by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Throughout the month of August, TGS will be previewing each of the NFL division races for 2014, as well as providing a QB depth chart for the preseason games that commence Thursday, August 7. Next up for our previews will be the AFC East, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2013 straight-up, pointspread, and "over/under" records included...

NEW ENGLAND (2013 SUR 13-5; PSR 9-9; OU 10-8. Lost AFC Championship Game at Denver 26-16)...No genius pick here, as the Belichick/Brady Patriots have won 11 straight AFC East titles. Yes, Miami won the division in 2008, but that was after Brady was felled in the season opener with a torn ACL. So Belichick/Brady have indeed captured 11 in a row, while Belichick/Matt Cassel are 0-1.

Thus, it’s no surprise the Pats are the clear-cut East favorites again, but they always have bigger things in mind. After N.E. won three Super Bowls between the 2001 and 2004 seasons, being rightfully credited as being a dynasty, it has been a rather spotty dynasty since. Belichick’s charges have made it to the Super Bowl once twice in the last nine years, losing both times to the Giants. It’s never wise to concede a division title to a team in the NFL, which seems to have at least one worst-to-first division story each year. But as long as Tom Brady is healthy and the current rules favoring potent aerial attacks are in place, it’s hard to see the young QBs elsewhere in the AFC East surpassing the Patriot icon.

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Moreover, let’s recall that the 2013 Pats were ripped by injuries on defense, yet still were able to finish 12-4 in the regular season and rout Indy 43-22 in the playoffs before losing in Denver. N.E. finished 26th in total defense and 30th in rush defense, as key cogs such as DT Vince Wilfork, DT Tommy Kelly, and ILB Jerod Mayo were felled. As frequently happens in the NFL, however, younger players developed, including DE Chandler Jones (11½ sacks), LB Dont’a Hightower (97 Ts), LB Jamie Collins, CB Logan Ryan (5 ints.), and S Duron Harmon. By and by, the younger players were blending well with stalwarts such as DB Devin McCourty (a big plus after converting from CB to S), and DE Rob Ninkovich.

After free agency cost Belichick physical CB Aqib Talib (no solid citizen for sure, and also bothered by frequent injuries) in the offseason, the head coach was quick to fill in with former Jet & Buc cover CB Darrelle Revis, plus ultra-physical (6-4, 221) Brandon Browner, who not only lost his starting job in Seattle, but also faces a four-game NFL suspension to start the season. But, as pointed out above, the Pats have the postseason in mind. That point of view explains the team giving a shot to former New Orleans DE Will Smith (torn ACL last season) and the selection of previously-injured rookie DT Dominique Easley of Florida with the team’s top draft pick. With Brady (37) pushing 40, the window is starting to close a bit for Belichick & Company. However, going into training camp, the Pats boasted eight No. 1 draft choices and three No. 2s if the trainers can get them all healthy.

The key health issue on offense is--as usual--extra-dimension TE Rob Gronkowski, he of the 42 TDC in 50 regular-season games. However, forearm, back and knee injuries have cost Gronk 14 games in the last two seasons. This is to say nothing of last year’s loss of TE mate Aaron Hernandez to Crowbar Hotel. So much for Belichick’s well-liked, short-lived, perfectly-balanced, one-back, double-TE attack. And, while Danny Amendola (54 recs. LY) couldn’t stay healthy for much of the season in trying to replace the departed Wes Welker, Julian Edelman did, nabbing 105 Brady aerials. 2013 rookies Kenbrell Thompkins & Aaron Dobson showed promise with a combined 69 catches and 8 TDs. They’ll have to fight for playing time this year after N.E. added veteran Brandon LaFell, who had 49 recs. last year with Carolina. Brady will have abundant targets in 2014, especially if Gronkowski and Amendola can reach the playoffs healthy.

Rugged RB LeGarrette Blount (772 YR, 5.0 ypc), who became a burly force late last season, has departed for Pittsburgh. But Belichick has plenty of selection at the position in Stevan Ridley (2036 YR L2Ys, but 6 lost fumbles), speedy Shane Vereen, backup Brandon Bolden, and Wisconsin rookie James White. If 6-8, 320 RT Sebastian Vollmer is fully recovered from last year’s leg fracture, N.E. will again have one of the NFL’s steadiest offensive lines.

Summary...It seems that only an injury to Brady can keep the Pats from winning the East for the 12th time in 13 years. After that, check New England’s injury list to project how well the Pats will do in the playoffs.

NEW YORK JETS (2013 SUR 8-8; PSR 10-6; O/U 8-7-1)...In both 2009 and 2010, the Jets rather surprisingly advanced to the AFC title game with Mark Sanchez playing QB in the first and second year of his career. Even though Sanchez completed only about 54% each season, a conservative “ground and pound” offense and tight-covering defense were enough for boisterous HC Rex Ryan to guide his team to those considerable heights. Then the team began to regress. 2011 saw the N.Y. fall to 8-8, with Sanchez hitting 56.7%. 2012 saw a dip to 6-10, “lowlighted” by Sanchez’ infamous “butt fumble,” not to mention the distractions brought on by the large presence (but small performance) of Tim Tebow. After Sanchez suffered a major shoulder injury during a dubious fourth-quarter appearance in a 2013 preseason game, the Jets’ QB situation went from barely mediocre to even worse.

With West Virginia rookie Geno Smith being force-fed while appearing mostly overwhelmed, the 2013 Jets still finished 8-8. Smith, advancing very slowly along the QB learning curve, ended the season at 55.8%, with only 12 TDs, but with 21 ints. and 43 sacks. Because of some injuries, Smith went into several games surrounded by one of the weakest group of skill performers in recent NFL campaigns. Yet, there was that 8-8 record (10-6 vs. the spread) and 3046 passing yards for Smith by the end of the year. Over the last four games, Smith had 4 TDs and only 2 ints. as the Jets were 3-1 straight up.

Even though most of last year’s final statistical rankings on offense were ugly ( 31st passing, 29th in scoring, -14 in turnovers), there was still considerable evidence on the positive side (6th in rushing, 3rd in rush defense, 11th in total defense, 41 sacks). Word continues to emerge from New York’s camp of Smith’s greater confidence and competence. As the cliche' goes, the game is “slowing down” for him.

But even if Smith continues to struggle, there is more help for the offense this year. Speedy Chris Johnson from Tennessee joins a three-man rotation at RB with rugged Chris Ivory (833 YR in 2013) and the quicker Bilal Powell (697). Clever WR Eric Decker has been signed from Denver. The Jets’ deep draft yielded highly-productive pass-receiving TE Jace Amaro (106 recs. LY) from Texas Tech and three WRs (Jalen Saunders, Oklahoma; Shaq Evans, UCLA; Quincy Enuwa, Nebraska).

Then, of course, there is the arrival of Michael Vick from the Eagles. The 34-year-old QB has been saying all the right things about being a mentor to Smith. But Vick’s presence as a potent “relief pitcher,” goal-line threat, or possible starter gives Ryan a much better change-of-pace QB option than ever provided by Tebow.

With Ryan around, there is far less concern about the Jets’ defense. Ryan’s fondness for DE Muhammad Wilkerson (12½ sacks LY) and second-year DT Sheldon Richardson (a run stuffer who added 3½ sacks) runneth over. OLBs Calvin Pace & Quinton Coples combined for 14½ QB takedowns. LB David Harris (124 tackles) is a rock inside. Although the one-time stellar CB pair of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie is now long gone, 2013 top pick Dee Milliner emerged last December after a spotty start. Free agent CB Dmitri Patterson from Miami adds veteran steadiness. Top draft choice safety Calvin Pryor has impressed early (but also sustained a concussion), as has third-rounder CB Dexter McDougle.

Summary...While it might be a leap of faith to anticipate a major improvement by Geno Smith, it shouldn’t take much of an advance to boost the Jets’ offense from its 25th position of 2013. Free agency and a 12-player draft have bolstered the attack with experience, speed and depth. Michael Vick is an ever-present wildcard on a team whose coach has never shied away from issues at QB. The “Jets, Jets, Jets“ aren’t about to displace the Pats at the top of this division, but in fundamental football terms--running the ball, stopping the run, overall defense--New York should be able to out-distance the Bills and Dolphins. A run at an AFC wildcard spot will depend upon the success of the Smith/Vick QB spot.

BUFFALO (2013 SUR 6-10; PSR 8-8; O/U 10-6)....Even if it’s true that second-year HC Doug Marrone is assembling a fast-paced, speed-based young team for 2014, one can’t help but believe that the continuing jockeying for ownership of the team will be at least a minor distraction this season. Yes, it’s up to professional players to keep their minds on their business. But with the likes of Jon Bon Jovi, Donald Trump, and the Sabres’ Terry Pegula in the bidding, along with talk of a possible move of the franchise to Toronto (a three-hour drive from Buffalo), it would be no surprise to see a youthful team such as this year’s Bills fall victim to being distracted by the developments.

Thus, if for no other reason, it is difficult to anticipate Buffalo improving much from last season’s 6-10 SU mark, a record produced due partly to the Bills’ youth movement and partly due to key injuries. While rookie QB EJ Manuel often showed promise, injuries cost him six games, and parts of others. Journeyman QB Thad Lewis (2-3 SU) picked up five of the other starts, and rookie FA Jeff Tuel (0-1) of Washington State one. Nagging injuries to breakaway RB C.J. Spiller and WRs Stevie Johnson & Marquise Goodwin cost Marrone’s team much of the speed it had hoped to exploit in 2013. Because of the presence of Spiller and dependable veteran RB Fred Jackson, the Bills ended up second in the league in rushing. But Marrone’s hoped-for uptempo passing attack ended up 28th, while the overburdened rush defense also ended up 28th. And that was including the efforts of standout rookie MLB Kiko Alonso, who led the team with 159 tackles while collecting four interceptions.

This year, Alonso has already been lost to a torn ACL in June. And there appear to be other defensive concerns on a unit that was second in sacks with 57, but 20th in points allowed. Yes, the Bills were able to bring the heat, with the front four of Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Jerry Hughes combining for a righteous 42 QB takedowns itself. The pressure helped produce 23 interceptions, second only to Seattle’s 28 in 2013. So you can see why former Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz was eager to take over as the team’s new defensive coordinator.

However, let’s also recall that the frequent “wide-nine” pass-rush sets of Schwartz’ Lions teams regularly coughed up big plays in Detroit. Plus, there are early concerns in 2013. The powerful Dareus entered an NFL substance abuse program in July. Promising OLB Nigel Bradham is suspended the first game for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. New MLB Brandon Spikes was released by the Patriots after wearing out his welcome in N.E. Cover CB Leodis McKelvin has been slow to recover from offseason hip surgery. Former Pro Bowl S Jairus Byrd left the team for the promising playoff prospects in New Orleans. So, all is far from copacetic on defense.

For sure, the speedy young Bills will have their moments on offense. The draft yielded fourth overall pick Sammy Watkins, who has flashed the expected big-play ability. WR Goodwin has big-time velocity. Second-year WR Robert Woods of USC had 40 recs. as a rookie and can easily go up. Mike Williams from Tampa Bay is getting a second chance, while 6-7 TE Scott Chandler had 53 catches LY and is a valuable goal-line threat. There is the feeling that if Philly import Bryce Brown (314 YR in 2013 with the Eagles) can take over as the No. 1 RB, Spiller might prove very valuable on the trade market. Buffalo has weapons.

Will the Bills’ QBing and OL be up to the task of fully utilizing them? Only three teams allowed more sacks than the Bills last year. New starting G Chris Williams has never really impressed in either Chicago or St. Louis. Projected starting tackles Chris Hairston and Erik Pears will be challenged to hold onto their jobs vs. Seantrel Henderson (7th round) and Cyrus Kouandjio (2nd round). The 6-7, 330 Henderson—once considered the top high school recruit in the country--has never lived up to expectations. Both the young tackles were struggling in the preseason. In fact, the best OL prospect appears to be 6-5, 343 G Cyril Richardson, who is best as a run blocker.

While the bidding process for franchise ownership continues and beloved former QB Jim Kelly battles cancer, Buffalonians hope for the best. They are working on the NFL’s longest playoff drought, with the Bills ’ last appearance in 1999. Every other team in the NFL has been in the playoffs since the turn of the century.

Summary...Even with the presence of a lot of young burners on the team, the playoff drought seems likely to continue in Buffalo. QB EJ Manuel (11 TDs, 9 ints., 3 lost fumbles) must prove he is ready to take a significant step in his development. But, even as Manuel figures things out, the Bills’ East rivals all appear better-heeled on defense than the Bills, whose last playoff win was over Miami in the wildcard round of 1995, the last game with the Dolphins for Don Shula.

MIAMI (2013 SUR 8-8; PSR 9-7; O/U 7-9)...Joe Philbin is 15-17 in two seasons as head coach of the Dolphins, and he knows the pressure is on. Not just because owner Stephen Ross is used to success in his business enterprises. And not just because impatient Miami fans are fed up of being sick and tired of seeing New England win the AFC East (which the Pats have done 10 of the last 11 seasons). But also because Philbin--as head coach of the team--seemed far too oblivious to the goings on of his own team, which saw its once-promising 2013 season scuttled by the nasty, lingering, vulgar, bullying episode involving G Richie Incognito and T Jonathan Martin.

Now, both are gone, which gets right to one of the team’s biggest concerns for 2014--its offensive line. The Dolphins allowed a team-record 58 sacks last season, even though young QB Ryan Tannehill (60.4%, 3913 YP, 24 TDs, 17 ints., 6 lost fumbles; 238 YR) has been showing development and mobility while running the same Mike Sherman offense that Tannehill had learned while at Texas A&M.

Worse yet, C Mike Pouncey--the team’s best OLman, who was caught in the midst of the Incognito/Martin controversy due to some unwise comments--is likely to miss the start of the season following hip surgery in late June. Free agency has yielded a quality LT in Branden Albert from Kansas City, but the rest of the unit is far from consistent. After Pouncey was hurt, the Dolphins signed former Packer/Cardinal Daryn Colledge, but he is clearly on the downside of his career.

Meanwhile, the Lamar Williams/Daniel Thomas RB duo was not deemed scary enough to keep defenses off Tannehill’s back. Thus, Knowshon Moreno was signed in free agency from Denver. Although Moreno is a conscientious blocker and good receiver (60 catches LY), he will be hard-pressed to duplicate the 1038 YR he had last season in the Peyton Manning backfield behind the Bronco OL. Moreover, Moreno began camp in recovery mode following June knee surgery. Last year in free agency, Miami rushed to sign Steeler deep threat Mike Wallace. But frequent double teaming held the frustrated Wallace to 12.7 ypr on 73 catches (only 5 TDs). However, the presence of Wallace helped Brian Hartline lead the team in receiving with 76 catches for 1016 yards (but only 4 TDs).

Now, with Sherman ousted, HC Philbin has turned his offense over to Bill Lazor, who was the Eagles’ QB coach last season under Chip Kelly. With the team learning a new, fast-paced, Kelly-type attack, the offense has frequently been plagued by bad snaps, drops, poor pass protection, and turnovers (including multiple interceptions in training camp) during its offseason workouts. Considering the confluence of the new, uptempo scheme and the OL turnover (the unit is likely to have a new starter at every position for the season opener), it is difficult to envision the Dolphins improving much on 2013's struggling production of only 19.8 ppg and a 27th-place ranking in total offense.

That is too bad, as the Dolphin defense was on the verge of becoming one of the better units in the league last season. In just his second year, DE Olivier Vernon picked up 11½ sacks, providing lots of help to DE Cameron Wake, who had 8½. Quick DT Jared Odrick (4½) seems on the verge of making the Pro Bowl. The rush group might have had even more bite were it not for the four-game suspension enforced on 2013 top draft pick Dion Jordan for PED violations. CB Cortland Finnegan has been imported from the Rams to pair with veteran Brent Grimes, giving Miami a couple of the quickest DBs on the edge.

Summary...Top draft pick RT Ja’Wuan James of Tennessee has shown lots of promise, but his presence will likely have QB Tannehill on the run as James progresses along the OL learning curve. The Dolphin defense will continue to be Sharknado-tough. But continuing limitations afflicting the Miami attack will likely allow both the Bills and Jets to pass on by Miami in the annual futile chase of the Patriots.


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