AFC East Report: Week 16

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:

Pittsburgh @ Buffalo
Miami @ Baltimore
San Francisco @ New England
NY Jets @ St. Louis

Miami Dolphins:

Dolphins Kick Browns 10-7

In Sunday nights "Interim Coaches Bowl," the Miami Dolphins won their second straight game with a 10-7 win over the equally futile Cleveland Browns. Olindo Mare's 51 yard FG with seven seconds left in the game propelled the Dolphins in the less than epic battle of 3-11 teams.

In one of the most boring games of the entire 2004 NFL campaign, both Miami and Cleveland rang up passing TDs in the first quarter. After that, it was all thumbs...turnovers...poor play calling...needless penalties...you name it! If you did not want to see it, this game had it...everything but a lot of scoring! Coming off a thrilling 29-28 win over the Super Bowl Champion Patriots six nights earlier, this one was a real yaaaaaawwwwner!

Give the Dolphins credit for sticking together and not quitting or folding up their tents. QB A.J. Feeley has showed signs of having a pulse down the stretch and had a terrific 18-yard TD strike to WR Derrius Thompson. After that he was just an average 25-43 for 176 yards without throwing an interception for the second consecutive week. RB Sammy Morris rang up 69 unimpressive yards to pace a weak rushing attack. Speaking of weak, the Miami offensive line was certainly that by allowing the Brown D-line to hold numerous team meetings on top of Feeley throughout the night. One positive was the fact that it was probably the last home game for three or four of the guys in the trenches since a major house cleaning is in order for 2005. Hats off to WRs Chris Chambers and Marty Booker and TE Randy McMichael, three team leaders who will certainly be back even stronger in 2005. The three proved they can play well and be productive, even in the face of the great adversity the Dolphins faced this year. However, drastic and numerous personnel changes on and off the field are on the horizon for one of the NFL worst offenses.

MLB Zach Thomas was back, recording 18 tackles for the defense while S Arturo Freeman and CB Patrick Surtain collected interceptions to key an effort that only gave up seven points. Pro Bowl DE Jason Taylor had his usual superb game harassing Brown QB Luke McCown all night along with emerging star DE David Bowens. The defense gave up 143 rushing yards to Brown RB Lee Suggs and a big play in the 58-yard scoring strike to WR Dennis Northcutt but did not break. The Browns were simply locked down and forced into the interceptions and a fumble on the Dolphins two-yard line. That botched scoring opportunity and a FG attempt that doinked off an upright ultimately doomed Cleveland, who along with San Francisco now are slated to pick ahead of Miami in the 2005 NFL Draft.

The Dolphins end this disastrous season on the road against the always physical Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. Expect a hard fought game as the players try to send off interim head coach Jim Bates a winner. Yet, the best gift Miami fans could ask for was delivered Christmas night with the Nick Saban announcement. It will certainly be an active and lively off-season...in a more positive and a productive sense than this past six months. Hopefully the worst is over (no more Wanny, Spielman, Fiedler, Ricky, David Boston etc. etc.) and return to respectability is in the future...within five years, that is how long your contract is?...right Nick?

Analyst: Chris Dellapietra

Buffalo Bills:

The Bills extend their winning streak to six games this past week by annihilating the 49ers. The score was a thorough 41-7 thrashing of what is a young and up-and-coming 49er team two years away from competitiveness. This game extends the Bills' winning streak to six games and sets the table for the showdown with the Steelers this Sunday to round out the regular season.

The 49er game was a good sound rout of the Niners, one of the league's three worst teams, by one of the hottest teams in the league. Everything pretty much went as scripted with all facets of the Bills clicking nearly perfectly. In fact, the rushing game found its stride in full and had its best and most consistent game of the season with both Willis McGahee and Shaud Williams racking up nearly 200 yards of rushing on over six yards-per-carry. For the first time on the season it was the primary reason for the success of the offense early on in the game.

The Bills dominated this game in every way from start to finish. If there was a point of concern, a lingering one however, it is that at times the Bills still seem to throw when running is the obvious, higher percentage, and less risky choice. As examples, in the first half the pass-to-run ration was 2-to-1. Why this is necessary when for the first time on the season the opponent was having absolutely no success stopping the run which was averaging nearly seven yards-per-carry in the first half and took off right from the first whistle, is a little perplexing.

Also perplexing, again, given the enormous success of the rushing game and seeming inability of the 49ers to halt it, was on the first drive, with McGahee averaging over five yards-per-carry, was why on 2nd-and-3 and 3rd-and-3 the Bills opted to pass resulting in two incompletions and a punt. Then again on 2nd-and-5 and 3rd-and-5 on the third and fourth consecutive passes to Moulds falling incomplete and forcing a field goal at the Niner 6-yard line. There were one or two other similar examples which all in all did not make any difference in this game yet which are a microcosm of the greater season and raise questions as to how things such as this will play out in the tougher games either vs. Pittsburgh and then the playoffs or next season as these tendencies are carried forward with Humpty playing QB again.

Also of concern is why, leading by a score of 27-0, with Shane Matthews already having replaced Humpty and the game thoroughly in hand, is a reverse to Lee Evans necessary? Was this simply a training opportunity? If so, then fine, but if it was truly a play designed to move the offense, then what is the point when the Niners had shown absolutely no ability to shut down a rushing game which was already well under way to a 200-yard plus day. Again, not an issue in the least for this game, but again, a recurring tendency which may fall short vs. the better teams either this season or next.

I have been critical of my Bills this season to be sure! Has it been an animus criticism? No, absolutely not. The reason for it is because along with every other fan of the team I too would like to once again see success hit Buffalo insofar as the Bills being good again goes. Simply making the playoffs is no longer good enough. A team good enough to win a Super Bowl is the goal for any fan in remembrance of those "four-and-out" years. Four years of losses to nearly every NFC East team and endless "wide right" jokes get a little old. Also, the brawls with Cowboys' fans leave my knuckles all ….., but I digress…! Yes, just a wee bit of humor in there. Seriously however…

I simply see the team attempting to improve based more in a manner of "management by media and perceptions" than with any real teeth and substance. I have watched a team over these past three seasons and one led by Commander Tom make some very expensive and time-consuming moves seemingly for no other reason than to attempt to justify past decisions. As a result, there has been more short-term floundering and shortsighted focus than there has been true substance to this house-of-cards success which seems to be characterizing the Bills. I realize that I have my critics, as well there are many that agree with my sentiments. Only time, next season to be sure, will tell.

The biggest single issue that I have with using this winning streak as any evidence of significant improvement in either the offense or defense from last season is simple strength of opponent. To hammer home this point, consider that this six-game winning streak has:

A. Come at the hands of wins over three teams considered by just about all as the three single worst teams in the league; San Francisco, Cleveland, and Miami while the other three wins have come over three teams considered nothing better than average and without a team among the group that has currently scored more points than it has allowed on the season as well as two additional teams from the pathetic NFC West, considered the worst division in the NFL easily.

B. Come at the hands of teams with an average rushing offense ranking of 23rd.

C. Come at the hands of teams with an average rushing defense ranking of 26th.

D. Come at the hands of teams with an average scoring defense ranking of 24th.

E. Come at the hands of teams with an average sacks-generated ranking of 23rd.

F. Come in games with average starting field position at the Bills' own 43.4-yard line.

To contrast with the Steelers, the Steelers rank 2nd, 1st, 2nd, and 8th.

What would it have said if the Bills had lost a game to Cleveland, San Francisco, or Miami, twice, which we nearly did, twice. Frankly, if Ricky Williams does not walk off of the Fins, I see the Bills as 7-8 at present. In hindsight, the likely scenario prior to playing these teams was likely 5-1 or thereabouts, so why all the hoopla over a game better is a little embellishing insofar as recognition for this goes.

Much of the media has assumed a substantive improvement in the Bills whereas my assessments have been more of the variety that it has merely been a combination of an easy schedule coupled with superlative special teams primarily in games vs. those same opponents. Consider for a moment that the only thing disrupting an 11-game winning streak was pathetic games vs. the Pats and Ravens to a tune of a combined 49-12 in two routs with the Bills unable to put any points on the board. Coincidence?

This game vs. the Steelers should be a better indicator to be sure. Once again as well, the Bills face a QB starting for virtually the first time rendering a Steelers team "minus the gal that brung them to the dance" in yet another favorable mitigating circumstance in addition to being one of, if not the least injured teams in the league. Barring choke style interceptions or turnovers however, this is not what will make the difference in this game. Where the Bills will once again be challenged having yet to meet it, is with their offense vs. the Steelers' defense, once again, assuming that the Steelers play their first team defense.

Special teams have also put up primarily in games vs. lesser opponents as well. The impact of starting field position cannot possibly understated in the team's wins this season. The Bills have had starting field position originating in their own 40-some yard lines six times and are 6-0 in those games, five of which comprise this current streak. The Bills are 7-1 with starting field position at their own 35-yard line or better. They are 2-5 with starting field position at their own 33-yard line or worse with their two wins being over Miami as well as over the Jets in the game where the Jets had come off a big Monday night game with the Dolphins. The Jets who were 6-1 prior to playing the Bills have run 4-4 since.

Is it pure coincidence that in the eight games with starting field position, games in which the Bills are 7-1, that not one of the opponents has greater than 8 wins and that five of the seven beaten teams are ranked from 21st to 32nd in scoring defense with Miami and Arizona being the odd teams out. Is it also coincidence that the teams that have not allowed such stellar starting field position include the only certain playoff team at this time that the Bills have played besides Seattle as well as teams ranked among the top 10 in scoring defense?

These things remain to be seen and depending upon which game the Steelers tote to Buffalo may become glaringly obvious on Sunday. In the meantime, the Bills opted for a certain approach this season. That approach was not one of using this season a first-year mulligan for incoming rookie head coach Mike Mularkey and thereby beginning to construct a team for the future beginning as early as next season. Many hail this approach as having gumption, but there is a longer term cost involved that many have not as of yet calculated and worked into the equation. Ironically, it may come back around to bite the young coach in the hind quarters.

Instead, the team opted for an approach clinging to at least one enormously poor decision of seasons past and ignoring a "no strings attached" out option which could have freed up an enormous amount of financial resources with which to "buy an offensive line" which would have been pivotal for years to come in the future. They have also effectively completely ignored their first round draft selection and now created an internal management issue for themselves for next season by clinging to this decision. In my opinion there is no issue, but clearly there will be for Commander Tom and Mularkey & Co.

It all breaks down like this; if this season's success, other than the special teams, does turn out to be a charade primarily as a result of play not unlike that of past seasons throughout Commander Tom's tenure, whereby the Bills beat primarily .500 and worse teams, and one which has resulted merely as a result of a favorable schedule, then it will cost this team in spades going forward. If not, if the success is real, and can begin to be translated to the better teams in the league and those which find their way to the playoffs and are capable of advancing in them, few of which the Bills have played this season, then perhaps it will have been wise for the short term, but under the current configuration the Bills either way, do not have the team to make anything even approaching a run for a Super Bowl win.

Again, the first solid glimpse into this since the pounding that the Bills took at the hands of the Patriots back in week 10 to disrupt what would have been a 9-game current winning streak, will be this Steelers game perhaps. Again, is it any coincidence that it was that Patriots that threw up the road block preventing this, or that it was the Ravens in a similar defeat preventing an 11-game streak otherwise?

If the Steelers decide that this game is worth playing for, we may find out come Sunday. Either way, the Bills need a win here in order to make the playoffs this season. With a win, they also need either a Colt win over Denver outdoors in Denver or a Rams win over the Jets in St. Louis where the Rams are a much better team.

Early prediction:

If the Steelers show up intent on winning this game: Bills 6, Steelers 23

Add defensive and special teams touchdowns to that.

If not, it's anyone's guess.

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

New England Patriots:

Anytime you can go on the road and pummel a 10-4 team that desperately needs a win against a division rival, you have to feel good about yourself. The defending Super Bowl Champions pounded the Jets 23-7 on Sunday, earning a first round playoff bye and giving themselves three weeks to get healthy for what appears to be a re-match against Indianapolis in the Divisional Playoffs, on January 15th or 16th, in Foxboro.

The Patriots are now a mere 28-2 in their last 30 games, and 14-1 against 2004 (Projected) playoff teams, including four wins against the Jets and three against both Indianapolis and Buffalo. The Pats have also beaten the Eagles, Broncos, Rams and Seahawks during this unprecedented run. 14-1 against anyone in the NFL is remarkable, but when it's against the best the NFL has, it's downright hard to fathom.

While the Patriots players can breathe a little easier this week, there are numerous questions surrounding the state of Patriots Nation;

-Do they rest any regulars against the 49ers?

-If they start, how long do they play?

-Should Ty Law, after missing the last 8 games, be given an opportunity to test his broken foot, in preparation for the playoffs?

-Did Richard Seymour tear or badly sprain his MCL? If so, how long will he be out?

-Will Kevin Faulk's injury keep him out of the playoffs?

-Will Bethel Johnson be back for the post-season?

Without being clairvoyant, I'll do my best to answer these riveting questions;

I anticipate the Patriots treating this week's game against the 49ers like they would any 2nd or 4th pre-season game, playing all their healthy regulars through the entire first half and possibly well into the third quarter. Let's not be naïve, Bill Belichick wants to win this game. It is not a "meaningless" game. Will the Patriots open up their playbook and force injured players back on the field? No. But if the game is comfortably in hand in the 3rd quarter, I expect the Pats to empty the bench.

Ty Law should see a few series, assuming he can get through pre-game warm-ups without a noticeable limp. Interestingly, the Patriots are 20-0 with Law in the line-up and 8-2 without him over the past two years. Assuming rookie's Randall Gay and Dexter Reid can return from injuries, the Pats secondary could be the healthiest it's been all year by the time Payton Manning and the high flying Colts march into Foxboro on the 15th or 16th of January for their AFC Divisional match-up.

Richard Seymour's left knee injury remains a mystery. There are reports he'll be out 3-6 weeks which means he may or may not be available for the Divisional Playoffs or AFC Championship game. It does appear as though he will be available for the Super Bowl, should the Patriots advance to the big dance for the 3rd time in the past four seasons. The only good news is that Seymour never left the field for the training room so it appears he only sprained his MCL and did not tear it.

Patrick Pass played well as the change of pace back in Kevin Faulk's absence, but Faulk has been a consistent performer and the Pats need his receiving skills in the post-season as a third down back. WR Bethel Johnson has been a disappointment as a 2nd round pick in 2003, contributing mostly on special teams as a premier kick returner, but he is the fastest player on the field when he plays and has the ability to change the game every time he touches the ball. His thigh injury should heal in time for the playoffs.

I absolutely must, for a moment, pontificate about the Pro-Bowl selection embarrassment that transpired last week. How does a Patriots team, that is 28-2 in their last 30 games send only two regulars to the Pro Bowl? While it was nice to see Tom Brady get his 2nd nod and Richard Seymour garner his third straight selection, there were other Patriots even more deserving;

I speak of course, about Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison. Bruschi has 107 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles this year and continues to make his best plays when it matters most. John Lynch getting the nod over Rodney Harrison is a joke. Harrison crushes him in every statistical category and quarterbacked a decimated secondary all season, providing the leadership for WR Troy Brown, street free agents (Omari Lowe and Earthwind Moreland) and rookies (Randall Gay and Dexter Reid) in the Patriots secondary this season.

Clearly the NFL players and coaches don't like Harrison and don't vote for him, despite the fact that he is the best safety in football not named Ed Reed. Why Bruschi has never been elected to the Pro-Bowl continues to amaze me. Does James Farrior deserve to be there this year? Absolutely, Farrior has had a phenomenal season and is a big reason the Steelers are the #1 seed in the AFC.

Ray Lewis though, simply does not belong. He has only 1 sack, no interceptions and has only forced 1 fumble. Ed Reed has clearly taken over as the Ravens best defensive player and Lewis is getting by on reputation alone, as the "Godfather" of all things NFL. I can almost understand Corey Dillon not being selected, because LaDanian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James and Curtis Martin have all had exceptional seasons.

Dillon has rushed for over 1500 yards this season however and gives the Patriots great balance on offense and is the #1 reason the Pats have been averaging 28 points per game and rank 2nd in the AFC to Indy in points scored this season. S/CB Eugene Wilson leads the team with 4 interceptions and is one of the very few people in the entire NFL that can play both Corner and Safety at a high level and his versatility has helped the Patriots survive their season long injury problems in the secondary.

The Bengals, Ravens, Cowboys, Seahawks and Packers all had more starters voted into the Pro-Bowl than the Patriots did, proving, incredibly so, that the Patriots are actually under-rated, despite their unprecedented winning streak, over the past two seasons. This week against the 49ers, the Pats win, emptying their bench in a 34-16 win.

Analyst: Craig Natale; natalysis@yahoo.com

New York Jets:

This one hurt. You start with giving the Patriots credit, but there's no hiding the fact this game cements the Jets status as not quite good enough going into the playoffs - IF they make the playoffs. One of the biggest differences between the teams was obvious in the first half, and continued throughout. Brady with no help from Dillon, ripped apart the Jets. Pennington with no help from Martin couldn't pick up one meaningful first down - his stats are misleading. The Jets had no shot in this one and it's a real disappointment considering the Patriots were on a short week, back on the road, and probably lost a day for Christmas. Perhaps the only positive is it's the final nail in the Paul Hackett coffin.

Offense:

Pennington couldn't make the completions against a secondary that was hammered by AJ Feeley last week. How depressing was is to see Moss making moves that fake the DB's out of their shoes just to see Pennington throw it out of reach or slightly out of bounds. His two interceptions were floaters into heavy coverage, with the second one not even near the receiver with little pass rush. What is going on with the bad reads and soft throws into coverage? Instead of rehashing the Pats game I want to do a lengthy analysis of the QB situation. If you step back and consider that the O-Line, running backs and wide receivers are all very solid (a safe assumption) there are only two possible answers so let's look at them. First, it could be that Pennington is the main problem: his arm is weak, he's an inaccurate passer and he isn't a gamer (gets cold feet). Second it could be that the offensive gameplan is ill prepared to play to his strengths (away from his weaknesses) and isn't prepared for what the defense will throw his way. and Pennington is losing confidence in it, and in his ability within the framework.

I have a hard time buying fully into the first case. Yes his arm strength isn't ideal but Montana's wasn't either, nor was Gannon's. I'm not comparing the three, just stating you can get by with Moss & McCareins who aren't Rice/Taylor but they're pretty good. How about the question of his inaccuracy? Well that one is harder to swallow. We should acknowledge that winds might bother him a bit more than Manning, but his spirals are tight which matters a lot in windy conditions, and he's always been one of the most accurate passers in the league. When you look at most rookie QB's who struggle, accuracy is often an issue, but it springs not from problem mechanics, rather from being unprepared to face what the D is throwing at them. Let's keep that thought on the back burner for a minute while we look at the other questions. Is Pennington a gamer? This is a tricky question since he has lost a few big games recently, and confidence is something that can grow or shrink. But inherently I think any QB who on his debut headbutts his linemen, takes command of the huddle, and plays as well as he has in certain but not all situations is a gamer. Most telling is how his teammates talk when he's there and when he's out. Everyone to a man through the past two years of injuries has talked about how important he is to the huddle. There are also point-the-finger comments losers make and a lack of eagerness when the big games are coming, and when I listen to Pennington talk I just don't hear them.

He does seem to have his confidence shaken and the short hops/lofted/wide throws are signs he doesn't trust something. It could be the shoulder but that wouldn't explain his play vs New England in game 5 or last year. The inaccuracy looks more like he doesn't have confidence in receivers to make the catch or get open, or for the play to be designed properly. He needs guidance to fire the ball in more on the intermediate routes, not make it all a touch passes, and he needs to be pushed and held accountable by the coaches to put the ball where the receivers can do something with it. His sideline routes usually force the receiver to tiptoe which is only good when coverage is tight, but Moss doesn't need that. If we believe lack of confidence is a big factor is what is taking place (and I do), then the problem is with the coaching. Other signs of a lack of confidence are the typical over-reliance on running and short routes, the questioning of the offense by several key players, and even comments by Edwards himself. The fact Pennington's play reveals this but he continues to defend Hackett is a Code Red signal.

The fact is Pennington's play has regressed over 3 years as the league successfully gameplans him and the Jets do not successfully game plan their opponents. To win a Super Bowl you need talent AND to outcoach your opponents. Look at how the D-Line improved with a new coach (Denny Marcein doesn't get nearly enough credit, especially following his success at the Giants) and a new Coordinator. No new players were brought in, but all of a sudden Abraham can play the run, Ferguson is having a career year, Robertson is near pro bowl caliber, and perennial underachiever Bryan Thomas looks like a find. Anyone notice that Cotrell is having all kinds of problems in Minnesota - hearing the same things you heard with the Jets: players not grasping the system or where they're supposed to be. With Henderson people have said from day one they're better prepared, and his in game adjustments are tremendous. The Jets need this plus a QB coach on the other side of the ball. Is Chad a QB like Manning of Brady who can carry the offense when the stakes are raised and other parts of the team aren't clicking? so far no. Does he need help? yes. But with the right tutelage I think the offense can be an asset with minimal adjustments in personnel.

Those watching the telecast may have heard Phil Simms make an interesting comment how the Pats offense pre-Dillon was a "gimmick offense", consisting of screens and passes to the backs in the flats. Sound familiar Jets fans? Edwards seems increasingly frustrated that his offense can't produce when the D is playing at a very competitive level. We've been through this for a couple years but mark my words Hackett is already fired.

Defense:

Played ok. Their focus on stopping Dillon worked, but Brady exposed the secondary with a huge first half. I'd give the run defense an A, the pass defense a D and you simply have to give Brady credit for hanging in, often until the last second, to complete a drive sustaining play downfield. Dillon only started getting yards after the Pats began dominating time of possession and the defense was becoming deflated by the complete lack of scoring support. The run defense was more impressive than the stats show. They held Dillon to his worst yards per carry by far this season despite these favorable conditions: the Patriots were very successful opening up the pass game while Weiss excels at calling draws and runs that mix up the defense. Also the defense was out in sub freezing temperatures for nearly 36 minutes against a bruising back. All Dillon could manage was 3.1 yards a carry.

The pass defense on the other hand sprung leaks from the start. The Jets are playing nickel situations with 3 players who are substandard: Tongue, Abraham and Buckley. Against most teams they can hang in because the linebackers typically take the RB's out of the equation and the pass rush is fierce enough to hurry the QB, but their secondary becomes a problem when they face either of two situations: 1) a top notch QB; 2) an opposing great defense which stops the Jet offense from putting up points. Donnie Abraham is sinking faster than the Titanic, and pretty soon will join Buckley on the ocean floor. They both had yet another miserable day, and get burned in Man and Zone coverage more frequently than my wife burns toast.

Special Teams:

The Jets miss Chad Morton. They can't find anyone to return kickoffs and now that Moss decided not to endanger his WR career by taking chances on punts they are pretty dead in the water on all returns. The punter is substandard as well, if you figure the Jets are 5 yards short on each punt and both returns, it costs them almost 75 yards a game. Just a thought I felt was worth sharing.

Looking ahead:

Beating the Rams on the road...the situation we were hoping to avoid is not as bad as it sounds, but they must do it to avoid leaving a bad taste to what is a solid turnaround. First the Rams might not even be fighting for a post-season spot, and second, you can basically consider the playoffs as starting right now. If the Jets can't win a critical game vs the Rams who would give them a shot at beating San Diego on the road again anyway. The bigger bummer is realizing if the Jets make the playoffs their best case scenario is now one-and-out. That's a disappointing feeling for what I feel is a talented group. They are 5-5 since their quick start, and deservedly should be 6-4 (Baltimore), which isn't bad against a very tough stretch in the schedule but until they fix the offense the way they fixed the defense they're not a serious Super Bowl threat. Offensive Coordinator is THE #1 priority in the offseason. I will have an offseason preview at the end of next week's game since it is perhaps the last wrap up I'll be writing this season.

Analyst: Nick Romano; merq13@aol.com


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