AFC East Report: Week 15

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 @ San Francisco; New England @ Jets; Cleveland @ Miami

New England Patriots:

After a 27-1 run in their last 28 games, and 35 straight wins when leading after the 4th quarter, the Patriots finally succumbed, made the big mistake at the wrong time and got the loss they deserved on Monday night in Miami. They were actually up by 11 points, with four minutes to play and looked like a cinch to go 13-1, but the football gods finally caught up with Tom Brady and now the Patriots can forget about home field advantage throughout the playoff and instead must concern themselves with trying to attain a first round bye, with the playoffs just two+ weeks away.

Without going into too much detail, the Patriots lost because;
-Tom Brady played the worst four minutes of his NFL career
-The Patriots emaciated secondary featuring Earthwind Moreland and Troy Brown finally got taken advantage of
-They have never (in recent memory) matched up well with Miami
-They (collectively) made more mistakes in four minutes than they usually do in an entire game

It was actually quite bizarre, watching this Patriots team that (traditionally) is so well prepared, so smart and so pragmatic, fall apart like they did. Without speaking for the rest of Patriots Nation, I have no problem simply giving them a pass for their hideous performance. Think about it; Tom Brady, the man who is 7-0 in Overtime, 6-0 in the Playoffs and has just won 27of 28 games against NFL competition (this isn't the Pac-10 after all) now knows what every other NFL Quarterback has felt like, at some point in their career. In fact, he looked an awful lot like Drew Bledsoe, tossing a blind pass over his shoulder, in a panic stricken state.

So now what? For starters, the Patriots have to win one of their next two, either at the Jets next week or at home against San Francisco to secure the #2 seed and get a much needed first round bye, to (A) get their decimated roster healthy and (B) Give Bill Belichick and company the added time they need to draw up a good game plan against what will likely be San Diego, Indianapolis or the Jets in the Divisional playoffs in Foxboro.

Best Case Scenario:

The Patriots don't lose anyone else to IR. With 9 players already lost for the season and Ty Law having missed the last 8 games, the Pats need to compete with their best players on the field, not on the trainers table. Tom Brady rebounds (like he traditionally has) after a poor performance and makes better decisions down the stretch and into the playoffs. Corey Dillon continues his aggressive running and Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour continue their dominant play on defense.

Worst Case Scenario:

Charlie Weis gets stuck in the snow during a recruiting trip, Brady continues his inconsistent play, Corey Dillon is limping and less than 100%, Ty Law never gets back to full speed and Adam Vinatieri (finally) misses a field goal, with the game on the line.

This week on the road, against the Jets one of two things could happen; The Patriots either come out seething, trying to avenge their 4th quarter meltdown against the Dolphins and dominate both lines of scrimmage, or the Jets, desperate and still fighting for their playoff lives, take advantage of New England's JV secondary and Chad Pennington picks them apart with Curtis Martin running draws and screens until Frank Sinatra starts serenading the Meadowlands faithful.

This Monday morning Quarterback has little difficulty opining about Sunday however; Chad Pennington does not throw the deep ball well and I expect Romeo Crennel and his patchwork defense to flood the zones underneath and force "It's a privilege" Chad to beat them with his arm, down the field, in what will likely be swirling New Jersey winds. If the Patriots can limit the combination of Curtis Martin and Lamont Jordan to less than 120 yards (combined) they should be able to come away with a win, despite the Jets excellent defensive play this season.

Pats 23
J-E-T-S 20

Analyst: Craig Natale; natalysis@yahoo.com

New York Jets:

The Jets played one of their best games this year, beating on the talented but mushy Seahawks 37-14. They had two big psychological factors in their favor: first, the players on offense were under siege all week for not making plays when it counts, and if there's one thing you can most definitely say about this team it's that they come out swinging when people disrespect them. Recall the pounding the dished out to Miami on Monday night after everyone accused them of being satisfied just to come close to new England the prior week. Second, Paul Hackett was coaching the offense knowing he's gone if they don't score huge for the rest of the season. On Sunday he was clearly more scared of being fired than he was of the opponent's schemes.

Offense:

Huge day against a soft defense. Everything clicked from start to finish, which wasn't a surprise considering how angry and focused the players sounded all week. When everything works this well there's too much to detail, the basic facts are this: 27 first downs with 13 by run and 14 by pass; 230 yards running and 482 total; and no punts. Notably, Pennington took about a full second off the hang time on his passes. Best of all was the playcalling, by far the best it's been since

Laveranues Coles was in uniform and Hackett was comfortable throwing downfield. If a Jets fan was on autopilot watching the game and anticipating the play calls he would have been shocked how often the Jets chose to pass when they could have "gotten away" with a run call. Many times on 3rd and 5 or the like Pennington was passing, and not into the flat to the running back but downfield. And this was going on when they had a 10-15 point lead where their natural tendency is to milk the clock. It's my belief that unless the Jets put up 30+ for the rest of the season Paul Hackett is a goner, and even that might not save him. Hackett coached like he knows this, and the result was liberating for the offense. The defense had NO chance to figure out what was coming.

One comment I made which I'll still make, I wonder if Pennington's arm strength can hold up against a top notch defense as it just takes that extra split second to get the ball to his receivers. If Hackett stays aggressive like he was on Sunday, I think it keeps defenses off balance enough to make this a moot point. But that's a big "if".

Defense:

The 7th second half shut out this year. And this against an excellent offense vying for a playoff spot. Donnie Henderson must be in a 3 man race with Gregg Williams and Dick Lebeau for defensive coordinator of the year (not sure there's such an award), and I'd give him the edge because the Jets D is coming from a lot further away, plus he makes tremendous in game adjustments. The Seahawks had less than 100 yards in the second half. As a fan you have to love the goal line stand in the 3rd quarter against the leading rusher in the league, when Seattle was struggling to keep it a game.

My observations of personnel: Eric Barton is proving an absolute steal in the offseason, and one of many great picks ups by embattled GM Terry Bradway (see Pete Kendall, David Barrett and Justin McCareins). He showed up in every stat line with 11 tackles, a sack, an interception a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. None of this captures the big hits he lays out on a consistent basis that provide the attitude this team has been missing in the past. Eric Coleman and David Barrett continue to play well in the secondary, though Terrell Buckley and Reggie Tongue are weaknesses. Donnie Abraham made a few plays, but let an easy interception through his hands that cost the Jets 7 points before the half and later completely whiffed on coverage for the TD pass.

Observation:

You hear a lot of comments these days showing the Jets a lack of respect: among other things such as labeling the Bills as the up and coming team in the AFC East, I saw a comment in print the Jets can't beat any of the division leaders in the AFC . Here's a newsflash they completely outplayed San Diego on the road this year where the score didn't capture the lopsided nature of the game. The worst comments I read were that Pennington can't win a big game - which is different from the comments I made last week that his arm strength is an impediment to beating the best teams. The comment he can't win a big one suggests he's not a competitor, along the lines of an Aaron Brooks, and that's a pathetically stupid observation.

Coming Up:

The Jets play the Patriots at home. To me the outcome of this game is going to be determined more by how the Jets show up to play than anything else. If they continue to carry the chip on their shoulder rather than perpetuating the reverence everyone showers New England with, I think they can win. The last time these two teams met the Jets were happy to stay close no matter how much the players protest to the contrary. This will be a different game in attitude and on both sides of the ball. The Patriots D will be seeing a lot more of Lamont Jordan which is a good thing for the Jets as his speed and size match up better than Martin where the key to the play is getting around the corner quickly, or hitting the hole with authority. Also the Patriots secondary is decimated which will make it easier on Pennington. On the defensive side of the ball New England has their full complement of receivers playing which wasn't the case last time. Also, the Jets are without John Abraham to put pressure on Brady. This bodes badly for the pass defense, especially considering the play of Buckley and Donnie Abraham lately. Corey Dillon is one of only two backs to go over 100 yards against the Jets. Another intriguing/tough match up for Henderson's crew. Prediction: having played and lost two big games this year, the Jets are no longer scared of these matchup, they're sick of losing them. The chip-on-their-shoulder Jets show up and win this one 23-21.

Analyst: Nick Romano; merq13@aol.com

Miami Dolphins:

Dolphins Upset Patriots 29-28

The Miami Dolphins upset the World Champion New England Patriots 29-28 in front of a national TV audience on Monday Night Football. In a season where everything has gone wrong, the Dolphins earned a little respect for themselves and delivered an early and well deserved Christmas gift for their fans with the victory on a chilly 50 degree night at Pro Player Stadium.

After the New England marched down the field to an early 7-0 lead, PR Wes Welker returned a punt 72 yards to the Patriot 2 yard line. RB Sammy Morris punched it in one play later for a 7-7 tie. PK Olindo Mare became the Dolphins leading all-time scorer after nailing a 30 yard FG in the second quarter and sent the team into the half trailing New England 14-10.

Miami actually took a 17-14 lead in the third quarter after a one yard TD run by RB Travis Minor. The Patriots quickly reacted with QB Tom Brady TD passes to RB Corey Dillon and TE Daniel Graham and reassumed the lead 28-17. With five minutes to go in the game, many of the Dolphin faithful headed for the parking lot while those at home undoubtedly headed to bed. The likelihood of the Patriots faltering or the Dolphins coming back was very remote.

QB AJ Feeley engineered a 68 yard drive which culminated with a Morris one yard TD run to close the score to 28-23 just before the two-minute warning. On the ensuing drive Brady was drilled by DE Jason Taylor and intercepted by LB Brendon Ayanbadejo at the Patriots 21 yard line. Four plays later, Feeley hit WR Derrius Thompson on a nice 21 TD pass over converted WR Troy Brown for the 29-28. Brady was picked off again on the Patriots last gasp final drive to end an incredible and improbable comeback by the Dolphins.

The Dolphins defense set the stage for the win by picking off Brady four times (S Sammy Knight collected two) on the night and added four more sacks. Feeley showed some more promise and leadership by directing the offense while completing 22-35 for 198 yards and NO interceptions. In addition to Brady's poor performance, New England shot themselves in the foot with several key and costly penalties that kept Miami in the game. The Dolphins would not quit and took advantage of every opportunity to shock the defending World Champions. The loss may have serious consequences on any hopes the Patriots had for home field advantage throughout he playoffs and their third Super Bowl victory in the past four years.

Hats off to head coach Jim Bates! He has kept this team together and motivated a make shift line-up into an improving and cohesive team. At 3-11, Miami now moves on to close out the season at home Sunday night against the lowly Cleveland Browns on ESPN and then on the road against the Baltimore Ravens. With the improved effort in the past few games, a very high first round pick and LSU head coach Nick Saban rumored to on the way for the 2005 season...there finally may be light at the end of the tunnel.

Analyst: Chris Dellapietra

Buffalo Bills:

First things first; Congratulations to Terrence McGee, Takeo Spikes, and Sam Adams for making the Pro Bowl this year as the players who will represent the Bills in Hawaii in February!! Terrence McGee appears to be a very nice success story in the making.

Onward!

What were the expectations for this game?

Well, the Bengals came into this game ranked 25th in yardage D and 21st in scoring D. They were also ranked 12th in yardage O and 10th in scoring O.

Given all the hype in recent weeks as to the resurgence of the Bills' offense on the season, it was reasonable to have expected scoring by the Bills at least into the mid-20s in their own right vs. this below average defense. Afterall, only weeks earlier, the Browns led by Kelly Holcomb, William Green, and Antonio Bryant lit Cincy up for nearly 500 yards and 48 points, all of which were put up by the offense. Even William Green, on paper a running back barely worthy enough to bear Willis McGahee's coffee mug, put up 75 yards on 5.0 yards-per-carry. Holcomb had over 400 yards throwing. Does this mean that the Bills' offense is not as good as Cleveland's? That would certainly not be a good development given the Bills' manhandling of the Browns' offense only last week.

Two weeks prior, the Ravens led by Kyle Boller, Chester Taylor, and Travis Taylor and Clarence Moore at the receiver spots, but up 26 points vs. the Bengals, 19 of which was due to the offense. Is anyone in Buffalo thrilled with the Bills' offense being compared to the Ravens' offense? The Browns' offense? You can count me out on that!

My expectations were for the offense to be able to move the ball and generate some consistent, time-consuming drives and thereby control the game that way. This did not happen. It did not even come close to happening. In fact, in the first half, the opposite happened. The characteristics between this game and that between Cincy and the Ravens only two weeks prior are very similar. The difference of course is that the hoopla surrounding the Ravens offense is nowhere near what it is for the Bills offense.

Both team's offenses put up 19 points vs. the Bengals and both in similar fashion although the Ravens had far more net offense approaching the 400-yard mark and had infinitely more success running the ball on 6.2 yards-per-carry instead of the 1.5 yards-per-carry that the Bills put up. Kyle Boller put up nearly identical numbers to Humpty. Both teams had defensive TD returns in the 60s for yards. The big difference in the two games was Jason Peters' blocked punt and TD recovery in the end zone. The Ravens lost while the Bills won. Yet, the Ravens played better offense. In fact, so did the Browns in a loss. The difference: Carson Palmer.

Fans and media this season see the points that the Bills have put up and without hesitation seem to give credit to the offense. This is where the charade begins. Why can't the Bills offense, with all the hype, and all the accolades befalling Willis McGahee and a "resurgent" Humpty Dumpty, outperform some of the league's weaker offenses in similar games?

I know, I know, they are. No, they are not! This Bills offense has benefited more from the play of the special teams and defense than any in my remembrance. Upon further review, this offense is nowhere near as good as many seem to give it credit for. Why not is another analysis altogether. This game was yet another example of this however and a painful reminder as to how lacking the offense truly is.

Now, for all of those thinking that somehow I never mention anything positive, here are some positive notes:

The Bills special teams are playing insanely! Once again, it is 90% of the reason for the difference between last season and this one. They are the best special teams in the league insofar as the entirety of special teams go. Meanwhile, the play of the special teams in St. Louis where Bobby April has come from has dropped like a lead balloon from last season to this. So nice job Coach April!!! Outstanding work! It is good to finally have special teams reminiscent of those during Bruce DeHaven's tenure and when Steve Tasker was on the Bills. Finally! It is a very nice change of pace.

This game was a perfect microcosm of the Bills season in general.

In this game, the defense and special teams were responsible for 20 of 33 points or approximately 60% of the point production. They scored 14 points directly without which the Bills likely would not have won this game the way the offenses were playing. They also set up six points off of two field goals on drives already begun within field goal range. The offense in its own right put up only 13 points, again, vs. a defense against which it should have been able to put up far more. Its only touchdown came on a "drive" whereby a trick play flea-flicker was responsible for 60 of the 65 yards.

The touchdown came on the third of three pass tries from the Cincy 5-yard line. Where was McGahee then? Most teams with rushers the caliber which McGahee is spoken about have absolutely no trouble going to their "money man" in such circumstances. But no, three straight pass tries from the Bengal 5 with success only occurring on the third try. A failure there too, on a three-man pass rush oh, just by-the-way, would have resulted in only 9 offensive points earned by the offense on the day and no touchdown. Perplexing to be sure.

To hammer home that point more effectively insofar as the season goes, the Bills have scored 330 points on the season to date. A phenomenal statement as to how well the offense is playing, right! Again, upon further review, some relevant facts emerge, most which just about all analyses seem to outright ignore.

Of that total, 330, the defense or special teams, primarily in victories, have scored 64 of those points directly, 20% of that total production. That means that either a defensive player or special teams player has crossed the goal line with the ball for seven or that a safety was awarded. I.e., this has absolutely nothing to do with the offense. I have no idea what the NFL record is for defensive and special teams points scored in a season, but one would think that the Bills' total this season is in the ballpark.

Additionally, they, the defense and special teams that is, have set up another 101 points on drives begun within the opponents' own 37-yard line. That's already within field goal range for the most part and 24 of those points were field goals, which had already been set up with initial field position already well within reasonable field goal range. That's 165, or half of all the team's points scored being attributable to stellar special teams and defense, not offense. But wait, there's more! An additional 65 points have been set up between the Bills' 38-yard line and the opponents' 38-yard line around midfield for 230 of the team's points, 70% of the team's points.

From drives having started within their own 37-yard line, a location from which better offenses should be able to move the ball for points on a semi-regular basis, the Bills have managed only ten touchdowns on the entire season with one being the "Moorman patched" drive and another having been by the second team offense minus Humpty and McGahee. It's only 8 touchdowns otherwise. That's less than one touchdown per game on average and approaching only one touchdown every other game. They have scored only 100 points on drives originating within their own 37 or closer. That's about 7 points-per-game. It drops to only 6.0 points-per-game if the "Moorman patched" drive and the Losman/Williams drive are not considered.

These are simply not good indicators for an offense. To ignore them would be negligent in assessing this team this season. They certainly do not shout "improvement over last season" from the rooftops as many are led to believe, clearly falsely. How they speak to Humpty and McGahee into being anything but average players at best is beyond comprehension as well.

To add insult to injury, would these "set-ups" be occurring if the Bills were not playing some of the most wretched offensive teams in the league coupled with some of the worst teams overall. The only indicator that might suggest an answer to that question is that they have not happened vs. teams/opponents otherwise. So if a trend exists, then it suggests that the answer is a resounding "no!" Is this really a basis for playoff success? Only a proverbially "blind" man would argue that it is.

Furthermore, the Bills have scored only one touchdown on drives begun within their own 20 and that was the "Moorman patched" drive. Otherwise they have none. The Ravens' TD drive vs. Cincy was from their own 15. Otherwise also, the first team offense has only scored four touchdowns on drives having originated within their own 30. How on earth this can possibly be hailed as anything short of poor is also beyond comprehension. The defense cannot do everything in a season, especially when it does little or nothing when playing top offenses. What the Bills have is an offense and defense both incapable of solid play vs. top teams respectively that they go up against. Surely a couple of slop decisions were more the reason for the Bills' win in this game than solid defense which allowed nearly five yards-per-carry and Rudi Johnson to post a 130 yard one touchdown day. Had Carson Palmer been in the game and playing the way he has been over the past couple of weeks, then it is difficult to imagine that the Cincinnati air game would not have been twice as productive.

The question again is raised, is this Bills team capable of hanging with playoff caliber competition? With the exception of either Seattle or St. Louis, one of which could conceivably win their division at 7-9, of the likely playoff teams faced, the Bills' special teams have averaged nearly three points-per-game. The defense has only scored a safety and the offense has averaged 10 points-per-game, only 7.5 points-per-game after the win over the Jets. At some point, the offense will have to begin putting up enough points without having to rely on defense or special teams for "T-Ball" like set-ups well within the other teams' halves of the field or for scoring outright and that will be vs. the better teams.

Furthermore, in this Cincy game, both teams had the opportunity for 5 turnovers. The Bills fumbled five times yet lost only one of them. The Bengals fumbled three times and lost two of them adding two interceptions from their backup QB. The Spikes interception-TD combo was a very Humpty-like INT that really was more simply a bad pass by Kitna which never should have been thrown than superior defense. The throw was right to Spikes who had an open field en route to a TD. It was a poor throw by a QB that has rarely played and which easily could have been thrown away. The Peters blocked punt was an outstanding individual effort by Peters who did it all on that play. Again, to the message board weenies and spammers, a very positive note! But again, the primary reason for the win.

Why do I bring these things up? Is it because I am annoyed at them? Absolutely not. I bring them up because the true formula for success in this game, just as it has been in most wins this season, has so little to do with any "revamped" or "resurgent" Humpty, McGahee, or offense in general. What it has to do with is superlative special teams and very good defensive play with both largely occurring only vs. the poorer teams on the Bills' schedule.

This is all fine and good, but until the offense can begin to dominate games vs. below average defenses with anything approaching regularity, and until the defense can begin to control offenses of the variety that they'll find among the top 10 in the league by not allowing averages of 150 rushing yards per game and capitalizing largely due to backup QBs playing poorly or other key players out for one reason or another, the questions as to how good this team truly is abound. Again, these types of teams will rarely be found in the playoffs. The Bills will have to substantially improve the capabilities of their offense if they are to be a playoff caliber team next season to be sure.

I have tremendous concerns moving forward into next season now that certain opportunities to prepare for next season have come and gone. My fear is that from 2004 to 2005 it will resemble the dropoff from 2002 to 2003. Sadly, they are well justified.

Meanwhile, the Bills still have offensive line issues which figure to aggravate themselves during the offseason. They also have a first round QB draftee sitting on the bench for whom this offseason's first round pick was traded for and who now may not start next season. Is this wise management! As well, the success of the Bills has had very little to do with Commander Tom's "top moves." It has more to do with the emergence of 2003 4th rounder and now Pro Bowl KO returner Terrence McGee, 2004 undrafted free agent Jonathon "Freddie" Smith, and the signing of Bobby April as special teams coach than it does with any other single move or collection of moves.

Meanwhile, Humpty is receiving accolades for reasons unbeknownst to anyone thinking things through and based on what is in reality nothing different than he has now done in two prior seasons with the Bills. His statistics vs. winning, non-winning teams this season were posted in my pregame piece for this game and did not alter themselves with this game. This is somewhat to be expected with Humpty given that the hype on his play throughout his career has always been tiers above his play.

Right now certain elements of this team, least of all not Commander Tom who has promised a playoff competitive team by last season, have once again fallen short, yet are being handed a blank check by unwitting fans and some media. But Bills fans and media covering them had better take heed lest misperceptions surrounding the "success" of this season's Bills become the cornerstone of next season's team and offseason approach! As the adage goes, "[you] had better be careful what you wish for, as [you] may get it!"

Once again, I sense a very big 2002-to-2003 Bills variety hangover forthcoming for fans next season. The offense still needs a major overhaul on the offensive line and Humpty needs to be replaced post haste if this team is to have an offense next season that is capable of doing what it takes vs. the best in the league. In a division such as the AFC East, where Miami is sure to pickup a running back, the Bills cannot afford to rest on the laurels of faulty perceptions. With an aging defense the window of opportunity is short.

This week's Bills-Niners game is made for Commander Tom and the Bills marketing machine!

Early prediction: Bills 45, Niners 3

It's a good bet that in this game the special teams and defense once again provide the basis for more points than the offense does. The offense should be able to add a little bit too. And before everyone gets all worked up because "the Bills may be without McGahee", I'll preempt the fears with roaring laughter. The Niners have beaten one team twice and that team is the Cardinals. Chicago, Carolina, Tampa, Miami, and Washington have beaten the Niners with an average point production of 29 points. So there is absolutely no reason in the world why the Bills should not be able to beat them with Shaud Williams and Joe Burns at RB, Aiken and Reed starting at WR, and anyone at QB and put up at least as much.

When one thinks about the skill position talent on the aforementioned teams, notions of the Bills having difficulties minus Willis McGahee should immediately evaporate. Heck, they could likely beat the Niners starting only ten men on both sides. Besides, once again, expect the special teams and defense to do most of the work for the offense in this one vs. a very young and raw Niner offense.

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


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