For more years than the other three teams care to remember, the New England Patriots have dominated the AFC East Division. In addition to being a Super Bowl contender on a yearly basis, the Patriots have owned their division, usually with a significant gap between them and the other three teams. But all reigns have to come to an end at some point, and there are reasons to believe that New England’s might finally come to an end in 2013.
If there’s one team that has a chance to challenge the Patriots this season, it’s the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins were a distant second place in the East Division last year with a 7-9 record, but they’re hopeful that quarterback Ryan Tannehill can make significant strides in his second NFL season and thrust Miami into the playoff picture. Tannehill had some rough moments last season, but he also showed plenty of promise, and with a year of experience under his belt, he could start to fulfill his potential in year two. After losing four games last season by five points or less, Miami believes that improvement out of Tannehill can mean a big difference in the standings.
Not only do the Dolphins have a chance to make a significant improvement at the quarterback position in 2013, but they also had one of the most productive off-seasons in the NFL with an emphasis on giving Tannehill plenty of help around him. The free agent signings of Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson gives Miami a strong trio of wide receivers, which includes last year’s leading receiver Brian Hartline. Miami also upgraded at tight end with free agent Dustin Keller and rookie Dion Sims. Between the natural progression and development Tannehill is expected to make in his second season and the strong contingent of receivers Miami is surrounding him with, the Dolphins could have the caliber of offense in 2013 to compete with the Patriots.
Miami’s improvement alone might not be enough to take the division away from New England, but after the offseason they’ve had, the Patriots are in rough shape heading into the season. Tom Brady is still the quarterback, but his supporting cast is not what it’s been in the past. If Rob Gronkowski isn’t healthy by the start of the season, the Patriots will be without their top five receivers from last year, which will make them far too reliant on new acquisition Danny Amendola, unproven rookies and a collection of mediocre veterans. Brady can do a lot, but without a solid group of skill players around him, especially ones he’s familiar with, there’s a limit to how good New England’s offense can be, which could be a problem with a defense that they can’t always depend on.
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Not only does New England look like a team that will take a step back on the field, but they’ve also had to deal with serious issues off the field that could serve as a distraction. The Aaron Hernandez situation has been a huge black cloud over the entire organization despite their efforts to distance themselves from him, and the arrest of Alfonzo Dennard so close to training camp doesn’t help either.
The “Patriot’s way” has worked for a long time, but there are signs that it’s starting to fall apart. The problems New England has on and off the field this offseason, and the improvement the Dolphins are projected to have could create the perfect storm for Miami to challenge New England atop the AFC East. The Patriots will begin the season as the favorite, but the gap between them and the next best team in the division isn’t as big as it usually is. If New England plays to their potential, they should win the division yet again, but if they falter, Miami has the potential to end their reign as kings of the AFC East.