Continuing with our annual NFL preseason picks and predictions, things take us to the AFC East, which has made it a tradition to make it the easiest to call in the sport. Since its current formation was adopted in 2002, the division has been won by the Patriots every season, with 2002 and 2008 as the only exceptions. Other than that, the East has been a contention wasteland for anyone except New England, with the division producing the lowest total of wild card berths over this span, as the Jets´ 4 appearances (in 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2010) are the only times that the East managed to send a playoff invitee other than the division champions.
Just a few days ago, the hope was alive for the East´s also-rans, as the Patriots were deemed to face a quarter of their season without Tom Brady, but now that his suspension has been revoked, it appears as if we are set for yet another season in which the only fight in the division is for spots 2 through 4, with the potential of grabbing a wild card as the only real aspiration for all non-Patriot teams. With this in mind, how will the East play out? Does anyone have a chance to scare New England?
Standings predictions are carried from worst to best, and include over/under picks using the latest odds posted by Bovada Online.
New York Jets
Odds to Win Division: +1200
Over/Under Wins: 7.5
After a difficult stretch from 2011 to 2013 in which the franchise oscillated between 6 and 8 wins every season, the Jets finally bottomed out in 2014 by going a ghastly 4-12 that included 5 double-digit losses. This led to Rex Ryan´s outing as head coach, and he has been replaced by Todd Bowles, he of a career 2-1 record in the NFL. This makes Bowles a rookie for all intents and purposes, and one who will have to take care of the usual New York media circus and the distractions that come with the job. The offseason got off to a rough start with the news of QB Geno Smith in line to miss up to 10 weeks after a (now former) teammate punched him in the jaw (no, really). This made Ryan Fitzpatrick the default replacement, and yet another projection of what could be an additional painful season in the Meadowlands.
If anything can serve as consolation for the Jets is that the legacy of Ryan has left behind an enviable defensive unit, which includes possibly the top defensive line in the league and Darrelle Revis flanking them in the secondary. Even with the question marks surrounding Todd Bowles, it could be almost impossible to regress badly with this kind of defense, as they promise to give the Jets a fighting chance almost every week. The issue, of course, is that the offense probably will be pretty bad. Fitzpatrick may have Harvard smarts, but he is nothing better than a stopgap at this point, and not even the addition of Brandon Marshall can save what should be a lousy attack through the air. If Smith manages to get back and grab the starting job, things are bound to be no much different.
In the end, the Jets are, at least, building a solid foundation for the future, and they have the potential to scrape out a few impressive wins via their stingy defense, but it will be more likely that it produces a steady stream of low-scoring games and losses for Gang Green. The franchise benefits more from a high draft pick, and a chance to see if Bowles can be a good head coach for the future. Play the Under as the Jets go a competitive 5-11 or 6-10, and you would be smart to also play the points under in their games almost every week.
Odds to Win Division: +350
Over/Under Wins: 9
After consecutive 8-8 seasons, many experts are pegging the Dolphins to take the leap and challenge for their first playoff trip since 2008. It would appear to make sense, as QB Ryan Tannehill has been going strong for 3 years, getting a better QB rating each passing season, and the franchise made a number of big additions in the offseason, headlined by the scary Ndamukong Suh to anchor a defensive line that was already quite adept at rushing the passer. However, there are still many things to consider before anointing the Dolphins as the next big thing.
It´s important to remember that these very same Dolphins had a chance to make the playoffs late last season, when they entered Week 14 with a 7-5 record, 3 winnable home games, and their fate in their hands. All Miami did was go 1-3 to close out 2014, with 3 ugly double-digit losses and a -52 point differential that all but erased the progress made by the team in the first three quarters of the season. Aside from Suh, Miami also added Kenny Stills, Jordan Cameron, and Greg Jennings to give more weapons on offense, which at least promises that the Dolphins can win any kind of game, in theory.
The thing about the Dolphins is that they´ve become a difficult franchise to trust, with a surprisingly poor home-field advantage and a QB that goes from great to bust without any rhyme or reason. Even as they face a middling schedule, I just don´t see Miami making the leap, even as I don´t see them being a bad team, either. It is a tough bet, but another season hovering around 8-8 looks like the right thing to project in South Florida, so again go for the Under. Even if they manage to go 9-7, you get your money back.
Odds to Win Division: +600
Over/Under Wins: 8.5
With a surprising 9-7 record, the Bills posted their best season since 2004, all on the strength of a power defense that finished 4th in both yards and points allowed. The Bills led the league in sacks and sent three of its defensive linemen to the Pro Bowl, with Mario Williams again justifying his massive price tag. The offseason brought the former Jets Coach Rex Ryan to Buffalo, where an elite defensive unit will get a boost from one of the best defensive-minded coaches in the game. However, the Bills again face an upcoming season knowing that they will start a bad quarterback with little upside.
The starting job has been awarded to the mysterious Tyrod Taylor, with incumbent EJ Manuel looming behind, making it sure that the Bills have a big weakness behind center. With a defense this good, the team will have a chance to beat anyone on any given Sunday, but what happens when the Bills fall behind a couple of touchdowns? What happens when the game is tight in the fourth quarter? The answers to those questions will probably determine Buffalo´s fate in 2015. The franchise at least made a conscious effort to upgrade the offense, with Percy Harvin and LeSean McCoy arriving in town to handle the skill positions that were usually so thin in Buffalo.
The Bills have a soft slate ahead, even as they could probably start the season 0-2 with tough home game versus the Colts and Patriots. It should get easier from there, especially as Miami only has to face two playoff teams over their final 10 games. I see a bunch of close games for Buffalo, with McCoy returning to his best form and the defense becoming the best in the NFL. And I also see the Bills challenging for their first playoff spot since 1999. Take the Over.
New England Patriots
Odds to Win Division: -200
Over/Under Wins: 10.5
The Patriots carry a streak of 12 seasons winning at least 10 games, and history has shown us to always trust Belichick and Brady. So, is there any chance to go against the current in 2015? After all, the effects of a Super Bowl hangover have been well studied and do show up for defending champions, while at the same time the Pats lost more than a few key contributors from last season. Gone are Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, and also franchise icon Vince Wilfork, leaving New England´s defense with a ton of question marks. There is also the matter of a potential appeal leaving the team without Brady mid-season (but that seems unlikely at this point), but even Brady will be 38 and inching more towards the end.
Despite all of this, there just isn´t enough to go against the best QB-coach combination since Walsh and Montana. Somewhat cruelly, the Patriots are getting the easiest schedule in the AFC East, despite tough out-of-slate visits against the Colts and Broncos. Brady showed last season that he hasn´t missed a beat, and now the Patriots enter 2015 with a massive chip on their shoulder after the whole DeflateGate fiasco. Remember the last time something similar happened? Belichick went into full revenge mode and the Patriots went 16-0.
Now, there is an argument to be made that the Patriots could cruise and win the division with a normal 10-6 record, making the half game in the bet a bit challenging, but I still trust them to go 11-5 or better while being one of the best teams in the AFC. The Patriots will have a huge target on their backs for the full season, but that is exactly how they like it. Take the Over confidently.