With the preseason in the rearview mirror, we continue to gear up for the regular season with our division-by-division preview and divisional power rankings. Up today is the AFC East.
1. New England – Few teams are as anxious for the regular season to start as the Patriots after a tumultuous offseason. New England deserves to start the season atop the AFC East power rankings, but they should expect to be tested this season.
Tom Brady is still the quarterback, which is good news, but with Rob Gronkowski’s health in question and Aaron Hernandez behind bars, New England will have to rely on Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, and a group of unproven receivers to be their playmakers on offense. Unless a few younger players step up and become dependable receiving targets, Brady could be about to undertake one of the most challenging seasons of his career. New England’s defense is in good shape and should help out some, but after a poor 2012 season, the Patriot’s pass defense has a lot to prove heading into the season. Regardless, until someone knocks them off, the Patriots should be considered favorites to win the AFC East and be a leading candidate in the AFC to get to the Super Bowl.
2. Miami – Hopes are high in Miami this season, to the point of potentially being able to challenge the Patriots atop the division. The reason for the hope quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the belief that he will take a big step forward in his second NFL season. Signing free agent wide receiver Mike Wallace was a major addition to the offense and gives Tannehill a vertical threat to utilize down the field. But if the Dolphins are indeed going to challenge the Patriots in the division and challenge for a playoff spot, their defense is going to have to play an equal part in the team’s success. Miami’s secondary will have to improve upon its performance from last season, although the Dolphins have a good collection of pass rushers that should be able to help out, including top draft pick Dion Jordan. If Miami can make significant strides on both sides of the ball, which they’re expected to do, they should find themselves in the mix for a playoff spot, although taking the division away from the Patriots is something we’ll have to see to believe.
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3. Buffalo – There’s a new era in Buffalo with new head coach Doug Marrone and new quarterback E.J. Manuel, who the Bills surprisingly took in the first round of this year’s draft. Despite missing the final two games of the preseason, Manuel earned the starting spot by avoiding mistakes and taking care of the football, two things he’ll need to continue to do during the regular season. Buffalo has a good collection of young wide receivers to join Stevie Johnson, but Manuel and the Bills will rely mostly on running back C.J. Spiller to carry their offense. If Manuel plays well and avoids mistakes, Buffalo’s new hurry-up offense could start to work and the Bills may be able to put points on the board and surprise some people. However, the Bills do have some holes in their defense, especially on the back end, and if Buffalo can’t stop people it may not matter how good their offense is or how fast they move. If nothing else, the Bills should be able to stay ahead of the Jets this season, but other than that, there’s little guarantee of how good Buffalo will be this season.
4. New York Jets – All alone at the bottom of the AFC East are the Jets, who are by far the most dysfunctional franchise in the NFL. After Rex Ryan put Mark Sanchez in harm’s way in the 4th quarter of a meaningless preseason game, he has no choice but to start Geno Smith at quarterback. Smith proved in the preseason that he’s not ready to be a starter in the NFL, but that won’t stop the Jets from playing him and hoping that he proves himself competent enough to remain the starter by the time Sanchez is declared healthy enough to play. Perhaps equally as distressing as the mess at quarterback, is New York’s profound lack of playmakers, which won’t make the job any easier for Smith. With disaster written all over the offense, any chance the Jets have to be competitive and respectable in 2013 will have to come from the defense. The Jets won’t be able win many games this season unless the defense is able to keep games low scoring, but finding a way to do that on a consistent basis is too difficult to do in the NFL to think that Ryan and the Jets can pull it off. Since the offense can’t be relied upon to score a lot of points this season, the Jets shouldn’t be expected to win many games, which will put Ryan’s job in serious jeopardy.