AFC East Report: Week 12

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 @ Miami; Houston @ Jets; New England @ Cleveland

Miami Dolphins:

Dolphins Beat 49ers 24-17

The Miami Dolphins knocked off the San Francisco 49ers 24-17 Sunday in a battle of the NFL's two worst teams. The Dolphins, keyed by a LB Derrick Pope fumble recovery for a TD, exploded for 17 fourth quarter points to slip past the Niners and put even more pressure on Coach Dennis Erickson mediocre tenure.

A.J. Feeley shut some guts playing with a painful hip injury from a week ago and a grossly dislocated finger sustained early in the game. The next play after hurting the finger on his passing hand, Feeley hit WR Chris Chambers on a 25 yard scoring strike. Feeley later hit TE Randy McMichael on a 15-yard TD toss in the fourth quarter and ended going 17-33 for 159 yards and 1 interception (not returned for a TD). But it all wasn't roses for the offense as LT Damion McIntosh continued making mistakes and the running game struggled as RB Travis Minor gained 47 yards on 22 carries (a little over 2 yards per rush). Minor also fumbled into a San Francisco recovery and return for, yes, another defensive TD. K Olindo Mare missed another FG (his second in two weeks within 3 yards), a 22-yard chip shot that could have been as big as miss a week ago in Seattle. Mare did later connected on a 50-yarder during the fourth quarter barrage.

It was the blitzing Dolphins defense (as usual) that was the difference in the game. Eight sacks (three by DE Jason Taylor) paced Miami along three fumble recoveries off four forced fumbles. It was rookie LB Derrick Pope who scooped up the last fumble at the Niners one-yard line and scored the game deciding TD. Pope (this week's Rookie of the Week) along with last year's first pick, 2nd round OLB Eddie Moore played very well throughout the game showed the promise defensive coaches have hoped for. MLB Zach Thomas got the start but left after a series when his hamstring acted up...now he'll miss the next two weeks after reaggravating it. Considering all the losses on defense and with the mayhem on offense and in the coaching staff, the victory over the 49ers was a complete team win. Everyone stuck together, believed in one another and put for their maximum effort for a well earned and well deserved victory.

This week is a homecoming of sorts when the Buffalo Bills come to town. Hometown favorite RB Willis McGahee and the once fiercely heated rival roll in for yet another chapter in their storied history. With the Dolphins run defense riddled with holes due to injuries (DTs Tim Bowens and Larry Chester and MLB Zach Thomas are out), McGahee, coming off a 4 TD performance last week, could have one real happy homecoming! Although the Dolphins have responded well to interim Head Coach Jim Bates, the Bills will present a tough hurdle back to respectability.

Analyst: Chris Dellapietra

Buffalo Bills:

The Bills finally shook out their road woes with a thorough thrashing of the Seahawks on Sunday. They put up more points, offensively that is, in this game alone than in all previous four road games combined. They put up 93 more yards of offense than in any other game this season. The defense also played its first solid four-quarter game of the season. Mike Mularkey & Co. had their first game without significant coaching miscues or questionable decisions. The 25,000 dollar question is whether or not this game was an anomaly such as the New England game was last season.

In my post-game piece in spite of having had three very Humpty-like interceptions and nearly two or three more, I gave Humpty credit for pushing the team downfield in this game throughout the first three quarters of the game. He appeared to be either horrendous or on fire, not an unusual characteristic of his play over the past decade to be sure. Of course two of his three interceptions came while he was being blitzed although blocking was good on both of those plays. Willis McGahee fans were put off by this however.

Nevertheless, Humpty had over 240 passing yards on 69% completions through three quarters of play while McGahee had barely over 60 yards through three quarters. In fact, up until his 30-yard trick/misdirection play a third way through the fourth quarter, McGahee had 23 carries for 66 yards and only 2.9 yards-per-carry. It should not be any big puzzle to ascertain which one of the two was more responsible and instrumental in moving the Bills downfield throughout the first three quarters, the player producing 80% of the yards during that stretch or the one putting up 20%. At the three-quarter mark, the game was effectively over with the Bills leading 24-3. What happened following that, while possibly exciting, was inconsequential in winning this game. The time to shine is when the game is on the line, not in mop up. Ironically this is the antithesis of the foundation of Humpty's entire career.

Where McGahee did shine however, was in getting into the end zone where he has struggled this season to date. He showed a solid nose for the end zone in this game which is a step forward. He has struggled on short yardage and in goal-to-go situations this season. He also took quite the beating in this game taking another all-important step to proving his durability in the NFL given three straight seasons of significant knee injuries. This is perhaps his biggest hurdle on the season which will not be over until it is over after week 17.

In spite of the euphoria in Buffalo these days, I am of the opinion that this game is still not indicative of a "turnaround" however by any stretch. During the Commander Tom era in Buffalo, the Bills have largely beaten .500 and worse teams and better teams only on a couple of occasions and then only with mitigating circumstances enabling them to do so. To date, this season is identical indicating that this team has not improved over previous seasons which is where "improvement" over last season should be measured. Simple "improvements" over the beginning of this season, which was far worse than last season to be sure from an offensive standpoint, should not be the basis for measuring improvement no matter how it is sliced.

A Patriots friend of mine living in Colorado e-mailed me earlier expressing to me his satisfaction with the Pats win over Baltimore this past weekend. He also expressed to me his concern about the Pats chances in the playoffs due to them having had a soft schedule, namely the same schedule that the Bills have, except with Indy and K.C. instead of Jax and Cincy. Whether or not his points were valid, it made me wonder why Bills fans are not concerned about the same things, especially given that theirs is even softer and given a much worse record than the Patriots. Have the standards for football in Buffalo sunk that low? Where is the dismissal of games won over the dregs and mediocre teams of the league, which Seattle is clearly in the category of, and the "show me" mantra when it comes to teams that routinely make the playoffs and succeed in them!

As I began watching this past game I originally became excited that the Bills were finally playing well, on the road, and in general vs. a decent team. I had taken a pre-game look at the rankings. Then as the game went along, announcers Don Criqui and Steve Tasker kept on mentioning all of the injuries that the Seahawks had and how this Hawks team was really not the same team that started the season 3-0. Feeling some shame at my own lack of pre-game due diligence I rationalized to myself that this Seahawk team could not possibly be as bad as all that. So I conducted some additional research following the game.

The Seahawks are in fact tremendously beaten up. My rationale was that they still have Shawn Alexander and must be good. So I then looked at the numbers. The Hawks started 3-0 this season, which is what their rankings are largely based on even today. They scored 65 points and allowed 13 in those three games to begin the season. Their initial wins were over New Orleans, Tampa, and San Francisco, three teams a combined 9-24.

Over their last eight games however, they are 3-5 with victories over only Carolina and Miami, both at home and barely, as well as vs. San Francisco. Three teams a combined 7-26. They have scored 174 points in their last eight games and have allowed 210. The combined record of all teams beaten by the Seahawks to date is 16-50. Could their schedule in the NFC West possibly have been any easier! This is on pace with the way that Chicago or Cleveland has played over the season point wise.

OK, so I then told myself that I'm simply being my analytical self and not allowing my fandom to take it's allotted role and that I'm allowing my desire for objectivity to cloud my judgment. So I decided to see how the Bills have played vs. teams that are presently much above .500 on the season to date. My guess is that the Rams and Hawks both finish at or near .500, or perhaps even below. Either way, neither is anything better than a .500 team and the Ram D is among the absolute worst in the entire league.

Regardless, the teams in the NFL which are currently 7-4 or better are Atlanta, Minnesota, Green Bay, Philadelphia, San Diego, Denver, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New England, and the Jets, eleven teams. I then asked myself how many of those teams the Bills have had to play? Answer: three. They've faced the Ravens, the Pats twice, and the Jets twice but none of the other 8 teams. Furthermore, there is only one of those teams that remains on the Bills schedule.

Nevertheless, in those five games the Bills are 1-4 having put up 65 points while having surrendered 113 points, nearly twice as many. They beat the Jets with the mitigating circumstance of the Jets coming off of a big Monday Night win where there is a solid historical basis for such mitigating circumstances. Other than in that Jets win, the Bills have scored 43 points and allowed 96, or twice as many. The records of the teams that they have beaten to date are:

Miami (2-9)
Arizona (4-7)
The Jets (8-3)
Rams (5-6)
Seahawks (6-5)

I know there's a lot of euphoria today in Buffalo, but if we are to be honest, this team thus far has done absolutely nothing that it did not do last season. Fans can fully expect this roller coaster ride to continue. Fortunately, fans considering a win as a win regardless of over whom, the schedule is pleasing. Coming up are Miami (2-9), Cleveland (3-8), Cincy (5-6), and San Francisco (1-10) leaving only Pittsburgh as a team worthy of losing sleep over. Cleveland and Miami have both had their coaches resign midseason as well.

Last season the Bills beat:

New England: (14-2)
Jax: (5-11)
Cincy: (8-8)
Washington: (5-11)
Giants: (4-12)
Jets: (6-10)

What many fans are looking for is an improvement over last season, not an improvement over the beginning of this one, which was far worse than last season's performance. But judging success on the wrong things runs the risk of continuing to move the Bills in the wrong direction based on faulty assessments by the team and those who would gladly take those faulty assessments and hold them aloft and turn them into monumental achievements via a willing media. Making the playoffs is a notch above impossible only allowing for notions in the mantra of "never-say-never." My original prediction for the Bills this season was for 7-9 and I will stand on that or perhaps bump that up a game to 8-8. At the onset of the season the schedule appeared to be much more difficult as well. Ricky Williams quit, Jamal Lewis was suspended.

Clearly, in hindsight, the Bills schedule will only have featured six games vs. teams that will likely finish much above .500 meaning that it will have been a relatively soft and easy schedule.

The bottom line in all of this is that a single solid offensive performance without enormous quantities of help from the special teams and defense is not enough to base improvement over last season. Fully expect the "roller coaster ride to nowhere" to continue in ensuing weeks. Not putting in Losman will be an enormous mistake for the Bills looking towards next season. Enormous! Two or three games at season's end when the team is down and out will not do much in the interests of next season for the young QB. The only thing worse than Losman not seeing any time at all this season would be even a remote thought of Humpty occupying a roster spot next season!

Early prediction: Bills 24, Dolphins 17

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

New England Patriots:

Like the Democrats just a few weeks ago, the NFC has already begun planning for the next campaign. While the Dems can look forward to pitting Hillary Clinton or Obama Barack against the Republican nominee in 2008, the NFC will need even better representation if they hope to compete in 2005 and beyond. Consider if you will, these lopsided numbers; Head to Head against the AFC they are a putrid 18-32 (.360) giving up more than 26 points a game.

Need more proof? Consider these antithetical results;

Colts 4-0 (NFC) 4-3 (AFC)
Bills 3-0 (NFC) 2-6 (AFC)
Cincy 2-0 (NFC) 3-6 (AFC)
Jets 2-0 (NFC) 6-3 (AFC)
Miami 2-2 (NFC) 0-7 (AFC)
Pats 3-0 (NFC) 7-1 (AFC)
Steelers3-0 (NFC) 7-1 (AFC)
Denver 3-1 (NFC) 4-3 (AFC)
Raiders 2-1 (NFC) 2-6 (AFC)
Totals 24-4 (NFC) 35-36 (AFC)

Can we just get to the AFC Championship game now? That will (after all) be the real Super Bowl, regardless of who the NFC sends to the big dance. The Philadelphia Eagles have yet to prove they can consistently run the ball or stop the run. The Atlanta Falcons gave up 55 points to the Kansas City Chiefs a few weeks ago. The Falcons leading rusher is QB Michael Vick and their biggest downfield threat is a Tight End (Alge Crumpler). Sound like a Championship contender? Puhleeze…

This is the year we could see an 8-8 Seahawks or Rams team make the playoffs, while an 11-5 Denver or Baltimore team has to sit home and watch. We've seen this before, as you know. From 1985 to 1997, the NFC won 13 consecutive Super Bowls and were routinely double digit favorites entering each game. They just seemed to play better defense (every year) than their AFC counterparts and as we all know, defense wins Championships.

With the AFC winning five of the past seven Super Bowls and the inevitability of being a prohibitive favorite again this year, it's time for the NFC to step up it's game, or risk being laughed at over the next decade, much like their AFC brethren, a generation ago. With Pittsburgh, New England, Baltimore, NY Jets and Jaguars et' al', so dominant on defense in 2004, it's easy to see why the AFC has had the upper hand.

But I digress…

The Patriots, 25-1 (.961) in their last 26 games had little difficulty dismantling Baltimore as the Ravens flew into a Tsunami like New England defense on Sunday. Playing without their top three cornerbacks yet again, the interchangeable Patriots still managed to ground an anemic Raven attack that could only produce 8 first downs and 124 total yards. When you include the Pats four QB sacks, the Ravens only generated 47 passing yards for the entire game.

Defensively, the Patriots deserve to send a number of players to the Pro Bowl, namely SS Rodney Harrison, ILB Tedy Bruschi, OLB/DE Willie McGinest and DT Richard Seymour. CB Ty Law would also be a candidate, had he not broken his foot. Bruschi has been under-rated for years now and deserves his first trip to Hawaii. Seymour has had better seasons statistically, but such is the nature of the Patriots scheme and teams have also been running away from him, which explains Ty Warren's higher tackle totals.

Can the Patriots actually get better on defense as they march towards the playoffs? Yes. Getting their top three cornerbacks on the field would be an obvious upgrade. OLB Roosevelt Colvin is improving weekly, as he recovers from a devastating hip injury and should be closer to 100% as he continues to gain the strength and speed he lost during his 12 month+ recovery.

Perhaps more exciting is the weekly improvement of two 23 year olds in DE Ty Warren and DT Vince Wilfork. Both have made tremendous strides in 2004 and along with Seymour, will anchor the Pats defensive line for years to come. Another 2nd year man, OLB Tully Banta-Cain is also making significant strides as a pass rusher and along with injured ILB Dan Klecko brings an infusion of youth to an aging LB corps.

This week, the Pats travel to Cleveland to face the Browns and lame duck coach, Butch Davis. The Browns lost 58-48 to the Bengals on Sunday in what was the 2nd highest scoring game in NFL history and likely has Charlie Weis licking his chops as the Pats game plan to attack a reeling Cleveland defensive unit.

Corey Dillon earned a $650,000 incentive by passing the 1000 yard plateau Sunday and it's a check both Bob Kraft and Bill Belichick couldn't be happier to write. Dillon has been unstoppable this season and ranks 5th in the entire league in rushing yards, with 1121. If Dillon can gain 479 yards over the final 5 games, he will earn an additional $1,000,000+ in incentives.

Adam Vinitieri connected on all three of his field goal attempts Sunday, including a 48-yarder in the driving rain and is now 28 of 29 for the season and leads the NFL in points with 112. With only one game remaining against a team with a winning record (Jets) It's quite conceivable the Patriots could go 15-1. With Pittsburgh still having to travel to both Jacksonville and Buffalo, the Steelers will likely have to run the table to get home field throughout the AFC playoffs.

Patriots 34 Browns 20

Analyst: Craig Natale; natalysis@yahoo.com

New York Jets:

The Jets did what they had to do yet again, and handily beat the Cardinals 13-3. Detractors will say this was against a bad team, but the Cardinals were 3-1 at home and the only other loss was by 11 points to the Patriots, so the focus should be on the defensive effort this team keeps putting up week in and week out. Last week when the Cleveland scored only 7 points everyone said the Browns offense stinks, except they scored 48 this past Sunday. Fact is the Jets played the first quarter with their 3rd string QB and still were in control of this game...wonder if the Patriots could do that with Rohan Davey, or whether you'd hear their fans complaining about injuries as you did when the Steelers crushed them.

Offense:

Another strong performance by the running game which did a lot better than the stats show since Arizona was playing 8 and sometimes 9 guys in the box. Martin and Jordan ran for 150 yards and again put together a big drive late in the game to take the Jets from deep in their territory to midfield while chewing up the game clock to essentially kill Arizona's chances. Carter came back from being knocked woozy to play a competent game, and Brooks Bollinger showed he can play in this league. The most impressive person in all of this was Paul Hackett who had a good gameplan to protect Carter and never shriveled into a shell against an aggressive defense as the combined stats of Carter and Bollinger were 13/21 for 193.

Defense:

Yeah Shaun King was playing QB, but even after McCown came in the Jets forced 3 turnovers. The Jets are 5 points away from leading the league in points allowed thanks to a pass rush that never lets a QB settle in and an ability to stop the run making teams a bit one dimensional. The Cardinals only mounted two threatening drives all game, and the Jets stopped the second one with a game killing interception. The truth is a good QB for Arizona would have avoided an interception, but the Jets neutralized a good receiving group by harassing King all game long and limiting the Cards to 71 yards rushing. Jonathan Vilma is probably going to be defensive rookie of the year, not only did he come up with two critical 4th quarter turnovers but he frequently worked through blocks to make tackles. This was supposed to be his weakness since he's not the biggest LB, and early in the season there were times he ran around blocks, but he ran through blockers several times to make big stops. Eric Barton looks like one of the top free agent signings, bringing a fierce tackling attitude they've been missing in the past.

Other thoughts:

The Jets are close to resigning Shaun Ellis (it might be finalized by the time this is printed). While this is good news, in my fantasy scenario for the offseason I'd have it play out differently. The Jets will have a lot of free agents and despite a lot of cap space probably won't sign them all. So my dream would be using the money to resign Abraham who is much more of a playmaker, as well as McKenzie and Ferguson, then franchise Ellis and trade him for a 1st rounder. Then use the huge signing bonus they'd pay Ellis and try to retain LaMont Jordan who said he'd stay if the money is right. While Ellis is great against the run, and made the pro bowl last year, he's reverted back to his old form as a pass rusher which is a guy who is good enough to almost get there on time and ends the year with 7-8 sacks. To me that's just not worth $15 million in signing bonuses. You should be able to get an excellent run stuffer for $10 million less. They should have given Bryan Thomas more of an audition for the rest of the year and focused on McKenzie and Abraham in the meantime. One other personnel move I'd consider is moving Barrett to free safety, Coleman to strong safety and cutting Tongue. Barrett is bad in man coverage but fast, good in zone coverage and a good tackler, maybe with the play developing in front of him he could make a lot more picks and a 1st rounder could play corner next year.

Looking ahead:

The defense will get a big test next week against Houston which has one of the top wideouts in the league and an emerging QB. The Jets don't have the speed to keep up with Andre Johnson who is arguably the best receiver they'll face all year outside of St Louis, and the offense isn't explosive without Pennington, so containing Houston's offense will be critical. I expect a lot more blitzing to see if Dominick Davis can block and to put Carr on the run while the offense plays ball control with the run game against a suspect defense, and something along the lines of a 20-17 final score.

Analyst: Chris Dellapietra


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