AFC East Report: Week 11

The weekly AFC East Report breaks down 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:

Buffalo @ Seattle; Jets @ Arizona; Miami @ San Francisco; Baltimore @ New England

Buffalo Bills:

There was quite a bit of hoopla in the media and amongst fans this week about how marvelous the Bills offense was in this past game. For the life of me it is beyond comprehension. I see it more as a severe lowering of standards and expectations of NFL-caliber offensive play than of actual play, contributions, scoring, and more importantly, an ability to move the ball regularly, consistently, and when it matters the most. The Bills' special teams deserve the ‘Offensive MVP' on the season this year. They also deserve it in this game.

The average starting field position on scoring drives in the four games won by the Bills on the season has been at the opponents' 44-yard line. HELLO! If there is a team with better average starting field position in their wins, I'd sure like to know which one! The average starting field position for touchdowns in the Bills four won games in those games is the opponents' 38-yard line. In this game it was at the opponents' 42-yard line.

Now, I have no trouble giving kudos for a job well done, but when your offense has failed to move the ball for a touchdown in games won more than twice from within its own 45-yard line, it becomes difficult to give the offense the credit for those wins. Six times the Bills started their drive from within their own 40-yard line in this game, and against an absolutely abysmal defense, and they were unable to score a touchdown more than once. They were unable to even move the ball with regularity against which they should have had absolutely no trouble doing so. They were below the averages allowed by the Rams significantly in rushing, passing, and total yardage. This is fine, but then let's not affix the credit to the offense.

Instead, let's put it square on the shoulders of the special teams and defense that gave the ball to the offense from spots on the field from which the offense could score. In four games won this season, against three pathetic defenses this season, one of them being the Rams in this game, the offense has been able to generate a touchdown on drives originating within its own half of the field only four times, twice having been within five yards of midfield.

The defense and special teams have carried this team this season. The Bills offense has generally speaking only been "successful" vs. extremely poor defenses such as the Rams, Arizona, and Miami and then only at home, as well as in games with mitigating circumstances such as the Jets coming off of a Monday Night game, again, at home for the Bills. On the road the Bills offense has averaged only 7.5 points-per-game.

The place to point for the success of the Bills overall, but this week in particular, is the special teams which continue to put up freakish performances. The defense also contributed in spades in this one.

The first touchdown of the game was on a very nice offensive drive begun at the Bills own 29-yard line. The second touchdown was set up by the defense with a stellar forced three-and-out following a net loss of seven yards on the series and then followed up with a short punt giving the Bills the ball at midfield. Two of the best three passes of the day to Evans and Campbell for a 19-yard touchdown put the Bills at 14 points were on this drive. One other drive begun at the Bills own 34-yard line resulted in a long drive followed by a red zone failure netting three on a field goal. The long play of the day was a risky flea-flicker having come as close to disaster as it ended in success and one that went for 54-yards on a toss to Sam Aiken and was on the aforementioned field goal drive.

That was the extent of the offense's contributions to scoring in this game. All of that was in the second quarter. The offense started slowly and did little else through the other three quarters of play which when coupled with the fact that the Rams defense is among the worst in the league, I have differed in my analysis of why the offense was not stellar in this game. It showed up for a quarter, nothing more. In fact, Willis McGahee's long run of 41-yards was approximately half of the net yardage in the other three quarters of play. It was also his only run worth mentioning as he was 19-of-59 otherwise on the day for barely over three yards-per-carry. As can be seen in the paragraph below, over half of the team's points can be more attributable to the exceptional play of the defense and special teams than to the offense.

Of the remaining 23 points, seven came on an 86-yard Nate Clements punt return. Seven more were set up by a Freddie Smith 53-yard punt return putting the ball at the Ram 5-yard line for another "T-Ball" variety touchdown. On the following kickoff, the Bills recovered a fumble setting themselves up in field goal territory and resulting in a field goal. Another Smith punt return gave the Bills the ball at the Ram 49-yard line resulting in a short drive and another field goal.

The Bills now prepare to go on a road game streak presumably because the schedule maker this season was on acid when the schedule was made. Four of the Bills next five games are road games. The opponents are not rugged by any stretch raising the bar for winning at least three of these games to minimally acceptable. After Seattle this week, the Bills travel to Miami to face arguably the worst team in the league. Then it's back home to face a punchless Cleveland Brown team bruised and battered with injuries and another team on life support. Then it's back into the family sedan to face Cincy and San Francisco on the road, two teams whose equipment manager is polishing up the players' golf clubs and that don't scare anyone. Heck, one team where he's likely already passed them out.

The play of the special teams and defense can absolutely not be understated in contributing to wins this season thus far. In fact, the Bills would likely be 1-9 or even perhaps winless without stellar special teams and/or defensive performances in all four wins. The special teams and defense have directly scored 23 points in the Bills four wins this season in addition to setting up another 68 points on drives begun at midfield down to the opponent's five-yard line in this game.

To date, in the four Bills wins this season, the offense has put up only four touchdowns and four field goals on drives having originated within their own half of the field. That's 40 points or 10 points-per-game, in wins. Again, this has largely been vs. very poor defensive teams.

Meanwhile, in those same four wins this season, the offense has put up six touchdowns and four field goals on drives having originated in the opponents' end of the field. That's 54 points or 13.5 points-per-game. Of those, three touchdowns (21 points) were set up on drives begun within the opponents' red zone. Five touchdowns and two field goals (41 points, or more than the offense has scored on drives from their own end of the field) have been on drives having begun with the opponents' 30-yard line.

If this does not paint the picture as to how lackluster the Bills offense is, then nothing will. There are stirrings of Humpty Dumpty's being "put back together" which are nothing short of absurd. Humpty is no more a playoff caliber QB or a quarterback capable of getting it done vs. top half teams than the Wizard of Oz was real.

As well, talk of Willis McGahee having turned into the running back that the Bills were hoping to get is way premature at this point. Certainly there is still hope, but the evidence for some of the talk at present is speculative at best and has no basis other than yards based on sheer quantity of carries, a norm for teams having Humpty at QB who's made a career out of yardage totals primarily with nary a mention of scoring or efficiency. The talk at present is resultant of a hungry fan and media base so desperately desirous of seeing some shred of offensive success in Buffalo that conclusions apart from much real evidence are being leapt to in sheer hopes without much basis at present. There are still six games remaining however.

The problem is that the defense and special teams will not be able to "pass the hat" for the offense each and every week. In fact, had it not passed it the times that it has, then the Bills would be feeding on the bottom of the league. So it's long past due for fans to realize fully exactly the contribution that the special teams and defense have made to scoring and winning this season. It has nearly nothing to do with the offense, which can count its blessings, even in this past game, for the superlative play of the D and STs.

Lastly, and as a food-for-thought, the Bills special teams lead the NFL in both punt and kickoff returns individually for TDs as well as combined punt and kickoff TD returns as well. They have also been extremely instrumental in long returns setting up the offense for scores. Thankfully so given that the offense has averaged only 10 points-per-game on drives begun within their own half of the field in wins. The offense is averaging fewer than 8 points-per-game in drives begun within their own half of the field overall. This is not a hallmark of a good offense!

The Bills also lead the league in kickoff return average on kick coverage. They rank fourth in kick return average and first in punt return average. Punter Brian Moorman is having an "off year" but still ranks average in net average and at 10th in gross average. Defensively, the Bills rank 10th in gross punt return average and 2nd in net punt return average in spite of having allowed league-leading two punt returns for touchdowns.

The special teams this season truly is special and 90% or more of the positive difference between this season's Bills and last season's Bills. It has carried the offense, with much help from the defense. To acknowledge anything different takes away from the depth and breadth of their achievements and is a slap in their face.

Early prediction: Bills 17, Seahawks 27

The Bills average 7.5 offensive points-per-game on the road. Put it together. Figure seven from the D/STs, which is above average, throw in three for good measure. While somewhat beat up, the Bills face yet another well-balanced and potent offense this week.

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

New England Patriots:

Most people know Joltin' Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games in 1941, a record many pundits and fans alike feel will never be broken. What fewer people know, is that he then hit in 17 more, meaning he hit successfully in 73 of 74 games. The New England Patriots are doing their best impression of the iconoclastic introvert, having now won three in a row and 24 of 25 games, dating back to September, 2003.

There are other similarities between The Yankee Clipper and these Patriots. For one, neither was/is too forthcoming with the media as both DiMaggio and the Patriots dispense/d less information to the press, than the US Military does, prior to a "surprise attack" in Iraq. Both DiMaggio and the Patriots excel at the details, the innate, intangible and intuitive forces that often separate World Champions, from everyone else.

DiMaggio did have the advantage of not having 20 million people watch his every move. Few people had televisions when DiMaggio was patrolling the spacious Yankee Stadium outfield. Most fans simply read about his hitting prowess and fielding grace and like the protagonist in any good book, each individual fan could paint any vivid mental image of the Yankee star they chose. It helped that the beat writers covering the dominant Yankee teams in the 40's, extolled virtue on top of virtue when describing his play.

While it's impossible to compare an American hero in one sport against the diversity of 53 men in another, with each win in this 2004 season, the Patriots inch closer towards those legends that transcend sport. While they will never and could never have the social and athletic impact of a Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods or even a Lance Armstrong, in most of those cases, they are competing against icons who transcended individual sports.

It's significantly harder to win when you have to rely on the intelligence, discipline and flexibility of 53 men, than it is to be a dominant performer in an individual sport. In Basketball, with only 5 on the court at any one time, Michael Jordan accounts for 20% of the team. Similarly Ali, Tiger and Lance could also compete on a national or international stage knowing full well that if they performed to the best of their ability, they'd win.

If the Patriots win another Super Bowl in the next year or two, they would simply have to be considered amongst the greatest teams in the history of professional sports. In baseball, it's the Yankees, period. In the NBA it's the Celtics of the 60's, the Lakers and the Bulls during Jordan's reign. Hockey (as if anyone really cares) has the Canadians of many era's and both the New York Islanders and Wayne Gretzky/Mark Messier led Edmonton Oiler teams of the 1980's.

The NFL has seen the Packers of the 60's, Steelers of the 70's, 49ers of the 80's and Cowboys of the 90's dominate and all brought home at least three Championships. However none had to deal with free agency and the salary cap, so it can be argued (and quite justifiably too) that what the Patriots are doing is actually more impressive, since one-third of their entire roster is turned over each year.

Still not convinced? How about that NFL record of 21 wins in a row? What about scoring first an NFL record 15 games in a row? How about winning 36 straight games when leading after three quarters? They say if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, duh, it's a duck. Well, as one famous NFL coach once said "You are what you are" The New England Patriots are 9-1 this year, 24-1 in their last 25 and 44-10 since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady started dating back in 2001 and it's a relationship that's not soon to dissolve.

While the entire country was witness to the Monday night win against the Chiefs, fewer will see them as they tackle the antithesis in the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday at the Razor. There are perhaps not two more disparate teams in the NFL than the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens. The Pats proved Monday night they could shut down a high powered attack on the road. This week they'll have to go against the best in the Ray Lewis, Ed Reed led Raven defense.

Astute observers know that both Lews and Reed come from the "U". -That NFL football factory known as the University of Miami. As I look around the league, it amazes me how one program can consistently pump out the tremendous talent that the "U" does each and every year. With 19 first round picks in the last 4 years, no other College program can compete with the "U" when it comes to preparing college athletes for the rigors of the NFL.

In fact, it can be argued, that if the "U" were able to retain their alumni and compete against other NFL teams, they might just win with;

Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Willis McGahee, Dan Morgan, Clinton Portis, Andre Johnson, Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne, Bryant McKinnie, Jeremy Shockey, Santana Moss, Vinny Testaverde, Warren Sapp, Jonathon Vilma and Bubba Franks- who are just some of the studs taken out of the "U" by the NFL over the past number of years. While the jury is still out on a few of the more recent Hurricanes, like Philip Buchanon, Kellen Winslow, Sean Taylor, Vince Wilfork and D.J. Williams, the Hurricanes have the most 1st round picks (41) and total players drafted (75+) than any other school in the past 15+ years and it's not even close.

Monday night's Patriots win was highlighted by the magnificent return of WR Deion Branch, who was last seen 8 weeks ago, walking off the field with what Coach Belichick called a "shortness of breath". How Branch stepped in and performed, after not seeing the field for 8 weeks is nothing short of remarkable. His run after the catch for a touchdown Monday night was as good as you'll see in the NFL. With Branch back in the lineup, team reception and yards leader David Givens caught only one pass for three yards.

2nd year defensive lineman Ty Warren, the 13th overall selection in the 2003 draft had his best game as a pro, registering seven tackles, two sacks, deflecting a pass and forcing a fumble. With up and coming rookie Vince Wilfork and two time Pro Bowler Richard Seymour, the Patriots boast three, young first-rounders all capable of playing inside or out and appear to be set on the defensive line for the remainder of the decade.

This Sunday, the Pats will likely focus their efforts against the inconsistent Raven running attack, forcing QB Kyle Boller to beat them with his decision making and his arm throwing against a depleted Patriots secondary without starting CB's Ty Law and Tyrone Poole. With TE Todd Heap still out and RB Jamal Lewis nursing an ankle injury, I would be shocked if the Ravens could manage 17 points in this featured week 12 match-up.

I like the Patriots chances against the Raven defense, more than the other way around and expect the Pats to be 10-1 by 7:30pm Sunday night.

Pats 23 Ravens 16

Analyst: Craig Natale; natalysis@yahoo.com

New York Jets:

The game against Cleveland was going to go one of two ways, either the Jets were going to put the Baltimore game behind them and pummel the Browns or they were still going to be a bit shell shocked and it would be a dogfight. It turned out to be a dogfight, but the Jets gutted out an ugly win to get them back on track for the playoffs. The biggest news is probably the combination of Quincy Carter's bad play and the indications that Chad Pennington could be out much longer than hoped, possibly all season.

Offense :

Give the running game an A, the passing game a D and Quincy Carter an F. The Jets line was dominating Cleveland yet they couldn't produce scoring drives because Carter couldn't convert 3rd downs going 0 for his first 11 and finishing 2 for 14. He also took 6 sacks as his former coach, and now Browns defensive coordinator, Dave Campo exposed him by blitzing non stop. Carter was jittery in the pocket and couldn't find his receivers quickly even though the line frequently picked up the first wave of the blitz, and then he seemed to scramble into the pass rush. Give Paul Hackett credit this week (yes Jet fans I did say that) because he adjusted well at halftime to set up quicker drops and pound the Browns defense with the run. We'll have to see how bad Curtis Martin's injury is, but the play of Lamont Jordan was inspiring once again with 60 yards in the 4th quarter when the game was waiting to be won. Jordan's running was even more impressive when you consider the Jets ran the ball 6 straight times to start the go ahead drive, and later he picked up 3 big first downs to run out the final 4 minutes of the game even when Cleveland knew he was coming. Justin McCareins was also a game saver with two great plays on the go ahead drive. Besides wanting Pennington behind center, the only other thing I'd like to see is the Jets making more use of Santana Moss who just doesn't get enough throws his way. He played the Browns game frequently with single coverage and a #2 corner on him.

Defense:This was a solid effort against a challenged opponent. Cleveland's

passing attack was woeful and we know from having watched 9 other games that it's not because the Jets secondary is good. Give the pass rush credit though because the Browns QBs were on the run much of the game even though the Jets only registered one sack. The run defense was very solid as usual, with Ferguson, Robertson, Barton and Vilma all having strong games. Erik Coleman stepped up with a key sack and continued his strong play this year.

Other notes:

The Jets made another huge coaching mistake when Herm Edwards didn't challenge an obvious mistake by the officials who allowed an interception return to stand rather than pinning Cleveland on their one yard line. It almost resulted in points for the Browns, and if the Jets had lost you can bet the vicious media would have made another circus out of it. Special teams were a weak spot, though they lucked out with two Browns missed field goals. New injuries to be concerned about are Martin's knee and Victor Hobson's leg.

Looking ahead:

Arizona is very beatable but it's a road game which means it won't be easy. That's doubly so because Quincy Carter just gave the aggressive Cardinals defense a blueprint for blitzing on every passing down. Paul Hackett is going to have his work cut out devising a game plan that isn't ultraconservative yet doesn't expose Carter to the heavy blitz and happy feet in the pocket. On defense the Jets should be able to control Emmitt Smith and hang in against the Cardinal passing attack. While the Jets have a slow secondary the Cardinals receivers are not speedsters. They have a size advantage over the Jets which will count for something but if the Jets generate pressure on the QB they should negate a lot of the aerial attack. One interesting note is the Cardinals benched Josh McCown last week, and the Jets can only hope Shaun King plays next week as well. If the Jets can jump to an early lead they should be able to control the game, but most likely you should expect another unsightly win of the 17-13 variety.

Analyst: Chris Dellapietra

Miami Dolphins:

Dolphins fall again...24-17 to Seahawks

Despite the resignation of Dave Wannstedt, a bye week and several minor personnel changes, the Miami Dolphins fell to 1-9 Sunday after losing to Seattle 24-17. Newly anointed starting QB A.J. Feeley threw his 4th interception this season to be returned by the opposing defense for a touchdown when Seahawk DB Michael Boulware scampered in to the endzone with 56 seconds to play. It was the second consecutive game where the Dolphins faded down the stretch and let victory slip away with less than a minute to play.

Miami would have won this game had G Taylor Whitley not been flagged for a penalty which reversed a Feeley TD pass to WR Chris Chambers. Feeley subsequently turned the ball over and scoring opportunity resulted in zero points. Later, K Olindo Mare missed a 34 yard field goal attempt which gave away another three points. Offensively, the Dolphins line and running game continued to struggle. LT Damion McIntosh resembled a turnstile most of the afternoon after being schooled by Grant Wistrom. The passing game did show signs of life as Feeley combined with Chambers and TE Randy McMichael for 15 catches for 146 yards. Chambers showed incredible effort by diving and reaching for the pylon on a TD reception and WR Derrius Thompson also chipped in three more catches for 51 more yards. But for all the positive things Feeley did, such as play with a painful hip injury, he made crucial errors at crucial points in the game. His fumbling the ball deep in Seahawk territory after the Chambers TD reception was called back and throwing two interceptions, including the game-ender, clearly contributed to the Dolphins demise. Feeley has been erratic in every game he has played and shows the propensity to make the same mistakes over and over again...costly mistakes...which lead to points for the other team...and losses for his team. If it matters, QB Jay Fiedler is out for he rest of the season after re-injuring his neck and/or shoulder while turning the ball over one another of his fumbles. If it really matters...this may be the end of Fiedler's five year Dolphin tenure. Whew, has it been that long?

The Dolphins defense shut down the Seahawks and held them scoreless in the second half. Seattle scored 17 points in the first half on Hall of Fame WR Jerry Rice's opening drive TD reception a field goal and a short Shaun Alexander run. After that it was tough for back-up QB Trent Dilfer to get anything going. Alexander was held under 100 yards rushing, a feat considering in the previous three games he amassed over 150 yards in each. CB Patrick Surtain and S Arturo Freeman also had key interceptions to propel the defense. The injury bug stung the defense again when MLB Zach Thomas went down with what is thought to be a slightly torn hamstring if there is such a thing. That could be devastating news to a unit who has already lost DTs Tim Bowens and Larry Webster and OLB Junior Seau to season-ending injuries and 2003 team MVP DE Adawale Ogunleye to trade. The last six games could be expose the holes created and open the scoring flood gates for opportunistic offenses to feast on.

This weeks game could decide who will get he #1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft since Miami and San Francisco are tied for the worst record in the NFL. The 49ers are in salary cap hell and playing horribly but, playing at home Sunday. The Jim Bates era started with a spirited effort against Seattle but two weeks away from home, as the team is staying on the west coast for the week, will take its toll on the floundering fish. Expect the Dolphins to float home 1-10 and fall deeper into the abyss that is the 2004 season.

Analyst: Chris Dellapietra


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