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The NFL is celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the AFL, even though they’re a year early. The AFL kicked off in 1960, and three of the four teams in the AFC East were among the Founding 8 members of the League. The Dolphins were also the AFL’s first expansion team. All year long, you’ll see teams wearing throwback jerseys, and other miscellaneous tributes and homages to the old AFL.
Speaking of paying tribute and worshipping, let’s talk about the New England Patriots.
The Pats have won 44 of their last 55 games, and have little to show for it. Does this make them a sleeping giant on the verge of reconquering the NFL, or does it make them an aging dinosaur in the twilight of their dominance? This season will tell us.
Tom Brady returns, as if you didn’t know. But for the first time since 2003, there are question marks around him. But unlike back then, there are also exclamation points, like Wes Welker!, Randy Moss!, and Fred Taylor!
The Pats boast a deep group of running backs, and although none have the prowess to be a true #1 back, combined they should prove to be reliable enough to take pressure of Brady, and eat up some clock. And after all, the Patriots are at their best when they’re pissing off fantasy football geeks by doing stuff like rotating their RBs around.
The big problem for the Pats is a lack of playmaking on defense. Ever since Willie McGinest left, there’s been a lack of big plays from the LB corps. But a healthy Adalius Thomas and a more experienced Jerod Mayo can help change that. Then again, if defenses can stop these two, it’s up to the flaky Tedy Bruschi, and the unreliable Pierre Woods, who I’ll never ever forgive for not recovering a fumble in Super Bowl XLII.
The defensive backfield is a potential mess. Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders are solid safeties, but the days of ball hawking CBs like Ty Law and Asante Samuel are long gone. It’s coverage first for these guys, and they’ll have some trouble with that. Rodney Harrison will also be missed.
The Pats have enough talent to win the AFC East, but playoff victories will prove more difficult. I predict an 11-5 regular season record, with an exit in the AFC Championship Game.
Now for the rest of the division…
Let’s go west on I-90 to Buffalo (then take 219 to Orchard Park, which funnily enough is closer to Boston, NY than Foxborough is to Boston, MA).
The Bills will get more than their share of PR thanks to TO. Buffalo exploded out of the gate with a 5-1 start last year, turning lots of heads. Then they remembered who they are, and lost 8 of their last 10. Look for something similar in 2009.
They’ve certainly improved, but their schedule has improved just about as much. Instead of feasting on the mediocrity of the AFC and NFC West, like in ‘08, the Bills have to face the much more formidable AFC and NFC South divisions. Half of Buffalo’s games are against opponents who won 10+ in 2008.
And they are the Bills. How much can a team from Buffalo accomplish? How much can a Dick Juaraon team accomplish? Not much. The Bills were 0-6 in divisional play last year. The trend will continue. A 2-4 record in this department should be considered a major success.
Let’s cut across New York’s Southern Tier, down through the Poconos, going past towns like Warsaw, NY; Moscow, PA; and Netcong, NJ until we land in East Rutherford. Yuck.
After finally realizing that Eric Mangini is a waste of space, and after allowing the most points in the division (356, or 22.5 per game), the J-E-T-S hired ex-Ravens defensive coordinator R-E-X Ryan to be the head coach. It leads to an interesting mix, with a first time head coach in charge of rookie QB Mark Sanchez. But the Jets have Kellen Clemens who can help them in this transition.
But have you ever known a New Yorker to be patient? This SHOULD be a transition year for the Jets, with a new QB needing to be groomed, a new coach needing to settle in, and a steady process of change and evolution needing to occur. Instead, Ryan wants Clemens to compete with Sanchez, instead of help him learn the NFL, and emerge in Week 9 or 10 as the starter.
I could be wrong, and perhaps all the pieces will fall into place at once. But I believe that puzzles are put together one piece at a time. Two gigantic question marks hover over East Rutherford. If Sanchez isn’t ready, Clemens isn’t taking you far. And if Rex Ryan isn’t ready to be a head coach, the season is a total wash.
Prediction: 9-7 again
Now for a 1,300 mile trip down I-95 to Miami, where the Dolphins have perhaps the best home field advantage in the game, at least for a few weeks. Then they have the biggest handicap on the road in northern cities.
The Dolphins luck out a bit, as they don’t have to travel north of the Mason-Dixon in December. However, they visit East Rutherford, Foxborough, and Orchard Park in November. They’re also the only team in the AFC East that will be playing all of its games in the United States.
Don’t forget, the Dolphins won the AFC East last year, albeit via tie-breakers (an 8-4 conference record, compared to the Patriots’ 7-5), and they didn’t exactly lose much. Chad Pennington returns after his best season since he was a rookie. Ronnie Brown rushed for 916 yards last year and looks to do more damage. And the defense was in the top 10 in fewest points allowed last year.
Then there’s the Wildcat formation. How the media loved this phenomenon. But the real credit for Miami’s 11-5 record and AFC East title belonged to all the plays leading up to those Wildcat downs. The Wildcat formation has been seen, analyzed, and essentially figured out. There might be more tricks in Tony Sparano’s bag, but I think anymore tomfoolery will only get the Dolphins into trouble. Gimmicks and gadgets are nice tools to help you get to the playoffs, but by then they’ve been figured out. Their true strength is in draining the opposing team’s practice time and attention. I just get the feeling, based on nothing really, that the Dolphins will ride that gadget horse one too many times, and it will cost them a big game.
Prediction: 10-6, AFC Wild Card berth, Wild Card Round exit