TGS 2018 NFL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE AFC EAST
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
We begin our TGS NFL division previews with a look at the AFC East. As always, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with 2017 straight-up, spread, and "Over/Under" (O/U) records included.
Quite a case study, these New England Patriots (2017 SUR 15-4; PSR 12-6; O/U 9-10), who have managed to stay at or near the top since 2001. Such extended periods of dominance are not necessarily unique in NFL annals; the initial run of glory years for the Cowboys lasted from 1966 into the early ‘80s, while the 49ers stayed a title contender basically from 1981 into the new millennium. (Dallas, however, won just two of its five Super Bowls in the Tom Landry era.) But maybe the most famous glory era of all, Vince Lombardi’s Packers, lasted only from 1960-67 (counting the NFL title loss year vs. the Eagles in '60). The difference between the Pack and others was that they jammed five titles into a seven-season span; the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady Patriots have won five Super Bowls, too, but it took them a 16-season span to do it. Though having two central figures involved for as long as Belichick and Brady is rare; remember that Roger Staubach’s run as the Dallas starter at QB lasted from roughly mid 1971 thru ‘79, and Joe Montana’s heyday with the 49ers lasted only a decade. John Elway won two Super Bowls in his 16-season run in Denver, but with multiple head coaches and some years when the Broncos were not serious contenders. Not the case with the Pats.
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Still, New England remains highly relevant, and a look at one the Patriots’ recent Super Bowl foes, Seattle, illustrates how unique this modern-day situation is in Foxborough. When Pete Carroll’s Seahawks really burst upon the scene in 2012, it looked like it could be a decade-long dynasty. And Seattle was plenty good for about five seasons, winning the “Supe” once and its own fault for not winning another. But salary cap considerations started to eat away at the core of the operation that was admittedly able to benefit a few years from Russell Wilson’s rookie contract. Several holdouts and trades would eventually ensue, and the potential Seahawk dynasty is done, having lasted about as long as the Jimmy Johnson/Barry Switzer Cowboys of the ‘90s, though with two fewer Super Bowl wins. Compare to New England, as Bill Belichick and the front office have remarkably kept the operation fresh, with no player truly indispensable other than Brady, who has helped by willing to work at less than top market dollar. Belichick has also rarely been held hostage by salary demands and has been able to shuffle the proper personnel in and out of Gillette Stadium without skipping a beat. Ask Pete Carroll how easy that might be.
Helping, too, has been a generally feckless AFC, especially the East, in which no entry has been able to sustain a challenge since the New England era of dominance began. Indeed, Belichick and Brady have rarely been tested in their own division. The only AFC entries that have been able to repel Brady and Belichick are three Denver teams (2005, 2013, and 2015) that beat the Patriots in the playoffs at Invesco/Sports Authority/Mile High, and two John Harbaugh Ravens teams that won in playoff upsets at Foxborough. Peyton Manning’s 2006 Super Bowl Indy side squeezed past New England in the AFC title game, and the Rex Ryan Jets pulled an upset in 2010. The most sustained challenger in the AFC, Pittsburgh, has also been consistently outflanked by Belichick, also whenever a playoff matchup arises, the latest in the 2016 AFC title game. One gets the feeling Mike Tomlin might never get over the hump against Belichick.
Is anything really different this fall? There was a bit more gyration in Foxborough than past offseasons, all following that bitter Super Bowl loss to the Eagles; Brady and Rob Gronkowski skipped voluntary OTAs amid speculation that things might be amiss, especially in the case of Gronk, who hinted at retirement after LII. The 41-year-old Brady never suggested as much but seemed to be a bit more reluctant to commit to playing until age 45, per various previous reports. They would both eventually show up, but it didn’t quite look or feel like business as usual. Productive slot receiver Julian Edelman was hit with a 4-game suspension to start the season. Along with Danny Amendola signing with the Dolphins and Brandin Cooks traded to the Rams, the receiving corps will have a different look. Belichick had to move quick to replace LT Nate Solder, who moved to the Giants, and nabbed Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn in the draft after trading for 380-lb. LT Trent Brown from the 49ers. Another Georgia Bulldog, RB Sony Michel, could prove a second-round steal as he effectively replaces Dion Lewis, now with the Titans. (Michel dealing with minor knee issue in preseason.) Jordan Matthews, a once-productive slot receiver, was signed from the Bills. Importantly, Josh McDaniels provides needed continuity as o.c. after doing a 180 on an expected move to be HC of the Colts. On the surface, the “D” leaked last season (29th in yards allowed), but look closer and note the more-important 5th ranking in points allowed. The departure of d.c. Matt Patricia to the Lions is not considered a major deal, as this is still and will always be Belichick’s stop unit.
Maybe the AFC has some contenders to offer a more-serious challenge this season, but they don’t appear to be from the East. So another cruise into the playoffs seems a safe assumption, and do we really want to recommend against Brady and Belichick making it to another Supe?
Spread-wise, Belichick is on his best-ever 2-year run, with a 28-10 mark vs. the line since 2016. Most impressive might be an 11-4 visiting chalk mark that span. If there has been one banana peel during the regular season, it’s been at Miami, where, believe it or not, Belichick has lost SU in 4 of his last 5 trips, and has covered just one of his last 6 at Hard Rock Stadium.
There is a popular assumption in South Florida, but maybe nowhere else, that the dip of the Miami Dolphins (2017 SUR 6-10; PSR 5-9-2; O/U 8-8) in their second year of the Adam Gase era, after making a surprise trip to the playoffs in 2016, was mostly due to the absence of QB Ryan Tannehill, who tore an ACL in training camp and enters 2018 having missed 20 games in a row (he was also hurt in late 2016). Signed as an emergency stop-gap, Jay Cutler was predictably inconsistent and would end up taking much of the blame for the lackluster 6-10 SU mark. But all of that is giving too much credit, we believe, to Tannehill, who’s just 37-40 SU in his career as an NFL starter. Besides, the final Miami playoff push the previous year was piloted not by Ryan T, but by backup QB Matt Moore, who won a key game at Buffalo, something Tannehill has never been able to do. So, Tannehill enters this fall in the last year of his contract, curiously still yet to really convince anyone that he should be the franchise QB. Though, more curious still, Miami did not opt to draft a QB, instead only adding Brock Osweiler from Denver as this year’s insurance (longtime backup Moore had yet to sign into August). From the looks of things, if Tannehill doesn’t pan out this season, the Dolphins likely cut ties and seek a stop-gap in free agency for 2019 to temporarily solve a QB dilemma that has been a riddle since the retirement of Dan Marino after 1998.
Beyond Tannehill apparently being ready to play for the first time since the second half of the 2016 season, Year Three of the Gase era has brought a few not-so-subtle changes, including a new o.c,. Dowell Loggains, most recently with the Bears where he served with Gase and John Fox and in fact succeeded Gase as the o.c. after Adam moved to Miami. The offense that Loggains will coordinate has some new personnel, too, with WR Jarvis Landry and C Mike Pouncey out, and the likes of WR Danny Amendola, RB Frank Gore, C Daniel Kilgore, G John Sitton, and WR Albert Wilson in. Second-round draft pick TE Mike Gesicki from Penn State will be a rookie to watch. As for the ageless Gore, he will compete with Kenyan Drake, a revelation late in 2017 (following the Jay Ajayi trade to Philly) who gained 644 YR, all but three of those in the last ten weeks of the season. But Tannehill has little experience with any of his skill-position weapons save WR DeVante Parker, who caught 57 passes last fall and, like Tannehill, a bit short of expectations who might also be running out of time to make his mark in Miami. The forward wall remains in flux, with the aforementioned new faces, and waiting for 3rd-year LT Laremy Tunsil to exhibit projected Pro Bowl form (as of yet, he hasn’t).
The change theme is a bit less pronounced on defense, though the departure of ornery DT Ndamukong Suh to the Rams leaves a gap in the middle. Adding DE Robert Quinn from the Rams and DT Akeem Spence from the Lions, however, might actually fortify the line. Yet the LB corps is a mystery, with last year’s 2nd-round pick, MLB Reakwon McMillan from Ohio State, having missed all of his rookie season with a knee injury, and another Buckeye, 3rd-round pick Jerome Baker, now penciled in aside him. Due to that inexperience, there are questions whether the front seven can deliver. First-round draftee S Minkah Fitzpatrick was a big-play machine at Alabama and joins what might be the strength of the stop unit, as all starters return in the secondary.
In conclusion we are simply looking at which team to put into second place in the East; at the moment it’s a weak vote at best for the Dolphins, though we have enough respect for Gase to believe if all falls right, they could contend for their second wild card in three seasons. More changes to come in 2019 if they don’t.
Spread-wise, given the difficulties of last season, “Gase II” faltered (5-9-2) as expected, and Adam has not been able to improve what has been a disastrous home chalk mark for the past decade. To wit: Gase is only 1-3-2 vs. the line as a Hard Rock Stadium favorite, consistent with the 11-26 mark in the same role with various predecessors from 2007-15.
In the end, the Buffalo Bills (2017 SUR 9-8; PSR 10-6-01; O/U 8-9) ended a playoff drought last season that extended back to the 20th century, thus transferring to the Seattle Mariners the ignominious distinction as the North American pro sports league team with the longest gap between playoff appearances. The Bills, however, almost got there by default last Dec. 31, needing Baltimore to allow Cincy’s Andy Dalton to drive almost the length of the field in the final minute to knock the Ravens out of the playoffs and put Buffalo in. The Bills, however, were not to be confused with the Patriots, allowing a combined 101 points in back-to-back games at midseason vs. the Saints and Chargers, and in the end beating only one foe with a winning record, fading Kansas City, on November 26. Yet some team had to be the last AFC wild card; it might as well have been the 9-7 Bills, who were long overdue such a break!
Now, HC Sean McDermott, hired before last season off of the Carolina staff, has a career percentage of 1.000 getting to the playoffs. But, realistically, Buffalo often looked to be doing it with mirrors last fall, ranking 29th in total offense and 26th in total defense, and in truth not much more of a Super Bowl threat than the Jets or Giants. All confirmed by the early playoff exit at Jacksonville that might have set postseason football back a couple of decades (let’s just say that 10-3 Jags win was no artistic masterpiece). After the season, the Bills didn’t act much like a team that had arrived, either, with players coming and going like passengers at the Buffalo Greyhound terminal. One of those sent out was QB Tyrod Taylor (which had been rumored for a couple of seasons) to the football Siberia of Cleveland, then moving up to draft an heir apparent QB (Josh Allen from Wyoming) in the first round, and changing offensive coordinators, with Brian Daboll lifted from Nick Saban’s Alabama staff and authorized to install a more-aggressive playbook.
The drafting of Allen, a QB we thought might have been the best in this draft, especially considering the horse-and-buggy offense he was directing at Wyo, was more for down-the-road. Holdover Nathan Peterman, who reportedly has rallied from a slow start in training camp, and former Bengal AJ McCarron, signed in free agency, will likely battle it out thru preseason to win the job for the Sept. 9 opener at Baltimore. The early favorite is McCarron, who got tired of waiting for his chance behind Andy Dalton in Cincy, only to land in a locale that would soon after draft a franchise QB. McCarron could prove a $10 million bargain in 2018; Allen might take over late in the season if the Bills are out of playoff contention, but his target date is probably 2019 and beyond. The offense still likely flows thru RB Shady McCoy (1138 YR LY), though most of the OL that helped Buffalo lead the NFL in rushing during 2015-16 is gone. McCoy was also the leading receiver with 59 catches last year. It is hoped a full season from ex-Panther WR Kelvin Benjamin (added midway in 2017 and a storyline in camp with his "critique" of his former QB Cam Newton at Carolina) could boost an aerial game that could use some help after ranking 2nd-to-last a season ago.
Bills GM Brandon Beane did not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that his defense needed more push from the pass rush or else risk backsliding this fall after DE Jerry Hughes was the only player up front last season to generate above-average pressure. Beane thus signed DE Trent Murphy from the Redskins and DT Star Lotulelei, one of the best interior pass rushers in the league, from the Panthers in hopes of bolstering the push up front. Speaking of bolstering, Buffalo’s second pick in the first round, well-regarded Tremaine Edmunds from Virginia Tech, could move immediately into the MLB spot, and the secondary was a revelation in 2017, energized by last year’s pair of FA safeties, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Rookie CB Tre’Davious White from LSU made a similar impact to the Saints’ Ohio State rookie, Marshon Lattimore, who got the majority of the rookie ink.
In conclusion, we don’t think the Bills are really any closer to the Super Bowl than last season. But we have long thought McCarron to be underrated and might serve as more than simply a bridge to Josh Allen, who if all goes well won’t have to carry the load until sometime down the road. The playoff berth last season was more a matter of the NFL roulette wheel finally landing on Buffalo, but the Bills should remain competitive this fall and with a break or two could end up back in the postseason mix.
Spread-wise, the Bills played in streaks for McDermott, dropping only one of their first seven vs. the line, then losing 4 of 5 vs. the number before a December rally to reach the playoffs (with a small thanks to the Bengals). McDermott was also 4-0-1 as home chalk, upping the Buffalo mark to 9-3-1 in that role since 2015.
Usually, a 5-11 season isn’t anything to shout about. But when a lot of people were forecasting 0-16, those five wins seem like a job well done. Meet the New York Jets (2017 SUR -11; PSR 8-6-2; O/U 8-8), who at this time a year ago seemed more likely to finish winless than the Browns. But HC Todd Bowles got a lot better effort from his troops than the previous year when a more highly-regarded bunch of Jets also came home at 5-11. Still, at just 20-28 thru three seasons and without a playoff berth, the clock is ticking in Bowles and GM Mike Maccagnan, who were both extended after 2016. A third straight 5-11 record might not get Jets fans to pull out the grocery bags to put over their heads at the Meadowlands, but CEO Chris Johnson, the temporary owner of the team while brother Woody serves as Donald Trump’s Ambassador to the UK, will likely call a family meeting to discuss the future of each if there isn’t some upgrade this fall.
An interpretation of such, however, could be broad, as at some point in 2018, the reins might be handed over to Southern Cal rookie QB Sam Darnold, the third overall pick in the draft who has longtime Jets fans dreaming of a return to the Joe Namath days. Of course, they were once saying the same things about Richard Todd and Ken O’Brien, but Darnold has one important fan, none other than Jets CEO Johnson, who believes Darnold’s addition will signal a change in course for the franchise, which hasn’t been to a Super Bowl since Namath shocked the Colts in January of 1969. “I think people are going to look back 20 years from now and say that this is the moment (the drafting of Darnold) that the Jets shifted into a new gear and became a great team," said C. Johnson. If you’re Darnold, it’s nice to have the boss in your corner.
Still, if the Jets do much this season, it will probably be with 39-year-old journeyman QB Josh McCown, who was more than serviceable and might have enjoyed his best season, tossing 18 TDs and just 9 picks, until going down with a broken hand at Denver on December 10. McCown, working on a one-year deal, is solely around as a bridge to Darnold, and the thought is that if the rookie takes over sometime this fall, it might be after the season has gotten away from the Jets, and Darnold likely to slide into the job late in his rookie season as Eli Manning did with the Giants 14 years ago. There is also ex-Viking Teddy Bridgewater, a wild card in the mix trying to fashion a comeback after a gruesome knee injury at the end of the 2016 preseason. Bridgewater will likely get a nice audition in preseason, with the thought that he (or McCown) could also be trade bait if any team is in need of emergency QB help between now and September. Meanwhile, Jeremy Bates has been promoted to the o.c. spot after serving as QB coach last season.
Elsewhere on offense, 10-year RB Matt Forte is out of the picture, with ex-Brown Isaiah Crowell likely battling with holdovers Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire for carries. Ex-Seahawk Jermaine Kearse and Robby Anderson (who might be looking at a one or two-game early-season suspension) both caught 60+ passes last season and were serviceable targets. Vet C Spencer Long was added in free agency from the Redskins, though the forward wall must improve on the 47 sacks allowed last fall. PK Cairo Santos, with three teams last season, likely takes place of Chandler Catanzaro, who signed with the Bucs. But this does not look like an offense able to outscore too many foes.
Bowles, a defensive specialist, also has his work cut out on the stop end, first coaxing a bit more out of once-touted DE Leonard Williams (only two sacks last fall) and looking to fill the other DE spot after Muhammad Wilkerson (who also disappointed last season) moved to Green Bay. Adding ILB Avery Williamson as a FA from the Titans could turn out to be good business after he recorded 92 tackles for Tennessee last fall, though in truth he probably only makes up for tackles lost from Demario Davis, who moved to the Saints. A leaky secondary that allowed a hefty 30 TDP made a splurge in free agency to sign ex-Ram Trumaine Johnson, a potential shutdown cornerback. If Johnson delivers, the pass defense should hold its own as long as second-year safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye continue to progress from their promising rookie seasons.
While Bowles in fact might be doing well again this term to get to another 5-11, and the fault for an organizational downturn is not solely on him, we suspect he‘ll have to produce something better to survive after this season, which also might go for GM Maccagnan. Whether either are the going to be around to steer the Jets into the Darnold era from 2019 and beyond remains to be seen.
Spread-wise, Bowles has held his own the past three campaigns, and the Jets were a not-so-bad 8-6-2 vs. the line a year ago. The breakdown last term, however, was very home-road; in 2017, Bowles was 6-1-1 as a host but only 2-5-1 vs. the line as a visitor. The Jets also only won once just SU away from MetLife Stadium last season.
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