By Clark Judge | CBSSports.com Senior Columnist
There is no easier division to figure than the AFC East. You start with the New England Patriots, then work south.
The Patriots won the AFC East eight of the past nine seasons, missing out only when Tom Brady missed all but one game in 2008 because of a knee injury, and there's a lesson there: When Brady plays, the rest of the division plays for second.
Of the three clubs in New England's rear-view mirror, Buffalo made the strongest offseason moves, hiring pass rushers Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to pressure a quarterback who is 18-2 against them. The Bills have the right idea; now, let's see how it plays out.
Jets coach Rex Ryan said he thinks this year's Jets have "a chance to be the best team that I've had since I've been the coach here." The key words: Have a chance. Me? I don't see anyone in the same area code as New England. Maybe Buffalo makes it as a wild-card playoff team, but call me skeptical. After all, this is a club that hasn't been to the playoffs since 1999.
Post-camp outlook: Maybe the Patriots don't win as many as they did a year ago, but they should be better. Reason: Defense. It won't rank 31st again. New England will win the division with no trouble and should go deep into the playoffs. My question: Is another Super Bowl on the horizon? Nobody has been to back-to-back Super Bowls since ... well, since these guys in 2004. Plus, you know the history of Super Bowl losers. They usually crater the following season.
Best that could happen: The Patriots repeat as division champions and gain home-field advantage through the playoffs. If Tom Brady is healthy, it should happen ... and not because Brady keeps these guys afloat, but because of a cake schedule. Let's just say it's not exactly littered with speed bumps. After meeting Baltimore on Sept. 23 the Patriots don't face another opponent with a winning record in 2011 until Houston on Dec. 10. In between, there are nine games that New England could and should win, which means there's a ticket to the top waiting to be punched.
Worst that could happen: They don't repeat as division champs, which doesn't happen as long as Brady is upright. In the 10 seasons where he's been a starter for more than one game the Pats won the AFC East all but once ... and the one season they missed they tied for first. Only a serious injury to Brady keeps these guys down.
Last word: The Patriots reached the Super Bowl with the league's 31st-ranked defense and not much of a running game. But that's what Tom Brady can do for a club. The guy carried them as he's carried them his entire career. Now New England should be better defensively, Brady should have more targets and the AFC East race -- if you want to call it that -- could be over by early December.
Post-camp outlook: GM Buddy Nix said it's time for the Bills to be "relevant" again, and he has that right. The Bills has had one winning season in the past 12 years, and enough's enough. So Nix signed pass rushers Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, then drafted cornerback Stephon Gilmore, while coach Chan Gailey promoted Dave Wannstedt to defensive coordinator -- all in an effort to close the gap with New England and Tom Brady. They're the gold standard, and at least Buffalo beat them once last season. That's a start. They could've beaten them in the season finale, too, but blew a 21-point lead. The point is: They believe they can play with the Patriots. Now it's time to prove it.
Best that could happen: Barring an injury to Brady, finishing second in the AFC East. The Bills think they can close on New England, but I don't see it. But I can see them finishing second in the division -- provided, of course, they're healthy. Their pass rush should be better. Fred Jackson is healthy. And Gilmore looks like the real deal. Anyway, there's hope for the first time in years.
Worst that could happen: The Bills suffer their annual second-half swoon, finish with another losing record and go head-first down the division. It could happen. Injuries buried this team in the past, with the Bills losing seven starters last season. So did turnovers and no defense. And there's still the Ryan Fitzpatrick factor. He must prove he can win.
Last word: The acquisition of Williams raised the hopes of western New York, and hallelujah. It's about time. Buffalo has been down far too long, and maybe, just maybe, this is the season it plays into January. I don't think so, but, as I said, maybe. I want to see more out of the offense than we witnessed this summer, I want to see Fitzpatrick put together a complete season and I want to see the Bills without crippling injuries. That's a lot to ask.
Post-camp outlook: It's hard to get excited about a club that couldn't produce a touchdown in three preseason games, but these, folks, are your New York Jets. There's Tim Tebow. There's Mark Sanchez. And there's a sinkhole waiting for everyone, including the head coach, if they can't figure out how to cross the goal line. I don't worry about this defense; I do worry how they produce points. Tony Sparano, I feel your pain.
Best that could happen: The Jets find an offense and finish second in the division. There is no way these guys challenge New England. The Bills are the competition, and the Jets may have the defense to outlast them. We'll see. The Sept. 9 opener vs. Buffalo should offer clues.
Worst that could happen: The bottom falls out, there's a quarterback mess and the Jets' defense turns on the offense. This was a dysfunctional team a year ago, and coach Rex Ryan insists that won't happen again. We'll see. I'd just like to have these guys find the end zone without a sherpa. Based on what we've witnessed this summer, last place in the AFC East isn't out of the picture.
Last word: Ryan won't guarantee a Super Bowl this year, and smart move. Because the Jets aren't getting there. There is nothing on offense that excites me, and that includes Santonio Holmes. The Jets say they want to run the ball more effectively than they did a year ago when they ranked 22nd, but their offensive line remains largely intact, they have the same quarterback and they have the same running back. So how do they get there? I'm one of the few who think Tebow in the wildcat can work, but there are too many other facets of this offense that don't, which is why I believe the Jets struggle to reach .500.
Post-camp outlook: At least these guys were good material for HBO's Hard Knocks series. Now let's see if they materialize on the field. My guess is they don't. The Chad Johnson episode was a distraction and his ultimate departure long overdue. I have no idea why the Dolphins took him on, but they're better off without him. Unfortunately, these guys just can't seem to get out of the way of others, and, yes, I'm talking about their team charter. On the positive side, it was the team's best bump-and-run performed this summer.
Best that could happen: Ryan Tannehill is the next Dan Marino, and the Dolphins surge to second in the division. No, I don't see it happening, either, but then I didn't see Marino lasting until the 27th pick. There is one clear-cut favorite in this division, then three teams competing for what's left. The Dolphins could be there with Buffalo and the Jets, and I base that on the second half of 2011 when they won six of their final nine.
Worst that could happen: Ryan Tannehill is the next John Beck and looks as bad as he did when backup Matt Moore quizzed him on NFL divisions. Tannehill played decently in preseason games, but they're preseason games. Ryan Leaf looked good then, too, and we know what happened. This is no Leaf, but the Dolphins don't exactly have a lot of playmakers or a sterling offensive line to surround their new quarterback.
Last word: It's hard to imagine the Dolphins making much progress until they find playmakers to surround Tannehill. Yeah, Reggie Bush counts, but then what? Davone Bess and Brian Hartline don't qualify as big-time threats. The Dolphins will have trouble scoring, which means they'll have trouble escaping the division basement.