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Predicting the 2012 NFL Season: the AFC East

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bill-swift - September 9, 2012

The 2012 NFL season is finally here! Enough of the OTA reports, off-season trade rumors, training camp, and rumors about who may be interested in Terrell Owens and Plaxico Burress (come on--no one is!).

What there never's enough of are preseason predictions, and with there still time left before the season really gets going on Sunday I've rubbed the crystal football one more time to see what it could tell me about the AFC East:

New England Patriots:

Will anyone ever beat the Pats in this division? Since the team has one of the worst defenses in the league you would think it wouldn't be too hard, but thanks to Tom Brady it is.

There is little reason to think the Patriots offense will not be the same juggernaut that it always is. Brady is back and ready to go as is the record-setting tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Wide receiver Wes Welker may not have gotten his new contract, but since it's a contract year for him you know he'll be looking to continue his stretch of 100+ receptions. Brandon Lloyd will give them a down field threat that will stretch defenses thin making it easier to hit the underneath stuff to Welker, Hernandez, and the Gronk.

So while the passing game will rock the running game will continue to wither in its shadow. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen will be looked at to carry the ball when the team does run. Ridley averaged 5.1 yards a carry last year so he should be sufficient for the Patriots needs.

The team is not devoid of play makers on defense, but Vince Wolfork, Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo could use some help. They hope they got some in the six draft picks they used on defensive players. End Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower are expected to contribute early, but the team will need to see some improvement out of a lot of players if the defense is going to climb out of the cellar.

New York Jets:

No team gets attention for something other than making plays like the New York Jets do. Whether it's head coach Rex Ryan talking, Tim Tebow breathing, or Mark Sanchez dating some other hottie, the Jets get more press for non-football related things than they do football (okay, I don't know that for sure, but you get my point, right?).

The offense will likely struggle this year more than it has in recent years. Mark Sanchez has yet to improve into a quality starting quarterback that he was drafted in the first round to be. His best receiver is a malcontent (Santonio Holmes) that they should have traded; his second best one is rookie Stephen Hill who had 49 catches for Georgia Tech in three years.

Tim Tebow could be the man they need if they were to commit to running an offense that works to his skill set. That wouldn't be hard since they have one of the best offensive lines in the league and a pair of good running backs in Shonn Greene and Joe McKnight. A run heavy offense could cause defenses to commit enough players to stopping the run that when they do pass Tebow will have an easier time against lighter coverage.

What will keep them in some games will be the defense. You could really name any of the starters and half of the backups and you'd be talking about a serious play maker. The defensive line is one of the best in football as is the linebacker corps and defensive backs. There is no reason to think they will not be among the best in the league yet again.

Buffalo Bills:

Last season the Bills seemed to wake up with a strong 5-2 start before injuries caused the team to collapse down the stretch. They finally appeared to have a quarterback in former Harvard man, RyanFitzpatrick. Fred Jackson appeared to be the answer to running back the Bills have not had since the Thurman Thomas days, and Stevie Johnson could be on the verge of becoming an elite receiver.

The question will be whether they can all stay healthy because without any of the three the team is a little short on offensive play makers. They started to use back-up running back C.J. Spiller at wide receiver some; if Jackson can stay healthy that would be a great idea for this season as well. Brad Smith is probably the best athlete on the wide receiver depth chart; if the former college QB can be integrated into the line up more his speed could at least stretch the defense some possibly making Jackson's life a little easier.

Expect the defense to be much better than they were last season (26th). Dave Wannstedt made his return to the NFL ranks as the team's linebacker coach last season, but takes over the coordinator job this year (his natural position). His presence alone will upgrade the play of the unit; the additions the team made over the off-season could vault it into the top 10. Ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson joined the team and will definitely give Tom Brady and the other AFC East QBs nightmares.

The play of the front four will allow the youth at linebacker (Kelvin Sheppard and Arthur Moats) to continue to improve; both had solid campaigns last season alongside veteran Nick Barnett.Wannstedt will be hoping that a strong pass rush will help give time for his young corners to get acclimated to the game; Aaron Williams is in his second year and Stephon Gillmore is a rookie.

Miami Dolphins:

Many fans were surprised when the Dolphins were named this season's focus of HBO's Hard Knocks series, but the Dolphins proved to be a pretty good subject after all. They were smart in getting rid of the entertaining but distracting Chad Johnson before the show was over so they could really concentrate on football. By the looks of rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill they fewer distractions the better.

Tannehill has the potential to be a solid quarterback in the NFL and will have a solid boost in his rookie campaign with his former college head coach, Mike Sherman, as his offensive coordinator. He has the ability to make the reads and the throws as well as the poise to stay in the pocket and ability to throw on the run. He will have to figure out how to not tip the defense off so much by locking onto his targets early (much like he did in college), but his real problem will be a lack of quality receivers (and not thinking about how incredibly hot his wife is). Reggie Bush has talked the talk; walking it would really help take some pressure off of his rookie QB.

The defense was slightly better than average last season (15th overall), but will need to step it up a notch or two to help out the offense. With some of the losses the team had over the off-season that will be easier said than done. Gone and in need of replacing are tackle Kendall Langford, corner back Will Allen, and strong safety Yeremiah Bell. Replacing the leadership that Jason Taylor provided will be difficult as well.

New coordinator Kevin Coyle will have a solid base of players to work with. His front four is one of the better ones in the league. Jarid Odrick and Cameron Wake will be able to wreak havoc coming off the ends; Randy Starks and Paul Soliai will do a decent job of stopping the run at the tackles. Linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett each had over 100 tackles last season. The problem is a lack of talent in the secondary. When you face Tom Brady twice a year that is something that you just can't have.

Prediction:

This is another easy one--the New England Patriots are going to run away with the division. I don't quite see their defense being much better than it was last season, but since it doesn't need to be that's okay. Buffalo could pull off a shocker here if Wannstedt can toughen up the D and the Bills offense stays healthy, but I'm not going to hold my breath. Look for the Jets to melt down this season as the offense flounders around the poor play of Mark Sanchez. Miami needs more talent on offense, namely wide receiver, before it can be a serious competitor.

Division Winner: New England

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