin had a role in developing the young Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, and Sherman was Tannehill’s college coach at A&M.

So, even though the Dolphins have lost versatile RB Reggie Bush (to Detroit), it can be reasonably expected that Miami can improve its 27th-ranked offense. Indeed, Tannehill has shown greater knowledge, leadership and decision-making in the Dolphins’ camp. Sherman wants his QB to play faster and generate more big plays. To that end, Miami dipped deeply into the FA market at WR, landing Mike Wallace (fastest WR in the league?) from Pittsburgh and still-developing Brandon Gibson (51 recs. LY) from St. Louis. Former NYJ TE Dustin Keller arrives to work the middle, while WR returnee Brian Hartline (74 catches LY) emerged in 2013 and FA Marcus McNutt (Philly draftee LY) has looked good this July. H-B Charles Clay (33 recs. LY) is also around.

Of greater concern is whether Miami can develop a successful balancing ground assault to help put games away and keep the NFL’s best pass rushers out of Tannehill’s face. Second-year RB Lamar Miller is expected to be the main RB, backed up by third-year Derrick Thomas, with Florida’s Mike Gillislee offering rookie promise. While the OL has highly-regarded young veterans in Jonathan Martin at LT and Mike Pouncey at C, the overall platoon is still thin and might need Pouncey to move to G.

Depth is not a problem in the front line on defense, with coordinator Kevin Coyle very happy with his front-four rotation, which includes DE Cameron Wake (15 sacks LY), DE/DT Jared Odrick (5 sacks), emerging second-year DE Olivier Vernon (3½ sacks as a rookie), and incoming DE/OLB Dion Jordan. Miami traded up in the draft to land Jordan (Oregon) third overall, and he’s been all that was expected and more, volunteering to contribute on special teams. Rugged Dannell Ellerbe has been imported from Super Bowl champion Baltimore to help toughen the Dolphin run defense, while CB acquisition Brent Grimes (who tore his Achilles in Atlanta’s first game LY) appears to have regained his 2011 form. Richard Marshall and Dmitri Patterson also seem ready to help at CB. Young S Reshad Jones (4 ints. LY) has been re-signed (4Ys, $30 million). Still, the key to improving Miami’s 27th-ranked pass defense is better pressure up front, where the athletic Jordan (6-6, 248) is expected to relieve some of the double-teaming on Wake.

The last time Miami made the playoffs (and won the AFC East) was in 2008, when the Pats’ Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener. Before that, the Dolphins last made the postseason was in 2001. Even if they don’t make it again this year, ascending Miami (complete with re-styled uniforms and a 21st-century dolphin logo--no more Flipper” wearing a football helmet) now seems to own enough offense and defense to challenge all the way for an AFC playoff berth.

Note that Miami was "UNDER" in 9 of its last 12 games last season. Will this year’s faster offense turn that around?

BUFFALO (SUR 6-10; PSR 7-9; O/U 8-8)...Handicappers at THE GOLD SHEET were not the only ones who were highly skeptical when venerable Bills owner Ralph Wilson announced he was hiring Chan Gailey as his head coach three years ago. Gailey had a lengthy record of modest success. But nothing that inspired great enthusiasm in the NFL. And Buffalo was in need of a major spark after failing to even make the playoffs the previous 10 years. After Gailey’s three-year run with the Bills, you can now make it 13 (currently the NFL’s longest drought).

The hiring of Doug Marrone was also a bit of a surprise. But the Bronx native has built a reputation as a player and then HC at Syracuse, helping to revive the Orange program over the last four years. And, in his most recent stop in the NFL, Marrone helped develop the Drew Brees’ Saints attack in New Orleans. At Syracuse, he developed QB Ryan Nassib (4th round, NYG) into a bona fide NFL prospect.

Those developmental talents are much required with the Bills, who are starting over again at QB after prematurely giving a too-large, too-soon contract to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (now with Tennessee). Battling the AFC East-dominating Patriots at QB for Buffalo this season will be Eagles-Cardinals veteran Kevin Kolb, now in his 7th season, and Bills’ top draft pick EJ Manuel, a physical 6-4 talent from Florida State. Jeff Tuel, a rookie free agent from Washington State will try to make the team as the No. 3. Insiders at Bills’ camp in Pittsford, N.Y., report that even if Kolb (9-12 as a career starter) emerges from the preseason as No. 1, he likely won’t have the job for long before Marrone turns to the strong-armed and mobile Manuel and begins Manuael’s NFL learning curve. And why not? Especially after last season’s success of the likes of rookies Andrew Luck, RG III, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson, and second-year Colin Kaepernick. Lots will be asked of the new Buffalo QB, who will be operating Marrone’s no-huddle “K-gun” attack reminiscent of the Jim Kelly years, when the signal caller was given lots of freedom with audibles to exploit unbalanced defenses.

Unfortunately, the Bills don’t yet have an especially strong supporting cast to help their QB. RB C.J. Spiller “arrived” as a top ball carrier in 2012 with 1244 YR and 43 receptions. And the OL has some studs in the persons of C Eric Wood, huge second-year LT Glenn Cordy, and former Badger G Kraig Urbik. But a lack of depth up front has been a problem for several seasons. And the same has been true for the receiving corps (6-7 TE red-zone threat Scott Chandler is trying to come back from LY’s torn ACL). It is hoped that draftees Robert Woods of Southern Cal and speedster Marquise Goodwin of Texas will join with Stevie Johnson & emerging T.J. Graham to provide the solid depth at wideout that the Bills have lacked in the recent past.

The defense has some good talent, but has also suffered from a lack of depth and will be going through a period of transition following the arrival of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine from the AFC East rival Jets. Pettine is going with the recent trend of a 3-4/4-3 hybrid system, with several players playing dual positions. In the new scheme, powerful DT Marcell Dareus (5½ sacks LY) will spend some time on the nose, while Mario Williams--signed LY to a huge contract from Houston to be a 4-3 DE--is now a DE/OLB. 4-3 DT Kyle Williams (off an Achilles injury) will also be used as a 3-4 DE. You get the idea--which is defensive disguise to confuse opposing blockers and to help get quick pressure on the QB. One big plus is that Pettine has more talent up front with the Bills than he had last year with the Jets. Another plus is that the Bills ran a 4-3 front last season after previously using a 3-4, so many Buffalo defenders go into this season with previous dual training. With good talent in the secondary (if S Jairus Byrd settles his contract issues), the defense would seem to have a good chance to improve LY’s 27.2 ppg allowed. But that will also depend upon the Bills’ QB and offensive unit providing some needed ball-control “protection” for the defenders.

With major issues at QB to start the season, the Bills are likely to need divine intervention to win their opener vs. New England, which has captured 23 of the last 25 meetings between the two teams. However, watch out for Game Three, when former Rex Ryan assistant Mike Pettine pits his promising Buffalo defense against the shaky offense of the Jets.

The Bills need one of their QBs to come through in a big way--and must avoid key injuries--in order to make any kind of run at the playoffs. It’s much more likely they extend their playoff drought to 14 years. But they should have the satisfaction of finishing ahead of the hated Jets.

NEW YORK JETS (SUR 6-10; PSR 7-9; O/U 7-8-1)...Where to start with the on-going soap opera that has become the New York Jets? How about with the halcyon days when the Jets played in two straight AFC championship games in the first two years of HC Rex Ryan and QB Mark Sanchez, when the two combined to win four playoff games, all on the road! What a future appeared in store for the men in green!

But then came the 0-3 season-ending collapse to finish out of the playoffs in 2011, followed by the ill-advised Tim Tebow experiment of 2012 and the infamous Mark Sanchez “butt fumble” that helped lead to a slew of offseason changes for the J-E-T-S Jets, Jets, Jets. Gone are GM Mike Tannenbaum, Wildcat advocating offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, top defensive player Darrell Revis, and Tebow himself. Yet the bloviating (and entertaining) Ryan and rapidly descending Sanchez remain.

The new offensive coordinator is Marty Mornhinweg, whose 5-27 run with Detroit in 2001-02 was one of the worst in NFL history and whose recent run as o.c. with Philadelphia ended last year in -24 turnover-margin mess. In all fairness to Mornhinweg, however, he has posted a good number of years as a successful coordinator and QB tutor, and he’s well-respected as such. But it can’t be denied that Ryan, Sanchez (an unacceptable 54.3%, 13 TDs, 18 ints., and 9 fumbles LY), and West Coast offense advocate Mornhinweg have plenty to prove in 2013, and--on paper--not much to work with in terms of dynamic NFL firepower.

Chris Ivory (217 YR last season with New Orleans) is expected to edge out returnee Bilal Powell for the starting RB job. This is not exactly the productive Thomas Jones/Shonn Greene combo Ryan had when the Jets made it to the 2009 AFC title game, effectively employing a “ground & pound” philosophy. Santonio Holmes (coming off a foot injury) is the team’s best-known WR, and he’s had a checkered career that includes some problems in the locker room and in the huddle. Young WRs Stephen Hill & Jeremy Kerley have yet to prove themselves in a major way. WR Braylon Edwards has been re-signed for yet another chance. TE Dustin Keller is gone to Miami, while oft-injured Kellen Winslow was brought in to support Jeff Cumberland. These are not premium weapons for Sanchez and West Virginia rookie QB Geno Smith. The latter was able to rip opposing defenses in college the last few years throwing largely to a group of elusive smurf speedballs. If Smith (ankle injury in preseason opener at Detroit; check status) unseats Sanchez for the starting job early, he might be sorry later.

In the pits, the Jets have been unable to come up with reliable mates to team with high-quality C Nick Mangold and LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson. And, on defense, the Rex Ryan intimidation factor was down in 2012, as New York collected only 30 sacks (only five teams had fewer) and 11 ints. (only six teams had fewer). Star defender Revis suffered a torn ACL early in the season and was then traded to Tampa Bay after it. Former prized free agent, team leader, and defensive intimidator LB Bart Scott has been released, while the youth movement (first-round picks CB Dee Milliner of Alabama and DT Sheldon Richardson of Missouri are likely to start) is underway.

Sanchez, who has committed a league-high 52 giveaways over the last two years, was even booed at camp at times and is clearly the object of the fans’ derision. Meanwhile, insiders believe Smith is far from being ready to follow in the footsteps of rookie success stories Luck, Griffin and Wilson. There are too many “down” dimensions on this team (2-7 vs. the spread last nine games of 2012) to currently foresee a rise. It appears as if the Jets will battle the QB-iffy Bills to avoid the AFC East cellar in 2013.


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