Here are seven notes an observations on the AFC East in Week 15:
With Rob Gronkowski's emergence with the New England Patriots, you almost forget how good fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez is. The Denver Broncos certainly forgot about Hernandez in coverage. He led the game with nine receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown. It was clear Denver's strategy was to stop Gronkowski, who is having a monster season. That didn't bother Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who went away from "Gronk" and targeted Hernandez a team-high 11 times. Gronkowski only caught four passes for 53 yards and had his touchdown streak end at six games. But Hernandez also is a top-10 tight end. He's just not as consistent as Gronkowski and had a few drops this season. But Hernandez needs to stay ready, especially in the playoffs, if future opponents decide to put most of their attention on Gronkowski.
The Patriots won convincingly, but their run defense in the first quarter was atrocious. The holes, missed tackles and not getting off blocks Sunday was the worst I’ve seen from New England all season. Fortunately, quarterback Tom Brady and the offense scored enough points to force Denver to throw the ball in the second half. The Broncos rushed for 252 yards, including 167 in the first quarter. If it was a closer game, New England’s defense could have allowed 300-plus yards on the ground.
The New York Jets clearly missed injured safety Jim Leonhard in Sunday's 45-19 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. New York blew a lot of coverages over the middle and could not guard Eagles tight end Brent Celek. Philadelphia’s tight end had a monster game, with five receptions for 156 yards and one touchdown. Celek’s longest catch was for 73 yards. Teams have been attacking New York’s defense over the middle this season, because its corners are so good. But there is a big drop off at safety, especially when Leonhard is out of the game. The Jets need to consider this in the offseason when Leonhard becomes a free agent.
Right tackle is definitely a spot the Jets need to upgrade next season. Right tackle Wayne Hunter has struggled in nearly every Jets game I’ve seen in person. Philadelphia defensive end Jason Babin took Hunter to school Sunday to the tune of three sacks. Hunter does not have quick feet and gets pushed around too often. New York drafted Vladimir Ducasse in the second round in 2010 with hopes that he could develop into a starter. But Ducasse remains a raw project, and the team cannot afford to wait another year. The Jets need to find someone on that side of the offensive line to protect Sanchez.
The Buffalo Bills' were horrendous on third downs in a 30-23 loss to the Miami Dolphins. The Bills were 0-for-11 on third-down conversions. Buffalo also was 0-for-12 on third downs against Miami in its first meeting in Week 11. It's scary to think the Bills couldn’t get a third-down conversion all season against the Dolphins.
The Buffalo News reported this weekend that Bills receiver Steve Johnson could be seeking a contract worth $8.5-$9 million per season. If that's the case, the Bills should let Johnson test the open market. I expect Buffalo to make a push to keep Johnson this offseason but only at a price the team is comfortable with. The Bills know Johnson's strengths and weaknesses, and they most likely agree he's not a $9-million-a-year player. Johnson is a good player and a good teammate. But he's not an elite No. 1 receiver who can single-handedly take over games. Johnson only has one 100-yard game all season. Plus, receiver is one of the easiest positions in the NFL to replace.
If the season ended today, both the Dolphins (5-9) and Bills (5-9) would have top-10 picks. Buffalo would own the 10th overall pick. The Dolphins would draft ninth, despite sweeping Buffalo this season, because they had the easier schedule. Both teams would be in position to land a top prospect. But Miami is starting to hurt its chances of landing a top quarterback.