|Connelly’s Top Ten: Patriots Win By Less Than a FOOT||Panic Mode in Full Effect, Minutemen are Struggling||Patriots Survive Gritty Challenge From Jets||Smart Era Gets Off to a Good Start with Win over T’wolves|
For most of the past decade, The New England Patriots have been the dominate force in the AFC East. With seven of the last ten championships under their belt, they were always top dog. However, in the past few months, the Jets and Dolphins have gotten much better.
So, could New England be in trouble this year?
There are very little who think they will be worse then the Bills, but a third place finish is definitely a possibility. Miami and New York have positioned themselves to make their own run at the AFC East crown, and New England could be a speed bump in their path.
Last season, the Jets shocked the world. After a 9-7 season, they went into the playoffs with the expectations to actually contend. On the road, they plowed through Cincinnati and San Diego before getting taken out by the Colts in the AFC Championship. Rex Ryan has proven to be one hell of a coach and now he has more toys to play with.
The main question for the Jets is their running back situation. Thomas Jones had another strong year, but seemed to be under-appreciated and was basically replaced by Tomlinson. Now, LT might be the No. 1 back with Shonn Green and rookie Joe McKnight right behind him. The Jets still have Mark Sanchez, who showed signs of greatness last season. He still had his issues, but taking a team to the AFC Championship is no small task. New York might have missed out on Brandon Marshall, but adding Santonio Holmes can spread the field and take pressure off Braylon Edwards, who played like a Pro Bowler since coming over from the Browns.
The best defensive team last year, the Jets have improved. Antonio Cromartie might have some off-the-field issues, but should Rex get him to buy into the Jets system, he will be an upgrade over Kerry Rhodes. Jason Taylor will be able to roam with the linebackers and could be a better version of what the Patriots have with Tully Banta-Cain. Also, the drafting of Boise State corner back Kyle Wilson was a smart move and could pay dividends by having him learn from Darrelle Revis.
The Jets were scary good last year and have only gotten better. Should Mark Sanchez continue to grow as a quarterback, the Jets will be looking to improve on last year and be Super Bowl-bound.
The Dolphins made two big changes last season. First, Land Shark Stadium was renamed the Sun Life Stadium. The second, Chad Pennignton went down and Chad Henne was there to finish the season. They were the reigning AFC East champions, but struggled out of the gate losing their first three. From there, they made a small push to get into near playoff position, but dropped the final three games, sealing their fate with a 7-9 record. Now they have Pennignton coming back, (maybe a third Comeback Player of the Year Award?) and have made two nice upgrades to give them a chance to compete in the 2010 season.
The Dolphins won the bidding war for Marshall, who is a game-changing receiver and someone who made Kyle Orton look like a Pro Bowl quarterback. His deceiving speed and fantastic hands are exactly what Miami has been missing. Almost instantly, he will make Greg Camarillo and Anthony Fasano better and give Chad Pennington a deep target he has not seen in a long time, if ever. The Fins still have Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, and Lex Hillard, who can all handle the ball if needed. Miami should have a balanced offense, depending if they can stay healthy.
Defensively, they should still play with the same mental toughness. An upgrade is Karlos Dansby over Joey Porter. There were times when Porter would keep talking and make his team back him up, something that didn’t always happen. Now, Miami has a leader who lets his game speak for itself. However, the loss of Jason Taylor might not be as easy to fill. He was the emotional leader and someone who carried that team through some hard years. If Miami-ans thought seeing a hairy European guy in a speedo was stomach wrenching, wait until the see Taylor is Jets-green.
Miami seems to have the pieces in place for a breakout season, similar to their 2008 campaign. The key will be making sure everyone stays healthy and egos don’t get in the way. Tony Sporano needs to make it clear to Marshall that it’s going to take a team effort to win the East. If Marshall cooperates, then watch out for Miami.
During the 50th year celebration of the AFL, The Patriots went 10-6 and took the AFC East crown. Tom Brady looked like a top five quarterback returning after missing practically the whole 2009 season with an ACL tear. Now, New England will have to go through it all over again. Wes Welker is likely out for the majority of the regular season. An MCL/ACL tear was the worst thing that could have happened for the shifty receiver, and it pretty much puts a giant hole in the offense. For lack of a better word, the defense sucks and couldn’t stop The Ravens in the playoffs when everyone knew they were just going to run the ball. All good things must come to an end, and the era of New England dominance in the AFC East might be on it’s last leg. (sorry for the bad joke, Welker.)
Sometimes you have to wonder if Bill Belichick still has it. There was much hope for Thomas, but was released for lack of production in New England. One of the team’s best receivers, Ben Watson, was basically let go, as the team allowed him to sign with the Browns uncontested. Then, with the chance to grab the best wide receiver in the draft, Belichick continued to trade down on two separate occasions to grab a glorified special team player. (I apologize Devin McCourty, but that is all I see in your future.) If New England falls to the bottom of the AFC East, there is only one person to blame.
Still, the Patriots do have Tom Brady. Torry Holt did have an alright season in Jacksonville, only no one saw it cause their games were blacked out. If Randy Moss can return to playing like Randy Moss, then maybe the season isn’t a loss. New England also picked up tight end in the draft, Rob Gronkowski, who many feel has great potential, if he can fully recover from an injury in college. What New England really needs is the resurgence of Laurence Maroney and the running game. For New England to have a chance, the group of Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Sammy Morris needs to have a combined stellar season.
On the defense, the re-signing of Vince Wilfork was a must, and perhaps a happy Vince will give a great performance. Should the signing of Gerard Warren, a former third overall selection, return to his potential, then the defensive line could be formidable. The linebackers, meanwhile, are still hurting. Jerod Mayo and Tully Banta-Cain will carry the load, but guys like rookie Brandon Spikes might be thrown to the wolves and contribute right away. Finally, the secondary was alright last season, but The Brandons (McGowan and Meriweather) need to establish a steady backfield with Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler, Patrick Chung, and Shawn Springs. By the time the preseason rolls around, we will get a better idea to how the defense will evolve.
I originally thought people drank all the time in Buffalo to keep warm. I think the Bills have as much to do with the drinking.
There is no certainty in the AFC East. The Jets appear to be the top dog, but New England and Miami are keeping pace. As for Buffalo, it seems another long year is likely. The Patriots have the pieces to continue their run and perhaps a second straight championship, but nothing is written in stone. There is still a long way to go in the off-season and each team will continue to make moves to get themselves in the best position for the postseason.