Bob Christ's pro football preview, the AFC East division

Jul 24, 2012 3:01 AM

The New England Patriots have been terrors in the East since 2001, when QB Tom Brady broke into the lineup. 

Not only have they won loop laurels in nine of the past 11 seasons, but have done no worse than tie for the best record in the division each year. No other team in NFL history has had as long a stretch of unbroken dominance. 

All of which has pretty much left Miami, Buffalo and the New York Jets to scuffle for a wild card in most instances. 

This season appears to be no different, with the Las Vegas Hotel sports book installing the Patriots as a prohibitive 1-4 favorite to take East honors a fourth straight season. The 1-4 odds are the most lopsided choice in a division this year.

The league schedule maker even brought joy to East teams since it’s a year the perennially weak NFC West (a cumulative 94 games under .500 since 2004) will be the division’s nonconference dance partner. That news only boosts the East’s chances to get a wild card. Last season, the AFC North faced the West and had two wild cards.

Anyway, here is how the East figures to shake out this season, with teams listed in order of predicted finish.

Patriots

Despite playing a first-place schedule, the Patriots have the weakest slate in the league, based on the 2011 record of their foes (116-140, .453). That should be their springboard to gain the AFC’s top seed for a third consecutive season.

By contrast, in New England’s perfect 2007 regular season, their foes went 137-119 the year before. Offensively, there’s no reason Tom Brady and TE targets Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez shouldn’t continue their remarkable success. 

Brady pitched 29 scoring throws to those guys last season, including five in the postseason. Gronkowski had 20 of the TD catches, and even ran for a score. They are a complement to WR Wes Welker, who had a league-high 122 receptions in 2011.

And since the Patriots still have an offensive line that rates among the best, league foes are in for trouble again versus this video-game offense.

Defensively, the Patriots yielded the second most yards in the league last season, including a staggering seven TD drives of 90-plus yards. Yet they gave up only the 15th most points (342). That was the result of an opportunistic defense that forced 22 turnovers on snaps in Patriots territory.

To help boost the unit, Coach Bill Belichick went bonkers in the offseason by taking defenders with his first six choices in the draft and bringing in three free agents. 

Even if New England regresses somewhat, it likely won’t be enough to knock it from its East perch. After all, the Patriots finished five games clear of the second-place Jets last year.

Jets

There has been a lot of hoopla surrounding the arrival of QB Tim Tebow from Denver as Mark Sanchez’s backup. If the incumbent can keep from getting his pants in a bunch (last season he pouted when Mark Brunell got first-team snaps in practice), New York could benefit mightily.

No one runs the Wildcat better than Tebow, so he should at least help create enormous preparation headaches for foes.

Another boon to the offense, but well under the radar, is the addition of line coach Tony Sparano, who is widely considered one of the best at his craft. He’ll get to work with two of the finest in center Nick Mangold and left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson. 

On the other side, even though the Jets ranked No. 5 in total defense during an 8-8 season, the team gave up 30-plus points in five games – the first time that’s happened since Rich Kotite’s 1-15 squad did so 10 times in 1996. But the 2011 defense wasn’t responsible for the seven return scores last season, which matched a league high.

This could well be a snap-back season for New York, which might have made the playoffs last year had not Mangold missed two games to injury – both losses. The Jets should get over the top this year.

Bills

This appears to be the year the Bills avoid the basement for the first time since 2007. Maybe they’ll even end the league’s longest current playoff drought that dates to the Music City Miracle in the 1999 postseason.

Buffalo will have to shake off last year’s second-half collapse resulting in a 1-8 finish after a 5-2 start. For that to happen, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is going to have to live up to his mega-contract and quit fading at the end of seasons. 

The past two years, Fitzpatrick has gone from a top-seven spot on the passer charts in mid-October to No. 22. Included were embarrassing “chuck-and-duck” throws against pressure that surely didn’t inspire the troops. Standout RB Fred Jackson (934 yards. 5.5 a carry before a broken leg) can’t do it all.

The Bills did make headlines in the offseason by acquiring former No. 1 overall draft choice Mario Williams, who’s a pass-rushing standout. The former Houston Texans DE will help a defensive unit that tied for the third fewest number of sacks (29) last season. Buffalo also benefits from having the third-easiest schedule this season and should play meaningful games to the end.

Dolphins

Miami finished 6-10 last season and knows all about rising from the ashes. They did so in 2008 to earn a division title a year after going 1-15. But Bill Parcells is no longer around in the front office and the Fish shouldn’t count on Brady getting hurt in New England’s opener again and missing the rest of the season.

Word out of South Florida is that the new coaching staff, led by boss Joe Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, is keen on making first-round pick Ryan Tannehill, out of Texas A&M, their quarterback of the present. 

That seems quite the gamble considering Tannehill started his college career as a wide receiver and doesn’t have the experience of a typical rookie passer. And good luck behind an offensive line that last season yielded five-plus sacks in a game four times, tied for the league high.

Miami went 8-1-1 ATS to close last season and might rate a notch higher in the division if veteran QB Matt Moore, last year’s 12th-rated thrower, is allowed to build on his performance. 

In fact, in two games he had a passer rating better than 130. By comparison, the Jets’ Sanchez has done that only once in his three-year career – vs. Cincinnati’s JV in the 2010 season.