With football season right around the corner, it's time to go and make predictions on how well each team will fare during the regular season. Today we take a look at the AFC East, a division where 10 of the last 11 seasons has seen the New England Patriots crowned as the division champions. Will New England reign supreme once again or will the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, or Miami Dolphins shock the NFL world this season? Let's take a look and make some predictions for the upcoming 2014 season.
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1.) New England Patriots. They will always be the favorites to win this division because of three key components. Head coach Bill Belichick, star quarterback Tom Brady and an excellent front office. New England did not have the best roster last year and had tons of injuries. Tight end Rob Gronkowski missed nine games last season due to injury and wide receiver Danny Amendola and cornerback Aqib Talib also missed portions of the season with injuries. Not to mention former tight end Aaron Hernandez was out of the picture due to being indicted on first degree murder charges back in 2013!
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All of the top receivers return for the 2014 campaign, including wide receiver Julian Edelman (105 catches, 1056 yards, 6TDs), Amendola (54 catches, 633 yards, 2TDs), wide receiver Aaron Dobson (37 catches, 519 yards, 4TDs) and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (32 catches, 466 yards, 4TDs). Running back Stevan Ridley returns to lead the Patriots rushing attack after he ran for 773 yards and seven touchdowns on 178 carries last season.
The defense was inconsistent last season and continues to be a work in progress. The unit ranked 18th against the pass (239 yards per game) and 30th against the run (134.1 yards per game). The defense will be led once again by nose tackle Vince Wilfork, defensive end Chandler Jones (team high 11.5 sacks last season), linebacker Rob Ninkovich (8 sacks last season), linebacker Jerod Mayo (55 total tackles), and cornerback Logan Ryan (team high 5 interceptions last season).
Big Questions: Several key players left the Patriots in free agency such as Talib, and running back Legarette Blount (153 carries, 772 yards, 7TDs). Meanwhile, New England failed to go after a number one receiver. Even though the Patriots overachieved last season and made it to the AFC Championship game, is this a team that can win a Super Bowl before the looming day that Brady calls it quits?
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Bottom Line: This is the New England Patriots we are talking about! Brady is one of only a few quarterbacks that can succeed with anyone who surrounds him on offense and makes those players better. Belichick is arguably the best coach in the league and knows how to handle his players.
The Patriots acquired cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the offseason and they will be more than enough to replace the loss of Talib.
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Prediction: (11-5). The other teams in the AFC East still haven't caught up to New England yet and with early games against Buffalo, the Minnesota Vikings and the Oakland Raiders, the Patriots have a great chance to get off to a fast start once again.
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2.) New York Jets:It's hard to believe that this will be the sixth season where Rex Ryan has been the head coach for the New York Jets. It's been a roller-coaster ride, to say the least, as Ryan currently has a 42-38 record over five seasons. When former quarterback Mark Sanchez injured his shoulder in the preseason, the team's chances at success in 2013 looked lost. But with a great defense and a rookie quarterback in Geno Smith, the Jets were able to surprise many NFL fans in turning out an 8-8 season.
New York's rushing game was pretty great last season finishing sixth in the NFL with an average of just under 135 yards per game, but the passing game struggled and finished second to last (31st) with an average of 183.3 yards per game. Geno Smith had a rough rookie season where he threw for 3,046 yards, but also 21 interceptions compared to just 12 touchdown passes. He also only had a 55.8 completion percentage in 2013. However, Smith also ran for 366 yards and six touchdowns last season. Leading the rushing attack were running backs Chris Ivory (182 carries, 833 yards, 3TDs) and Bilal Powell (176 carries, 697 yards, 1TD).
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New York's defense was also a mixed bag last season, finishing 22nd against the pass (246.7 yards per game), but an impressive third against the run (88.3 yards per game). Defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson had a phenomenal rookie season, where he clogged up numerous running lanes and finished with 10.5 sacks. Defensive end Calvin Pace added ten sacks of his own and linebacker David Harris led the Jets with 70 tackles. Cornerbacks Dee Milliner and Antonio Cromartie, as well as safety Ed Reed, each had three interceptions lasts season.
Big Questions: Will Geno Smith improve in his second season with the Jets? He finished last season out strong and has veteran quarterback Michael Vick as his back-up to provide more competition this pre-season. Also, can the secondary improve enough to make the Jets' defense one of the best in the NFL?
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Bottom Line: Rex Ryan's teams have always been based around running the ball and stopping the run. They did a great job with both last season. On offense, both Ivory and Powell return in the running game AND the Jets added running back Chris Johnson in free agency. Johnson has run for almost 8,000 yards in his career thus far and ran for 1,077 yards and six touchdowns last season with the Tennessee Titans. The combination of these three running backs will make Smith's job a lot easier at running this offense.
New York also added wide receiver Eric Decker from the Denver Broncos in free agency. Decker becomes a true number one receiving threat for the Jets after he caught 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Yes, Decker is catching passes from Geno Smith this year and not Peyton Manning, but having him in the passing game will again help Smith's development as an NFL quarterback. On defense, the front seven looks loaded again for a great season. With Cromartie and Reed leaving in free agency though, it'll be up to cornerback Dimitri Patterson to help Milliner in the secondary.
Prediction: (9-7). New York has a very tough start to the season with games games against the Green Bay Packers, San Diego Chargers, Patriots and Broncos all within the first half of the season. IF they survive this stretch with a .500 record, the latter half of their schedule allows them to make a run with games against the Bills, Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings. The running game and defense will be the Jets strengths once again this season and if Smith improves as a quarterback, they could be a dark horse team in the AFC.
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3.) Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins were the epitome of an inconsistent team last season as they started 2013 with three straight victories, which would then lead to four straight losses and two straight losses at the end of the season to drop their overall record to 8-8, even though they had a chance at a playoff berth. Miami had plenty of distractions last season, most notably the bullying drama between offensive lineman Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. It seemed that head coach Joe Philben struggled with providing leadership within the locker room.
As far as on the field, the Dolphins offense struggled in 2013. They were just 20th in passing (222.9 yards per game) and 26th in rushing (90 yards per game). Despite an inconsistent season, quarterback Ryan Tannehill seemed to be making progress in his second year in the NFL. He threw for 3,913 yards and 24 touchdown passes, compared to 17 interceptions. Running backs Lamar Miller (177 carries, 709 yards, 2TDs) and Daniel Thomas (109 carries, 406 yards, 4TDs) led an overall weak Miami Dolphins rushing attack last season.
Miami did have several standout receivers including wide receiver Brian Hartline (76 catches, 1,016 yards, 4TDs), wide receiver Mike Wallace (73 catches, 930 yards, 5TDs) and tight end Charles Clay (69 catches, 759 yards, 6TDs).
Miami's defense was also pretty mediocre last season finishing 16th against the pass (234.5 yards per game) and 24th against the run (124.9 yards per game). Defensive ends Oliver Vernon and Cameron Wake combines for almost 20 sacks last season and cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Nolan Carroll combined for seven interceptions.
Big Questions: This could be a year for Tannehill. Can he prove that he is Miami's franchise quarterback for the present and the future by leading them to a winning season and possibly a playoff berth? And do they simply have enough talent on both sides of the field to challenge the Patriots and Jets in the AFC East?
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Bottom Line: With Incognito and Martin both gone, Miami can focus all of their attention towards the field this season. The Dolphins added running back Knowshon Moreno in free agency and he ran for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns last season in Denver. The defense added cornerback Courtland Finnegan and safety Louis Delmas in the offseason as well. Tannehill has plenty of weapons now to work with in the passing game and take the next step at becoming a top quarterback in the NFL.
Prediction: (8-8). The Dolphins are ranked below the Jets for me because I think their defense has the potential to be much better than Miami's and if the two teams played head-to-head, I think the Jets are the better team. That can definitely change. Early games against Buffalo, the Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars will help their chances at getting off to a solid start.
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4.) Buffalo Bills: The last time the Buffalo Bills made the playoffs was back in 1999! That misfortune did not change last season as the Bills finished with a 6-10 record and a last place finish in the AFC East. The Bills rushing attack was fantastic last season finishing second in the NFL, with an average of 144.2 yards, but were just 28th in passing, with an average of 193.9 yards per game. Buffalo was forced to use multiple quarterbacks last season due to rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel suffering numerous injuries. In ten games played in 2013, Manuel threw for 1,972 yards and 11 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. He also ran for 186 yards and three touchdowns, but had three fumbles.
The big bright spot for the Bills offense in 2013 were their two running backs C.J. Spiller (202 carries, 933 yards, 2TDs) and Fred Jackson (206 carries, 890 yards, 9TDs). They have been a terrific thunder-lightning combination for the Bills the last few seasons.
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Buffalo's defense also had mixed results last season. They were an impressive fourth against the pass (204.4 yards per game), but 28th against the run (128.9 yards per game). Safeties Aaron Williams, Jairus Bryd and Jim Leonhard each also had four interceptions last season. Defensive lineman Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes and Kyle Williams combined for an impressive 33.5 sacks in 2013.
Big Questions: Can Manuel stay healthy for a whole season and be the franchise quarterback that the Bills desperately need? The injuries that kept him out of six games in 2013 limited Manuel's growth at the quarterback position and as a passer. Also, with all of the talent on the defensive line (Mario and Kyle Williams, Hughes, Marcell Dareus), shouldn't they be posting up better stats and numbers of defending the run? The Bills have one of the more talented defensive lines in the game and it's surprisingly been their secondary that has been the strength of this unit.
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Watkins had an incredible year at Clemson last season with 101 catches for 1,484 yards and 12 touchdowns. He obviously has the talent, but he's already been fighting through several injuries to his ribs during the preseason. If he and Manuel stay healthy, the running attack of Spiller and Jackson makes Buffalo's offense much more formidable.
The Bills lost Byrd in free agency, but were able to pick up linebacker Brandon Spikes, which should help Buffalo create even more of a pass rush against opponent's passing games.
Prediction: (5-11). Manuel and Watkins need to show me that they can stay healthy for an entire season. The first four games will determine how the Bills season will go. Road games against the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans, as well as home games against Miami and San Diego could put Buffalo in an early 0-4 hole. If they play well during those games, then they will exceed my expectations, but I don't see it happening. Maybe if Jon Bon Jovi becomes the majority owner of the Bills, the fans will get a free Bon Jovi concert after a home game this season!
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Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments below!