AFC East Report: Week 6

The weekly AFC East Report is a new feature, which will breakdown the AFC East Division. Each week, analysts who are avid fans of each of the respective AFCE teams, will present an objective analysis of their team and summarize important developments and key updates on each team. A weekly read of this column will keep you posted on all the important developments within the division.

This week's AFCE games:

St. Louis @ Miami; Buffalo @ Baltimore; Jets @ New England

New England Patriots:

A measure of a good team is their ability to win, even when they don't play their best. Back when Tiger Woods was dominating the golf world, his famous line was always "I didn't have my "A" game today" The Patriots, winners of an NFL record 20 straight games, have not had their "A" game yet in 2004 and have still managed to go 5-0. During their remarkable run, the Patriots have managed to beat the Indianapolis Colts three times, Two Time Super Bowl winner Bill Parcells, Two-time Super Bowl winner Mike Shanahan, Super Bowl winner Mike Holmgren and a myriad of other, very well respected head coaches (Jeff Fisher, Dennis Green, Jim Fassel) each of whom has taken a team to a Super Bowl, or Conference title game.

Naturally, this says as much about Bill Belichick, as it does his players. Make no mistake, you can't win in the NFL without talent. But Belichick is one of the few guys in the NFL (Parcells is another) that can beat you with his team on Sunday, and then swap teams and beat you with your own team the following week. There is simply no better strategist in the NFL and Belichick (owner of four Super Bowl rings) should have a bust waiting for him in Canton when he retires.

Tom Brady needs to play better than he has the last two weeks if the Patriots hope to beat the Jets, this Sunday. Brady's superior decision making has disappeared at times this season, and while I still would take him over any QB in the league (can you hear me Duante Culpepper?) he simply cannot afford to miss open receivers (David Givens) running behind the secondary, like he did against Seattle.

Corey Dillon is on pace for a 1600 yard season and is one big reason the Patriots are still undefeated. For two straight weeks, the Patriots have called nearly twice as many running plays as passing plays and Dillon's ability to move the pile inside and threaten the corner on the outside is perhaps the only reason they have managed to survive without Deion Branch and Troy Brown. How many other NFL teams could survive without two of their top three receivers?

While Daniel Graham did not catch a TD pass for the first time this season, he continues to be a dominant blocker and has to be considered amongst the top 5 TE's in the NFL. His blocking is one of the reasons Corey Dillon has been so effective this season. 2nd year man Bethel Johnson showed the entire NFL just how fast he is when he made one of the best catches one can ever see, late in the 4th quarter against Seattle, to seal the victory. Johnson is the fastest player on the Patriots and was the fastest player at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2003. he is one of the very few guys in the NFL that really can run a sub 4.35 40.

Defensively, the Patriots did a pretty good job stopping the run against Seattle, but were susceptible to big plays again in the passing game. Coach Belichick actually took the blame himself, claiming he coached "poorly" and let Seattle "run wide open" on a number of plays. It will be interesting to see what schemes Belichick and Romeo Crennel can concoct to contain Chad Pennington and the high flying Jets this Sunday, in Foxboro.

The Patriots continue to get good pressure on the opposing QB as their 19 sacks rank amongst the NFL leaders. If forced to name the best defensive players for the Pats thus far in 2004, it would have to be Rodney Harrison, Eugene Wilson, Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest. Harrison and Wilson form what might be the best safety combo in the league while their aging LB corps continues to deliver, week in and week out.

While it can be argued that the Patriots have at least beaten the Colts and Seahawks, en route to their 5-0 start, by comparison, the J-E-T-S from NY have yet to face a legitimate opponent in this year. While the pressure is clearly on the Patriots (who have been installed as 6.5 point favorites) to win this game it should also help us to calibrate the Jets and find out just how good this 5-0 team really is.

It's been 31 years since the NFL last saw two 5-0 teams square off, I expect this one to go down to the wire with the Patriots pulling it out, 27-23.

Take the Jets and the points. Last week, 8-6 (against the spread) for the season 55-33 (against the spread)

Analyst: Craig Natale; natalysis@yahoo.com

New York Jets:

The 49ers game was nearly a debacle with everyone in AFC East laughing at the Jets expense, but instead it became a story of two halves. No one has wanted to take the Jets seriously until they proved themselves against a team with a pulse, and the 49ers almost exposed them before they could get a chance against to do it. The Jets rebounded from a first half of missed blocks/tackles, dropped passes, botched interceptions and blown coverages to shut down the 49ers who played like a scared team with the lead.

Offense:

The entire first half they couldn't get the run going and couldn't pass downfield. The 49ers showed no respect for the Jets passing game by stuffing the line, particularly the inside gaps where the Jets were starting back up guards Brent Smith and Jonathan Goodwin, and dared Pennington to beat them. And Chad could not get off a dangerous pass to make the 49ers pay. There was pressure in Pennington's face from the start, and he often didn't have the time to throw deep as the 49ers somehow generated a steady rush despite the absence of Julian Peterson and Andre Carter, and John Engleberger playing with cracked ribs. Once again the Jets couldn't get the intermediate passing game going, particularly across the middle where receivers have more room to run after the catch. You have to wonder what is wrong with Paul Hackett. He thinks his offense is so strong they can play it safe all the time or he's simply scared. Against bad teams they can get away with this, but not against the better ones.

As bad as the first half was, the Jets redeemed themselves by taking over in the second half with three touchdown drives. Lamont Jordan who inexplicably entered the game with one carry this season was the spark plug, with a big first down and a subsequent TD run to get things going. On the whole, the Jets have to be happy with the play of back up guards Jonathan Goodwin and Brent Smith who made some excellent blocks to spring Martin and Jordan despite being tested heavily by the 49ers gameplan. Line depth has been a question for these Jets, and while they can't afford to get more people hurt, they now have some positive answers about Goodwin's development. Pennington was not harassed in the second half and made good decisions. McCareins and Becht finally joined the offense and played big roles in the comeback.

As we head into a game where every decision will be critical it's worth mentioning that Edwards hasn't fully distanced himself from last year's dumb game decisions. With three minutes left in the 3rd quarter he made a ridiculous call to go for two when the kick would have made it 14-10. It's hard to believe he felt there'd be no more scoring in the game except a Jets field goal try.

Defense:

The Jets pass coverage is a problem that keeps surfacing each week, and when they finally lose a game the pass D will no doubt play a big role. Donnie Abraham had some uncharacteristic lapses, but the bigger problem is David Barrett. When you watch him play, you get flashes of Aaron Beasley because you see a guy who plays 5-10 yards off the line to avoid getting torched deep, and just shows up to make the tackle. Worse, it's easy to put moves on him 15 yards down the field as he seems to be guessing which way the receiver is going to break. The team really misses Ray Mickens. What seems to be saving the pass defense is the rush. When it's there, as it was in the second half, QB's have a hard time exploiting the secondary. Because of this reason and his big stats, I think John Abraham is the team's co-MVP along with Curtis Martin so far. With seven sacks and many pressures during key times, he's held opposing QB's in check. The 49ers were using the pass to set up the run, and when the Jets pass rush picked up the tempo in the second half both facets of the 49ers attack stopped working. The Jets rookies, Vilma and Coleman, continue to play well and both made picks, though Coleman's pick and touchdown return were negated by a questionable penalty on Barrett. Vilma's pick locked up the game.

Looking forward:

The Jets made it to the New England showdown at 5-0, and it hasn't always been pretty, but it's a young team that's learned to win. This is a big yardstick for how far they've come, but it's hard to see the Jets winning in Foxboro. Not that they don't have a legitimate chance to win, but they'll be outcoached and they're still a little too green to think they'll win such a big showdown on the road, especially when the Pats know the Jets are measuring themselves. Playing a tough game even in a loss will be a moral victory, the Jets have a far better chance of winning the rematch at home.

The key match ups will be Tom Brady against the Jets generous secondary, and the Jets offensive line against the Pats mushy run defense. Corey Dillon will get his running yards but I don't think he'll have a huge day, so the wild card is how many yards Brady will put up with a depleted receiving corps. Normally this would be taking candy from a baby, but Brady has a few less options to throw the ball to. Jon McGraw should take away the tight end option and the Jets historically have been able to get some pressure on Brady. It won't be lost on Charlie Weis, the best offensive coordinator in the league that the Jets blitz sometimes bogs down, and John Abraham is the only guy reliably generating heat on the QB. So I'd expect him to add protection there and take chances downfield against Barrett. Whether the Jets can cover what's left of the New England receivers and whether Shaun Ellis or the blitz can step up to make Brady pay for standing in the pocket is the battle to watch, with the odds favoring Brady.

On the other side of the ball, the Jets will need to control the clock with Martin and Jordan to keep the ball out of Brady's hands, and make things easier for Pennington who might not have Moss to throw to. This looked like a battle that would go in the Jets favor just 3 weeks ago, but it's a much tougher call now with two starting guards out of the line up, Fabini's back giving him problems and Mawae snapping lefty because of a cast on his right hand. This could be a great game to truly bring Lamont Jordan out of mothballs, especially if the Patriots try a similar approach to the 49ers plan of overloading the inside gaps to pressure the guards. Jordan has more speed than Martin so he can get outside quickly to make big plays. The Jets must establish the run so Pennington can exploit Rodney Harrison's tendency to jam the line, and to keep Pennington clean. I don't think they've thrown a bomb in the past three games, but I'd look for that to change. Expect the Patriots to blitz. Pennington has been much more effective when he has the extra second to decide where he's going with the ball, and he's not nearly as elusive or creative in the pocket as Brady. It is a no-brainer that the Patriots should come hard after him to generate mistakes. The Jets need the running game to work to have any shot in this one.

Analyst: Nick Romano

Miami Dolphins:

Dolphins fall to 0-6

The Buffalo Bills gave owner Ralph Wilson a nice 86th birthday present with a 20-13 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. The win gave Buffalo their first win of the 2004 season and left Miami as the only winless team in the league.

The Dolphins continued their losing ways by putting forth yet another dismal offensive performance. Depsite solid running by former Bill RB Sammy Morris (91 yards rushing), Miami could only ring up two field goals and a TD reception by WR Derrius "this time I held on to the ball" Thompson. The Dolphins actually had their first lead (10-7) of the season at halftime despite having an opposing defense return another interception for a TD. Buffalo RB Willis McGahee powered the Bills with over 100 yards rushing as the Bills pulled away in the 2nd half and outscored the Dolphins 13-3.

Offensively, it was offensive! The leagues worst offense gave up another score off an INT and couldn't punch in a TD with another 1st and goal from the 1-yard line. Jay Fiedler continued his erratic QB play and the offensive line struggled with the Bill D-line all afternoon. Other than Morris, TE Randy McMichael had several nice catches but the rest of the offense sputtered and is on pace to break the NFL record for fewest points scored in a season.

Miami's defense put in their usual galant effort, all to no avail. The Bills were held to 13 offensive points and held in check most of the game. The usual suspects had their usual good game, DE Jason Taylor, MLB Zach Thomas and CBs Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison. Kudos to newly acquired K Matt Bryant! He looked solid converting two field goals (one from 47 yards) and a PAT in the very windy conditions.

At 0-6 the Dolphins are in the midst of their worst season in history. The sharks are really circling Dave Wannstedt and he is as good as gone as Dolphins head coach. The question is whether he will make the entire season. No answers so far from MIA owner H. Wayne Huizenga and even less, if any positive spin from GM Rick Spielman. Things are going south in Dolphin land in a hurry and next Sunday brings the "greatest show on turf" Rams to the stadium formerly known as Joe Robbie. This time next week, 0-7 is a highly likely unless Miami can circle the wagons, which is highly unlikely!

Analyst: Chris Dellapietra

Buffalo Bills:

This past Sunday's game was a strange one indeed. While some seem to be viewing this game as a stepping stone to moving this team in the right direction, I only see it as an eked out win vs. one of the worst teams to have played in the NFL over the last decade or so, perhaps longer. The Miami offense is currently on pace to score a league record low 147 points.

In the first half, vs. the Dolphins, clearly the NFL's worst team now and easily, the Bills allowed the Dolphins to score 10 offensive points on the merits of their offense led by ex-Bill Sammy Morris who rushed for 83 yards in the half and led the Dolphins to 176 net yards of offense and who himself averaged nearly seven yards-per-carry. On offense the Bills were no more spectacular amassing only an abysmal 99 net yards on 36 rushing yards and 63 net passing yards.

The second half was the exact opposite however with the Bills amassing 242 net yards, mostly in the 4th quarter, coupled with the Dolphins being held to only 36 net yards of offense. The result was a 20-13 win for the Bills who could have added another field goal in the waning seconds of the game on the last 4th-and-goal at the Miami one-yard line yet chose not to wisely not risk injury or "run up the score."

While some fans were enthused by this win, it is what it is, namely an eked out win vs. what is clearly now the absolute worst team in the league with absolutely no argument to counter such a notion. While this game may offer hope to some Bills fans going forward, the reality of this game simply suggests that the Bills are fortunate indeed that this hapless, depleted, and downtrodden Miami team was next on the schedule, and at home I might add, or else all indicators point to notions that perhaps this game would not have resulted in a win. It has done little if anything to reestablish notions even coming close to matching the hype and talk of the front office and coaches prior to the season starting. It certainly should not have bumped the Bills up the power charts much if at all.

The fourth quarter punch, an effort that has yet to be duplicated this season even for only a single quarter of play, came about only due to the fact that the Bills were ahead. Given the way that they had played throughout the first half, it would be reaching indeed to assume that just about any other team could not have put up more than 10 offensive points vs. the Bills they way they had played defensively in that first half making playing with such a lead fortunate indeed.

Was this game a start to putting this train back on the right track? It can't hurt, but the reality of the situation spells out a more clear ‘no'. In fact, the only statement that was made is that the Bills are better than the Dolphins. Boy howdy!

Many of the same characteristics of poor play, mental mistakes, and a vapid offensive effort were present in this game only having been overcome due to the Bills having played an effectively powerless opponent and then largely only due to outlasting that same opponent. This was the second most picked on kid on the playground beating up the most picked on kid on the playground while the bigger bullies were absent.

The team will have a somewhat better shot at proving how much they have evolved this coming Sunday however when they play a Raven team not too much above the Bills or even the Dolphins however in the same regard. Once again the Bills have drawn a fortunate hand due to the fact that Jamal Lewis, last season's NFL rushing leader, will be sitting out a suspension for the first game this coming Sunday. So the Bills have the luxury of playing the Ravens minus Lewis which should prove to be an enormous edge. They also enter the game likely minus top NFL tight end and last season's leading receiver Todd Heap.

No doubt Ray Lewis will have his defense knowing full well that they must step up however perhaps making the Bills offensive task a tad more difficult. If the Bills can come away with a rare road victory however, then, while perhaps not an enormous leap, they will have once again at least inched forward somewhat depending upon how such a win is achieved.

Otherwise the Ravens are comparable to the Dolphins offensively without Lewis and Heap, perhaps even worse. They have only unproven RBs, one of the weakest QBs in the league and perhaps one worse than Fiedler, and young and sketchy WRs. To their credit, their offensive line is better than that of the Dolphins. Defensively the Ravens are more sound than the Dolphins were with the obvious difference being their front seven, which is not banged up and has been playing well. Two weeks ago the Ravens put up 14 points vs. the Skins purely on the merits of their defense and special teams.

The game is a road game for the Bills who have only beaten last season's Giants (4-12) and Jaguars (5-11) on the road over the past 14 road games. The Bills bring a four-game winless road streak, they are 1-8 in their last nine road games, and are 2-12 in their last 14 road games.

If the Ravens do not blitz much in this game then the Bills will have a chance at victory. If they do blitz frequently however, recent history this season indicates that the Bills will be fortunate to score at all. Therein lies my key-to-the-game. The Bills will have little control over the defensive approach of the Ravens although the Ravens are a relatively blitzing team and will be playing at home with a banged up defense.

The Ravens have allowed 13 points to the Steelers in Roethlisburger's first game and 27 points vs. the Chiefs at home in Baltimore so far this season, so they can be scored on in their own house. The Ravens do come off of a bye week however. But the Ravens are about a .500 team with Lewis and Heap, worse without them. So given the types of teams that the Bills have been able to beat during the Bledsoe-Donahoe era, this Ravens team fits right into the mold.

To discuss this piece further, or for general discussions on the Bills and the AFC East, tune into the "2004 Bills Report" live on Thursday evenings from 7 to 9 p.m. at www.broadcastmonsters.com. The number to call into the show is 1-877-913-9739. View my other analyses at www.billsreport.com.

Analyst: Mark Weiler; mweiler.billsreport@cox.net


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