Is it too early to crown the New England Patriots the 2012 AFC East champion?
Coming off a Super Bowl appearance, the Patriots have so much depth, talent and a Hall of Fame coach and quarterback, that other AFC East teams should not be able to keep pace. It's been that way 10 of the past dozen seasons. Why should anything change this year, right?
Well, not so fast.
Offseason moves and coaching changes by the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins have made the AFC East much more competitive in 2012. Last year only one team -- New England -- had a winning record. This season at least three teams are capable of making the playoffs.
Each AFC East opponent presents a threat to New England that we didn't see the prior season. Here's why the Patriots should be concerned:
The Bills had arguably the best offseason in the NFL. The $100 million signing of stud defensive end Mario Williams was a game-changer, and instantly presented something for the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady to worry about. The additions of defensive end Mark Anderson, rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore and left tackle Cordy Glenn all plugged holes. And re-signing No. 1 receiver Steve Johnson and starting tailback Fred Jackson were important moves.
Buffalo is well-stocked and has the talent to compete with the Patriots. The biggest question is experience. The Bills are trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Many players in their locker room have never made the postseason. The growing preseason hype only adds to the pressure.
At their best, the Bills can play with anyone. They proved it last season during their 5-2 start. Buffalo was the only AFC East team to split with the Patriots in 2011, which should get New England’s attention.
With a two-headed rushing attack, a versatile offensive line and a defense that could finish in the top 10, Buffalo has provided a lot of reasons for the Patriots and the rest of the AFC East to be concerned this season.
Patriots' concern meter: 7
New York Jets
The Jets imploded last season. But head coach Rex Ryan and his veteran roster have been New England's biggest rival in recent years. New York knows how to beat New England. The Jets have proved it over the past few years, including a huge win in the playoffs following the 2010 season.
New York's defense has slowed the Patriots’ high-powered offense in the past. The Jets were No. 5 in overall defense in 2011, and have high hopes for being the No. 1 defense this season. That would go a long way toward closing the gap with New England.
The Jets also must improve significantly on offense under first-year offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. New York had the 25th-ranked offense last season, and was inconsistent in nearly every phase. Starting quarterback Mark Sanchez must have a bounce-back year for the Jets to challenge New England. Backup quarterback Tim Tebow also could play a role as a dual-threat from the read-option offense. Tebow gave New England’s defense a lot of problems last year in its regular-season meeting with the Denver Broncos.
Overall, the Jets are the most experienced challengers to the Patriots’ crown in the AFC East. But it’s hard to tell if New York’s arrow is pointing up or down.
Patriots' concern meter: 6
The Dolphins are making a lot of changes for 2012. Although most of it is for the better, there should be some growing pains in Miami.
It all starts with a new coaching staff, led by rookie head coach Joe Philbin. The offensive-minded Philbin is installing a new West Coast offense in Miami that relies on timing and precision passing. The problem is, Miami is trying to do it with quarterbacks who all have questions and a questionable group of receivers.
Quarterbacks David Garrard, Matt Moore and rookie Ryan Tannehill all have their issues. Garrard has been out of football since 2010, and is coming off back surgery. Moore played well last season, but doesn’t appear to be a natural fit for the West Coast offense. Tannehill has the physical tools, but has limited starting experience and needs time to get up to speed with the NFL game. One of these quarterbacks will be throwing to a limited group of receivers, potentially led by 34-year-old Chad Ochocinco, who produced little last season in New England.
Miami's defense is switching to a 4-3, but should be solid under first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. The Dolphins’ defense is stout up front against the run, and needs to focus on improving its pass defense, especially against New England.
The Dolphins aren't a legitimate threat to the Patriots now. But if Tannehill eventually develops into a franchise quarterback, and the offense eventually comes together over the next 2-3 years, Miami could be a team to keep an eye on in the division.
Patriots' concern meter: 4
Overall, the AFC East is New England's to lose. Barring significant injuries, the Patriots should walk away with this division for the 11th time in the Brady-Belichick era. But if New England loses focus, the upstart Bills and veteran Jets might be good enough to give the Patriots a few headaches.