Beasts of the East: What Will Patriots’ AFC Foes Bring in 2009?


Jul 16, 2009

After a reign of five years atop the division, the New England Patriots were dethroned by the Miami Dolphins as kings of the AFC East in 2008. During that five-season stretch, the Patriots went 66-14 — dominating the division with an unbelievable 82.5 percent winning percentage.

That power — aided, in part, by Tom Brady’s knee ligaments — shifted quickly in 2008, with the Jets and Dolphins both proving they could more than hang with the Pats.

When Brady returns to the field this September, he will be in the middle of a rather unfamiliar AFC East, one with new coaches, players and game plans. Though the Patriots are still the favorites, those divisional matchups won’t be quite as easy as they’ve been in the past.

New York Jets
The most changed team in the division is undoubtedly the New York Jets. Gang Green made a splash in the draft by moving up to select Mark Sanchez — and then didn’t do much else. After trading two picks and three players to castaway coach Eric Mangini in Cleveland to acquire Sanchez, the Jets traded three more picks to move up and acquire running back Shonne Greene out of Iowa.

Those moves left them with just one remaining draft pick, which was spent on former Nebraska guard Matt Slauson.

To supplement their draft, first-year coach Rex Ryan attacked the free-agent market, targeting a number of his former defensive players from Baltimore. He successfully lured in linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard while also landing cornerback Lito Shepherd.

Ryan was rumored to have been pursuing Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis as well, but the Ravens placed the franchise tag on Suggs and offered a 10-year contract to the 34-year-old Lewis, ensuring he would finish his career in Ravens purple.

The Jets have rid themselves of the fossil known as Favre, but Sanchez is far from a sure thing. While the 22-year-old seems to enjoy the limelight, drawing comparisons to Broadway Joe before he’s even thrown a preseason pass is too much pressure for anyone to withstand.

That pressure is only going to increase as the season unfolds, and pinning playoff hopes on the shoulders of such an inexperienced quarterback could ultimately cost the Jets some games.

Sanchez isn’t the only possible issue in the backfield either, with Leon Washington potentially holding out of minicamp for a contract. The Jets will also be without Calvin Pace to begin the season after the linebacker was caught violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

Miami Dolphins
Last year, the Dolphins were one of the most-improved teams in NFL history. This year, they’ve gotten even better.

After going from 1-15 in 2007 to AFC East champs in 2008, the Dolphins are no longer the proverbial bye week for divisional opponents. The team added highly coveted players with their first two draft picks — Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis and quarterback/wide receiver Pat White from West Virginia. Davis was unanimously the best corner available, while White’s speed and arm adds a potentially lethal component to Miami’s Wildcat formation.

The combination of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, both of whom averaged more than four yards per carry last season, provides yet another threat for which opposing defenses must prepare.

Defensively, the front seven anchored by Jason Taylor, Joey Porter and Channing Crowder is far from the best in the league, but it’s still strong enough to compete for another East crown.

The biggest question mark — fairly or unfairly — still lies on quarterback Chad Pennington. The 33-year-old enjoyed a rejuvenation year in 2008, reaching career highs in completions (321), passing yards (3,653) and yards per completion (7.7). He also threw the most touchdowns (19) and finished with the highest QB rating (97.4) since 2002, when he threw 22 touchdowns and owned a 104.2 rating.

Pennington clearly enjoyed the change of scenery in southern Florida, but just as it’s hard to imagine the Dolphins improving upon last season’s 11 wins, it is even harder to imagine Pennington repeating last season. That doubt was reinforced after Miami’s 27-9 home playoff loss to the Ravens, a game in which Pennington threw four interceptions and just one touchdown.

Is there reason for optimism in Land Shark Stadium? Of course, but there are just as many reasons for everyone to have doubts about the Fins in 2009.

Buffalo Bills
When it comes to the Buffalo Bills and the New England Patriots, there is but one subject that matters — the streak.

That fateful streak, which began on Dec. 27, 2003, is 11 straight victories by the Patriots over the Bills — a streak in which the Pats have outscored the Bills 321-96 for an average margin of victory of 20.45 points.

For the Patriots? Dominant. For the Bills? Embarrassing.

Naturally, Terrell Owens gives the Bills a much better opportunity to put some points on the board. Even at 35 years old, Owens still can perform at a high level.

The offense will be somewhat limited in the opening weeks, however, due to Marshawn Lynch’s three-game suspension for possessing a concealed firearm. Quarterback Trent Edwards, who improved in every statistical category in his second season, should make further progress under center, as favorite targets Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish should find plenty of space to get open with T.O. on the field.

Buffalo’s middle-of-the-pack defense from 2008 added Aaron Maybin, who was the top-rated defensive end in the draft. After two seasons at Penn State, Maybin should have an immediate impact on the Bills’ line.

But while the Bills are an exciting team for the first time in a while, it would be unrealistic to expect them to jump to the top of the divisional standings in 2009. They may not have a legitimate shot at winning the Super Bowl, but it’s safe to say that some lesser goals — such as, say, snapping an 11-game losing streak to a certain opponent — might be within reach.

Who’s hot?
Matt Cassel
There’s something eternally enjoyable about watching someone get an opportunity to shine and making the most of it. In New England, Cassel did just that, and he’s now being rewarded. The quarterback signed a six-year deal with the Chiefs worth $63 million. That’s quite the raise for a guy who made about $500,000 last year.

Terrell Suggs
Hours before the deadline for teams to sign franchised players, the Ravens made Suggs the richest linebacker in NFL history. Suggs’ contract is reportedly worth $63 million over six years, with $33 million coming in bonuses.

Who’s not?
Travis Henry
In seven NFL seasons, Henry rarely made headlines for the right reasons. Whether it was for failing a marijuana test or failing to pay child support for his nine children with nine different mothers, it was never pretty for Henry. Now, things are getting uglier, with the former running back set to serve three years in prison for financing a cocaine ring between Colorado and Montana.

Quote of the week
“You always want to follow people that do good things and try to see if those good things can work for you. Like Kevin, he gets here real early in the morning, and you see him running on the treadmill and in the film room and stuff. I just try to pick up on those good habits and see how a guy like that lasts so long and try to follow that.”
–Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, to, regarding the leadership qualities of Kevin Faulk

What to watch for
The announcement of “98.5 The Sports Hub” could have an impact on Patriots fans. Previously, WBCN aired Patriots games but, as a rock station, did not have much more involvement with the team beyond a pregame and postgame show. Now the station, especially with its ties to CBS, should provide fans with even more coverage of the Pats, beginning in August.

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