Best Case, Worst Case for each AFC East team in 2014
We all know that Tom Brady and the Patriots are the favorites in the AFC East, but do the other three teams offer anything resembling real competition?
The whole idea started on our award-winning podcast (embedded below): what would each NFL team look like in their “Armageddon scenario”? In other words, what's the absolute worst thing that could happen to each NFL team? And, conversely, what's the best-case scenario for each team? (Yes, theoretically “16 wins and the Super Bowl works, but let's be realistic.)
We'll go by division on these and if you want to hear the breakdown for each one,subscribe to the Eye on Football podcast via iTunes. Up now, the AFC East.
When the Bills traded up from No. 9 to No. 4 in the May NFL Draft to take wide receiver Sammy Watkins, general manager Doug Whaley effectively went all in that Watkins would be the player to catapult the Bills from middle of the road to perennial playoff team.
Watkins has been impressive during preseason workouts, even if we're still waiting for his first mind-blowing moment in an actual game.
So, yeah, we know he's capable. The biggest question is whether the Bills have the quarterback to get him the ball consistently. EJ Manuel was the team's 2013 first-round pick. He started 10 games as a rookie and threw for 1,972 yards, 11 touchdowns and 9 interceptions while completing 58.8 percent of his passes. But he ranked 37th in Football Outsiders' QB efficiency metric, which was just behind Matt Schaub and Josh Freeman.
The good news is that Manuel is only to get better. How much better will determine just how good this offense can be.
On paper, Buffalo is a better team. But from the perspective of late August, their schedule suggests a repeat of last season's 6-10 effort is more likely than breaking .500 for the first time since 2004. The season begins with games at Chicago before home get-togethers with the Dolphins and Chargers. And even if the team gets on a roll in the middle of the season during a four-game stretch with the Jets, Chiefs, Dolphins, Jets and Browns, the final month looks like this: Broncos, Packers, Raiders and Patriots.
And while defense should be good, in today's NFL, defense alone doesn't win championships. (And don't say, "Hey, what about Seattle?" That defense, without that offense doesn't win a Super Bowl ... not unless they're playing the Broncos every week.) How Watkins, Manuel and C.J. Spiller play will go a long way in determining just how good this team can be.
Best case: 8-8. Worst case: 5-11.
We like Ryan Tannehnill and think that he could quietly been one of the best quarterbacks in the 2012 draft class. But he's still growing into the position and he's had to do it with not much in the way of an offensive line. The Dolphins did sign burner Mike Wallace last offseason but no one was really surprised by his lack of production in 2013, when he and Tannenhill never seemed to be on the same page.
Things should improve this season but the state of the offensive line remains a question. We've said this about the NFC South but it holds here too: Without a competent offensive line, offenses don't work. The Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers are about to find this out.
The Dolphins have to hope rookie Ja'Wuan James can man the right tackle spot and that a offseason acquisition Branden Albert can do the same at left tackle. The Dolphins' new offense is designed to get the ball out of Tannehill's hands quickly, which benefits the quarterback, the o-line and the playmakers. How well this group can execute offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's scheme will go a long wan in determining how successful they will be this season.
The Dolphins' defense ranked 17th a year ago, according to Football Outsiders, but they'll have to be better than middle of the pack to have a chance in the division. The good news is that group finished 8-8 in 2014 and was this close to qualifying for the postseason. The bad news is that they were no-shows for the final two regular-season games -- a 19-0 loss to the Bills and a 20-7 loss to the Jets -- that would've punched their playoff ticket.
Just like a year ago, Miami could start the 2014 season 3-1. But a four-game stretch after their Week 5 bye (Packers, at the Bears, at the Jaguars, Chargers) will set the tone for the second half of their season.
Best case: 10-6. Worst case: 6-10.
Any conversation about the Patriots starts with Tom Brady who, despite being on this earth for 37 years, doesn't seem to age. He'll do Tom Brady things this season, carving up defenses, barking at teammates who aren't playing up to his standards, all while leading the Patriots to a division title.
Questions remain about depth at wide receiver behind Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, though the expectation is that second-year player Kenbrell Thompkins will continue to get better and offseason acquisition Brandon LaFell will be able to contribute early in the season. These concerns are mitigated with a healthy Rob Gronkowski on the field, which could happen in the coming weeks.
We're all familiar with this offense, but it's the defense that could offer the biggest improvements from recent years. With the addition of Darrelle Revis and the maturation of young players like Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins and Duron Harmon, this group could give coach Bill Belichick something he hasn't had since the the mid-2000s: a formidable unit that doesn't require Brady and the offense to score 40 points an outing.
Best case: 15-1. Worst case: 11-5.
We would add the "this only holds if Brady stays healthy" caveat, but the last time the Pats played the season without the future Hall of Famer they won 11 games with Matt Cassel. In the five years since, New England has never lost more than six regular-season games. The rest of the AFC East is legitimately playing for second place.
Good news: We expect Eric Decker to put up solid numbers in New York. Bad news: Those numbers will be inflated because he's the Jets only downfield option and his personal success will have little impact on the team's chances to be competitive this season.
Former second-round pick Stephen Hill might not even make the team and Jeremy Kerley is better suited to be a No. 3 receiver. Free-agent signing Chris Johnson will join Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell in the backfield, but a stout running game won't be enough to carry this offense.
But there's more good news: Second-year quarterback Geno Smith, who ranked 43rd in QB efficiency last season (ahead of only Terrelle Pryor and Brandon Weeden) should be better. But that's because he can't get much worse. If he does falter, expect coach Rex Ryan to turn to Michael Vick, the man who replaces Mark Sanchez. (In related news: Mark Sanchez, now the backup in Philadephia, looks like a franchise quarterback this preseason. We're starting to think the Jets are the problem.)
But whatever concerns we have about the offense, the defense should be fine. Yes, injuries have raised concerns at cornerback but the defensive line includes Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson and the Jets used their 2014 first-round pick on safety Calvin Pryor. Unfortunately, this isn't Buddy Ryan's NFL, and much like the Bills, a good defense won't be enough to overcome, well, everything else in New York that's likely to go wrong in the next four months.
Best case: 8-8. Worst case: 6-10.
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