The fourth installment of our 2009 NFL Preview. Teams are ranked by projected finish.
1. New York Jets
You’re on crack, you’re on dope, you’re on LSD, you’re high, you’re intoxicated, you’re a homer (I’m not from New York), you’re insane, you’re gay.
Fact is I’m none of these things, but chances are you’re thinking it about me right now because a) this is New England’s division, b) the Dolphins are expected to be as good or better than the Jets, and c) major publications like Sports Illustrated have picked New York to finish no better than third in the AFC East. Lucky for me, I have no credibility and hence nothing to lose in making this prognostication. Allow me to explain.
First, why not the Pats or Fins?
Both New England and Miami play two of the toughest schedules in the NFL. So do the Jets, in a sense, but not near to the degree of toughness as that of the Patriots or Dolphins.
In addition, New England is heavily banking on big performances from a number of question-mark players.
Their starting cornerbacks are the ancient Shawn Springs and the underwhelming Leigh Bodden.
Their third wideout is a throwback to another era in the form of Joey Galloway. Hopefully they let him bring his Rascal scooter onto the playing field.
Their starting defensive end, Richard Seymour, is now a member of the Oakland Raiders…kind of.
And their quarterback, some guy named Brady, no one knows how healthy he really is.
All of which eliminates the Patriots, in my opinion, from winning this division.
With Miami, the element of surprise is gone.
Teams will prepare for the Dolphins by studying the Wildcat and anticipating Miami’s tricks. This alone should cost them a couple winnable games in the division.
None of which tells you much about the J-E-T-S.
Sure, they have a rookie QB, and yeah, none of their guys are considered fantasy studs (the telltale sign of a “good” ballclub these days). But they also have a revamped defense that is led by first-year head coach Rex Ryan.
Add to that a tremendous offensive line that should allow first-year QB Mark Sanchez time to find his reads. Dustin Keller is an above-average tight end, and wideouts Jerricho Cotchery and Chansi Stuckey are better than their numbers hint at.
Finally, the Jets have depth on offense.
Behind starting tailback Thomas Jones (who has posted better numbers than you think in recent years) is speedback Leon Washington and rookie Shonn Greene, two ball carriers that could see significant action this season. There’s depth at quarterback, as well, in Kellen Clemens, who could start for a number of NFL teams.
Until the season starts, none of this means anything. But we like the Jets. And so should you.
2. New England Patriots
Every year they seem to defy the clock and win despite their age. In fact, with each new calendar it appears that this ballclub gets better and better, regardless of which players are on the field. It’s a trend that’s been continuing for most of this decade, and one that will likely end this year.
Where to begin. Let’s start with the good.
The Patriots boast a solid offense and a solid defense, and have at their disposal one of the greatest quarterbacks of our generation. No denying that.
In addition, they have a plethora of veteran savvy on both sides of the ball and a winner’s mentality that cannot be discounted.
They have tailbacks for days (ageless Fred Taylor is the starter, to be relieved early and often by the likes of Kevin Faulk, Laurence Maroney, and Sammy Morris), a reliable kicker (Stephen Gostkowski), two of the best wideouts in the business (Randy Moss and Wes Welker, who in and of himself has created his own “type”), and a battle-tested offensive line.
But at the same time, something is missing from this year’s edition of the Pats.
Perhaps it’s linebackers Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi, two of the wisened vets from New England’s championship days that finally succumbed to their expiration dates. The defensive stalwarts have been replaced by two former undrafted free agents in Pierre Woods and Gary Guyton.
Or maybe it’s in the secondary, where New England was never spectacular to begin with, but is now counting on one cornerback past his prime (Shawn Springs) and another who is just okay (Leigh Bodden).
It could be the departure of defensive end Richard Seymour, who was dealt to Oakland less than a week ago. New England shrewdly obtained a first-round draft choice in exchange for Seymour, but unfortunately that solves no problems in 2009.
We could be like everybody else and pick the Pats to win this division just for the hell of it, but we’re not going to do that. The 2009 New England Patriots are good, but are they good enough? Not this time.
3. Miami Dolphins
Last year they outwitted opponents with the Wildcat offense. This year, they’ll have to take deception to a whole new level to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.
Opposing teams are going to be scheming and game-planning and re-scheming and re-game-planning simply to stop Miami’s Wildcat designs. As it stands, the Dolphins might be better off abandoning the Wildcat altogether this year. Now that would be a shock.
Whether they go gimmicky or gravy, Miami simply doesn’t have the horses to pull the cart across the finish line in first place.
Quarterback Chad Pennington is an efficient manager of the offense, who lacks the arm strength to capably utilize his primary weapon in WR Ted Ginn, Jr. Ginn is short, speedy, and could be one of the better deep threats in the league if, say, backup QB Chad Henne was doing the throwing.
Instead, the lackluster Pennington is forced to dump off short throws to the likes of TE Anthony Fasano, or less-flashy (i.e. slower) wideouts Greg Camarillo or Davone Bess.
Even tailbacks Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are on the receiving end of their share of Pennington’s throws, and while both ball carriers are decent runners, neither are as effective away from the deceptive nature of the Wildcat.
The Fish do possess a powerful, veteran-laden defense that should help keep them in some games, but they also have the toughest schedule statistically in the NFL.
It seems that with this ballclub every positive has a counterproductive negative, and that should be just enough to keep Miami from the upper half of this division.
4. Buffalo Bills
The T.O. Show is broadcasting 24/7 in Buffalo these days, but one receiver, no matter how flashy, can’t make all the difference.
Even with Terrell Owens in uniform, the Bills are still lacking in certain facets of their game. Most notably, they struggle on both sides of the line, offense and defense. Everyone knows that big games are won in the trenches, but unfortunately for Buffalo, there aren’t that many big-game linemen wearing the red-and-blue.
If Buffalo is going to contend, it will be thanks in large part to their offensive skill players.
QB Trent Edwards is one of the headiest players in the NFL (going to school at Stanford will do that for you), and should be able to effectively manage ballgames with two top-tier wideouts to throw the ball to. In addition to Owens and Lee Evans (a 1,000-yard receiver in 2008), Buffalo’s third pass-catcher, WR Josh Reed, isn’t half-bad himself.
In the backfield, Buffalo has one of the fugliest tailbacks to ever play the game in Marshawn Lynch. Lynch should be able to thwart opponents just by looking them in the eye (it’s the equivalent of watching that girl from The Ring destroy your soul at first glance), but on top of that he’s a decent rusher, as well.
Buffalo will be without Lynch for the first four games of the season as he serves a suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on personal ugliness. I jest.
In reality, Lynch is out for getting into off-the-field trouble, which paves the way for backup Fred Jackson, a powerfully built runner (Jackson stands 6’1″, and weighs in at 215 lbs) in the mold of Lynch who should fill in capably to start the season.
In any other division, the Bills could easily contend for first or second place with the talent they now have. But this is the AFC East, the toughest grouping of four teams in football, and for Buffalo that equates to a year in the cellar.