We are hours away from getting our first solid clue as to whether the AFC East truly has morphed into the NFL’s most competitive division or is still the AFC Patriots and a Bunch of Wannabes.
Last Sunday got our attention.
On the heels of the Pats opening the season in typical fashion – with Tom Brady passing them to victory – the New York Jets embarrassed the Cleveland Browns, the Miami Dolphins survived against the Washington Redskins and the Bills made it look fairly easy in disposing of the Indianapolis Colts.
There was, at least momentarily, a sense that parity might no longer be just a rumor to those teams that pretty much count on occupying the spots below New England each year.
Opening week has a way of prompting overreaction, especially in these parts and particularly when the Bills take down an opponent whose previous meaningful game decided the AFC championship and is a popular pick to win it all. The other half of that title matchup is in town today, and the optimism of the fan base is at levels that haven’t been seen since well before the Patriots hoisted that fourth Lombardi Trophy in February.
Some of those feelings are influenced by the don’t-worry-we’ve-got-this aura created by the new coach. Some result from the we’ll-stop-at-nothing-to-build-a-winner approach of the new ownership. And some are, well, because the Bills passed the eye test last Sunday.
For one game, they looked the way a team expected by many to make or at least flirt with a first postseason appearance in 16 years is supposed to look. If they manage to do that again today, there will be a dramatic shift in the narrative for the AFC East. It will be widely deemed anyone’s division to win, if that isn’t already the case.
Here’s a look at the likelihood of all four 1-0 clubs piling up enough victories to, in the case of the Patriots, keep the division crown and, in the case of the others, dethrone them:
Why they will win the division: A great defense with the deepest and most talented front in the NFL … Tyrod Taylor continually gains confidence in himself as a quarterback and proves he can consistently get the most out of his dynamic receivers while offering the added dimension of explosive runs … The running game finding its groove as LeSean McCoy gets healthier and develops better chemistry with his blockers … Excellent coaching in all phases.
Why they won’t: Unable to overcome the treacherous mid-season stretch of playing five of six games on the road … Opponents have Taylor figured out by the fourth game of the season, when defensive coordinators have a fairly solid body of video to dissect … McCoy’s hamstring problems linger and rookie guard John Miller proves he isn’t quite as ready to start as he appeared.
Why they will win the division: Ndamukong Suh draws more attention for leading a dominant defense than accidentally (purposely?) using his foot to separate fallen opponents from their helmets … Ryan Tannehill maximizes the production of his new cast of receivers and becomes the “elite” quarterback that one of those wideouts, Greg Jennings, said he wasn’t … They take full advantage of having three of their first five and five of their final seven games at home, including their season finale against the Patriots.
Why they won’t: Suh, who didn’t play well against the Redskins, becomes a $114-million free-agent flop … Tannehill, who also didn’t play well against Washington, doesn’t come close to living up to his new, $96-million deal … Coach Joe Philbin, caught on camera having an animated exchange with Suh on the sidelines and thought to be on shaky ground if the Dolphins don’t make the playoffs, loses control of the team.
Why they will win the division: Their defense, boasting arguably the league’s best cornerbacks in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie and an exceptionally talented line, continues to thrive under defensive-coordinator-turned-head-coach Todd Bowles … Ryan Fitzpatrick keeps operating Chan Gailey’s offense, which emphasizes quick-release passing, efficiently and effectively … Chris Ivory provides a steady diet of the sort of running he did in the opener (91 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries).
Why they won’t: Good Fitz too often becomes Bad Fitz, forcing throws that lead to costly mistakes because he feels the need to try to carry more of the load than he should … Bowles isn’t able to successfully transition to head coach … The Jets can’t overcome playing four of their first six games on the road, beginning Monday night at Indianapolis.
Why they will win the division: Brady remains Brady, even after a tumultuous offseason and preseason and even with Father Time breathing down his neck … Bill Belichick maintains his coaching wizardry … Rob Gronkowski keeps facing opponents that don’t have King Kong under contract … LeGarrette Blount, who returns from his suspension today, and Dion Lewis are a formidable double threat in the backfield.
Why they won’t: Age, along with the repeated pounding from those stout AFC East defensive fronts and the continued distraction of the NFL’s appeal of the “Deflategate” ruling, catches up with Brady … The offensive line is too leaky … The defense is too soft against the run and too prone to giving up big plays through the air … They can’t handle being on the road for five of their final eight games, including the Jan. 3 finale in the South Florida heat.
Don’t be surprised if …
… the Seahawks suddenly warm up to the idea of renegotiating the contract of holdout safety Kam Chancellor if they lose against the Green Bay Packers. To say their defense isn’t the same without him would be a massive understatement. The Seahawks have been steadfast in their position that they don’t want to adjust the salary of a player with three years left on his deal, but a 0-2 start seems likely to provide the necessary motivation to get a deal done.
… Peyton Manning goes through the season looking more like the washed-up shell of himself that he was in the season-opening win against Baltimore and through much of Thursday night’s victory at Kansas City than he was in the latter stages against the Chiefs.
… San Francisco’s Vernon Davis has a Gronk-like outing against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers simply don’t have anyone on defense that can match up with a top-level (or, perhaps, even a mediocre) tight end.
… The Vikings do a lot less of running Adrian Peterson out of shotgun formation than they did against the 49ers. In his four shotgun carries for seven yards, Peterson didn’t seem the least bit comfortable. One person who was quick to notice was his former Minnesota fullback, Jerome Felton, who now plays for the Bills. “Crazy,” he said. “I mean, obviously, when I was with them, we were dot the eye or under center and things like that, and just let him get downhill as quick as possible and try to create some space for him. Obviously, we had a lot of success running that style of offense. It’ll be interesting to see how they transition or adjust, but I’m sure they will.”
… The Ravens are able to overcome the loss of standout pass-rusher Terrell Suggs to a season-ending torn Achilles. They’ll miss his leadership, but remain strong with Elvis Dumervil moving into Suggs’ rush-linebacker spot and Courtney Upshaw playing effectively on the strong side. Newly acquired Jason Babin and rookie Za’Darius Smith should provide solid depth.
… There are many more missed extra-point tries from the new distance of 33 yards. The four in Week One are already half of the total misses for the entire 2014 season. Cincinnati’s Mike Nugent, who had an extra-point attempt blocked against Oakland, sees the rules change as a blatant effort to make kickers struggle – which is bound to happen with greater frequency as the weather becomes a larger factor in many stadiums – and encourage two-point conversion tries. “There’s only one reason they moved it back: they want us to miss more,” Nugent told reporters. “Whoever came up with the rule got what they wanted. … I don’t like the rule because, I could be wrong, but I don’t know of any rules that have been changed to make guys fail more.”