New England Patriots Heavy Favorites to Win AFC East, Also Have NFL’s Easiest Schedule

New England Patriots Heavy Favorites to Win AFC East, Also Have NFL's Easiest ScheduleSince quarterback Tom Brady burst onto the scene in 2001 in place of an injured Drew Bledsoe and led New England to the first of three Super Bowl titles, the Patriots have won the AFC East Division nine times, including the past three seasons.

And with Brady still as good as ever, the Pats are not surprisingly the heavy -350 favorites on Bovada to take the East again in 2012. That is tied for the shortest odds of any AFC team to win a division, along with the Houston Texans in the South.

New England (13-3 a year ago in the regular season, 5-1 vs. AFC East) has by far the best offense in the division. Last year, the Pats ranked second to New Orleans in total yards (428.0 per game) and passing yards (317.8) among all teams and third in the NFL in points per game at 32.1. By comparison, the next-highest AFC East team in total yards was Buffalo at No. 14 (351.5). The next-highest-scoring team in the division was the New York Jets at 23.6 ppg.

The Pats' passing game could be better this season with the addition of Brandon Lloyd and, to a lesser extent, Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth alongside Wes Welker. And no team can match the Pats' tight end combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. New England does have to replace leading rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and that likely will be by a committee of 2011 draft picks Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.

The offensive line has some questions with Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer opening camp on the active/physically unable to perform list. Nate Solder, the team's 2011 first-round draft choice, steps in at left tackle for the retired Matt Light. And what about Brian Waters?

Defensively, New England was the worst of the AFC East clubs a year ago, allowing 411.1 yards per game (only Green Bay was worse) thanks to a porous pass defense. But all those yards didn't always equate to points, as the Patriots ranked 15th in the league in allowing 21.4 points per game. Only Miami was better among the AFC East teams.

The Patriots will play the NFL's easiest schedule by opponents' 2011 winning percentage at .453. New England plays only four teams that finished above .500 last year: at Tennessee (Week 1), at Baltimore (Week 3), vs. Houston (Week 14) and vs. San Francisco (Week 15). The Pats' over-under wins total at the book will be approximately 12.

The Jets are the +600 second favorites to win the division after a disappointing 8-8 season (3-3 vs. AFC East foes) and missing out on the playoffs despite another preseason proclamation by coach Rex Ryan that he expected a Super Bowl win. Ryan has kept quiet this year.

New York's big offseason acquisition was trading for Denver quarterback Tim Tebow. The Jets claim the starting job is Mark Sanchez's to lose, and he got a new contract this offseason to prove it. But most believe it's simply a matter of time before Tebow gets the call. Sanchez was very inconsistent in 2011, ranking just 23rd in QB rating and throwing 18 interceptions, the fifth-most in the league. But perhaps the real problem was a once-dominant ground game that averaged only 105.8 yards per game, 22nd in the NFL. Ryan wants to get back to a ground-and-pound attack in 2012 that could include several plays for Tebow.

The Jets did have the East's best defense in allowing 312.1 ypg, but the team also allowed 22.7 points per game, 20th in the NFL. New York won't have a prayer of winning the division or making the playoffs if it doesn't improve on its 2-6 road mark of a year ago. The Jets also had two three-game losing streaks overall and one of two games. New York's strength of schedule is rated as the 20th-toughest in the NFL, with an opponents' winning percentage of .492 and six games against teams with a winning record in 2011. The Jets' over-under wins total at the book will likely open at 8.5.

Buffalo hasn't won the AFC East since way back in 1995 and hasn't reached the playoffs since 1999 behind a quarterback named Doug Flutie. The Bills do appear to have the most talented team — on paper at least — that they've had in years, and they are +700 to win the division. The Bills showed some signs of finally breaking out in 2011 by starting 5-2, including a 34-31 win over the Patriots that ended Buffalo's 15-game losing streak in the series.

But after a Week 8 win over the Redskins, Buffalo lost seven straight games and won only once the rest of the season to finish 6-10 (1-5 in division). The defense was porous — ranking No. 30 overall in points allowed — and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick came way back to earth after a good start. But the Bills added the top defensive free agent on the market in former Texans end/linebacker Mario Williams as well as former Patriots end Mark Anderson. The Bills also should have a tremendous 1-2 punch at running back in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Buffalo, which has the third-easiest strength of schedule in the NFL, will have an over-under wins total of approximately 7.5 at the book.

Finally, the Miami Dolphins are the only team other than New England to win the division since 2003. But the Fins appear to be in a rebuilding mode after last year's 6-10 finish (3-3 in division). Joe Philbin is in as the new head coach after Jeff Fisher turned the franchise down. And the team has a three-headed quarterback battle heading into camp between Matt Moore, a starter much of last year, David Garrard, who sat out 2011, and first-round draft pick Ryan Tannehill from Texas A&M. Thus Miami is +1200 to win the division. It will have an over-under opening wins total of around 7.5.

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