Wednesday, September 06, 2006

2006 NFL preview: AFC East

Let's follow up the brutally strong AFC North with the relatively weak AFC East. You win this division by passing a drug test and providing proof of citizenship, which any NFL team -- with the possible exception of the Bengals -- should be able to do.

1. New England Patriots (10-6)
Somewhere along the line, Tom Brady learned to walk on water (in the Charles River, it's an easy feat since right under the surface, there's usually a discarded refrigerator or '79 Chrysler. But I digress.)
While His Bradiness is more omnipotent than ever, the team around him is woefully mortal and decaying. Corey Dillon, while still effective, is no longer an elite running back. The Deion Branch situation further weakened an already faltering receiver corps.
The defense will still benefit from the scheming of Holy Father Bill Belichick, but like the offense, it's not quite the force it used to be.
There's still enough gas left in New England's tank for a playoff run, but I'll call them the best team in a weak division.
The x-factor: Belichick. As much as it pains me to say, you won't find a better tactical coach out there. He doesn't need much help to put a winner on the field.

2. Miami Dolphins (9-7)
Where else can Daunte Culpepper resurface and have it considered an upgrade for that team? OK, maybe more places than Miami, but let's consider this a fairly significant roll of the dice by Dolphins' coach/GM/grand exalted pooba Nick Saban. Especially when you consider that Culpepper will have no one near the caliber of Randy Moss, or even Koren Robinson, to throw to in Miami.
The Dolphins will rely heavily on feature back Ronnie Brown, who allowed Miami fans enough breathing room to say "Ricky who?" last year. They are going to need a Ricky-Williams-in-his-prime type of season out of Brown this year.
The x-factor: Brown. The Dolphins passing game could devolve into a mine field very easily. They need Brown to become a rock of stability to have any chance.

3. Buffalo Bills (6-10)
Willis McGahee gets the early nod for the "Barry Sanders Award," given annually to the best NFL player on a hopelessly bad team.
New starting QB J.P. Losman will have a pair of decent receivers to throw to in Peerless Price and Josh Reed, but not much else. On defense, London Fletcher has ruined the second-best name in the league by hyphenating it to London Fletcher-Baker.
The best name in the league belongs to teammate and fellow linebacker Takeo Spikes. If I needed to walk through a dark alley at night, I'd want someone with a name like Takeo Spikes watching my back. He wouldn't even need to throw a punch if I were attacked. His name is so bad-ass, merely saying it should be enough to inflict a black eye.
The x-factor: McGahee. Simply by process of elimination. Outside of cool linebacker names, he's probably about the only exciting thing on the Bills' roster.

4. New York Jets (3-13)
I'm not piling on the Jets. My lowly prediction is to aid them in the long run. They don't have much to build around, so they'd better hope for a lousy '06 that gives them a top five draft pick.
Rookies D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold raise the talent level on the offensive line, but what on Earth are they protecting? Chad Pennington's ability to find Lavernues Coles for maybe three completions a game.
When your running game is highlighted by 49ers castoff Kevan Barlow, you know you're in for a long year.
The x-factor: Head Coach Eric Mangini. It's all about what he's building for the long run. His job this year is to begin laying the foundation.

Up next: the AFC South

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