Conventional wisdom says: The Patriots will be perhaps be a twinge less prolific on offence, but should be better on defence. A lock for first.
The Jets still have a great defence, but have major issues on offence.
The Bills could overtake the Jets as No. 2 in the division thanks to an improved pass rush and getting healthy bodies back on offence.
The Dolphins? Well …
Of course when NFL games are actually played, it has been illustrated time and again wisdom should never be conventional. Most of the experts from ESPN and the NFL Network last season had the Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers and St. Louis Rams winning their respective divisions.
The AFC East teams have been assigned to face clubs in the AFC South and NFC West. Other than the San Francisco 49ers, there were no juggernauts contained therein last year. As a result, you get the occurrence of the dominating Patriots punching in with the 2012 schedule that is rated as the best in the entire league.
The rich get richer, as it were. To contrast, their nemesis the New York Giants face the most difficult schedule based on winning percentages from last year.
Statistics below refer to 2011 regular season games unless otherwise noted. End of season trend includes playoff games. Close games refer to games decided by seven or less points.
- Average wins, past 5 years: 6
- 2011 record: 6-10
- Record in close games: 3-5
- Avg. loss margin: 16 points
- Avg. win margin: 15.8 points
- Games with 20 or more points scored: 11
- Games with 20 or less allowed: 3
- End of season trend: 1-7
Good vibes: Bolstered the pass rush with Mario Williams and Mark Anderson signings … RB Fred Jackson healthy again after tremendous first half of last year … Were able to force a good number of turnovers … Once groan-inducing, offensive line no longer liability …Until injuries struck, Chan Gailey's offence had many teams confused … Stevie Johnson is a fun, productive WR and Scott Chandler blossomed at TE …Picked up a .500 guy as backup QB (Tarvaris Jackson), which is as good as you can expect … First half includes games with sub-500 teams Cleveland, Arizona and Kansas City.
Caution signs: Set franchise record in yards allowed on defence … New DC Dave Wannstedt was part of group last year and is not on great career arc …Linebacker group underwhelming … Secondary being rebuilt … Even during impressive first half, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was averaging an interception per game … C.J. Spiller and Brad Smith were supposed to be versatile, are mostly ineffective … Real question as to who the reliable No. 2 WR will be … Have to be skeptical of this year's draft picks given recent past, and fact Jets used Aaron Maybin effectively while they couldn't.
Who knows: The biggest questions are whether the Jekyll or Hyde versions of Fitzpatrick will show up, and whether the defensive additions up front can help ease the pressure off a so-so linebacker and secondary. In other words, significant stuff.
- Average wins, past 5 years: 5.4
- 2011 record: 6-10
- Record in close games: 2-5
- Avg. loss margin: 7.9 points
- Avg. win margin: 15.8 points
- Games with 20 or more points scored: 7
- Games with 20 or less allowed: 9
- End of season trend: 4-2
Good vibes: Retain a core group that battled hard last year, with most games close… Reggie Bush one of relatively few RBs to go over 1,000 yards last year … Defence was impressive, particularly against run … Rookie QB Ryan Tannehill and new OC Mike Sherman were a team at Texas A & M, which should help chemistry … First half of sked includes question mark teams like Indy, Arizona, St. Louis and Oakland.
Caution signs: Joe Philbin has never been head coach and recently endured family tragedy … Draftniks were decidedly mixed on Tannehill … It's just preseason, but Tannehill has completed less than half of his passes … Got rid of troubled but productive WR Brandon Marshall … So desperate are they in that regard that they're working out Donté Stallworth and plan to do so with Jabar Gaffney … Have an early road slog on consecutive weeks in different directions: Arizona, Cincinnati … Never know when Bush will get banged up, given his history … Pass defence not great, and some players upset over recent Vontae Davis trade.
Who knows: Will they learn how to win close games? Of course, that's based on the assumption last year's trend will continue. Miami seemed a team that could build on a hardworking 2011 season, but it's all been put into question by the Marshall deal and the selection of a quarterback whose biggest attribute so far is his telegenic wife.
New England Patriots
- Average wins, past 5 years: 12.8
- 2011 record: 13-3
- Record in close games: 4-0
- Avg. loss margin: 6 points
- Avg. win margin: 11.4 points
- Games with 20 or more points scored: 15
- Games with 20 or less allowed: 8
- End of season trend: 9-1
Good vibes: Made the Super Bowl despite averaging 21 points allowed per game … Tom Brady at or near top form, Patriots led NFL with a whopping 12 games scoring over 30 points … Brady and Belichick willing to adapt the offensive gameplan depending on personnel … New addition Brandon Lloyd expected to thrive at WR … Defences couldn't cope with twin-TE attack of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski … Wes Welker still a shifty pain for opponents … Vince Wilfork a man mountain on defence … Have talented young defenders like Devin McCourty and Jerod Mayo … Were ball hawks on defence … Again, face the statistically easiest schedule.
Caution signs: Offensive line in a state of transition … Offensive attack needs more balance than 2011 … Stevan Ridley offers promise at RB, but remember that BenJarvis Green-Ellis never fumbled. Ever … Because Brady is so good and durable (one season excepted), backup QB completely unproven if ever needed … Lost two players to other teams who had 10 sacks each … Not the youngest team around … Gronkowski great, but took a beating last year …Gave up most passing yards in AFC last season.
Who knows: Oh sure, we can wonder whether the addition of Lloyd helps the Patriots stretch the field, which was a problematic area last season. But it will be all about the defence. Can Wilfork stay awesome? Can McCourty regain previous form? Can rookie Donta Hightower be a game changer? And on.
New York Jets
- Average wins, past 5 years: 8.2
- 2011 record: 8-8
- Record in close games: 4-3
- Avg. loss margin: 13 points
- Avg. win margin: 14.8 points
- Games with 20 or more points scored: 10
- Games with 20 or less allowed: 7
- End of season trend: 0-3
Good vibes: Coach Rex Ryan seems less interested in being a media personality … Still possess defensive front seven that looks formidable … One of the best cornerback groups in the NFL … Much-maligned QB Mark Sanchez not that old, has some skills, plus chemistry with TE Dustin Keller … Special teams above average … Tim Tebow one of the few athletes who don't figure to get into trouble in the Big Apple.
Caution signs: Sanchez under pressure to succeed to begin with, now has Tim Tebow over his shoulder … When Tebow enters, will playbook be varied enough not to telegraph what's coming? … New OC Tony Sparano didn't really have Plan B in Miami once teams neutralized Wildcat … Santonio Holmes brings the ego of an elite WR without the talent … RB Shonn Greene not a threat to break it long too often … First half of schedule tough: In addition to Pats, face Pittsburgh, Houson and San Fran.
Who knows: The focus on Sanchez's effectiveness is fascinating given the relative lack of weapons. The very acquisition of Tebow to throw opponents off seems to acknowledge that. So it's imperative someone heretofore relatively unknown step up large, whether it's rookie WR Stephen Hill, or returnees like RB Joe McKnight and WR Jeremy Kerley.