No. 4 Miami Dolphins (4-12)
The Fins desperately needed to hit the reset button the offseason affords. Perhaps not coincidentally, the team under-performed last season as the Incognito-Martin scandal reached its crescendo. Given their schedule (games against KC, GB, BAL) and offseason upgrades (or lack thereof), the Dolphins are primed to be this year’s team that takes some more steps backwards than forward.
No. 3 Buffalo Bills (5-11)
The Bills may not fare much better than their amphibious foes. The team seems to have finally found some coaching stability but still lacks a more-than-serviceable QB. Their offense is explosive and armed with some real talent at brand positions (WR, RB, etc) and their defense showed its potential by collectively raking in a league-high 57 sacks.
Doug Marrone has taken a proactive, positive approach in dealing with his players and look for him and his staff to utilize his players in a creative manner. This will be especially true with an athletic, running-type QB in presumed-starter E.J. Manuel. This, of course, is all subject to Manuel returning 100 percent after missing six starts during his injury-plagued debut campaign….15 and counting.
No. 2 New York Jets (10-6)
Rex Ryan’s future with the franchise will be determined by the team’s performance this year. Despite being able reach the AFC Finals twice, Rex & Co. have disappointed the last few seasons. Worse, past campaigns have quickly whirl-pooled into circuses with unmet guarantees, bickering, and being mentioned too often for non-football reasons. This year, Ryan promised a very different scene and so far, so good. The players drafted and acquired this offseason have been selected as much for their off-field conduct and work ethic as with their elite athleticism.
A louder endorsement for Geno Smith is perhaps the biggest complaint Jets Nation (or some part of it) can say about the team at this point. They have approached the offseason with an unprecedented aggression and will hope all the moving parts can play cohesive, winning football. Ryan primary objective for this season has to be making the playoffs, as AFC East champ or AFC wildcard, if the coach can prolong his season, he will most likely have prolonged his career in East Rutherford.
NO. 1 New England Patriots (11-5)
Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Darrelle Revis are names that, individually, strike fear into any opponent. Collectively, the group lays claim to the division. Like their divisional peers, the Pats have a tricky schedule that includes trips to Lambeau Field, Arrowhead Stadium, and the Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. This should be good training for what the franchise hope will be another deep run in the postseason. Brady’s age is becoming a concern which explains the selection of a QB in the second round. Other than that, this team is positioned to continue where it left off: playing smart, efficient, team-first football, beating bad teams, and winning close games.
Belichick’s defense may feel a pinch with the recent loss of Armond Armstead. The player was developing nicely and was anticipated to cement his position this season. Despite the loss, the defensive line will be stronger given the talent that will be returning from injuries (Will Smith, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly). Other than that, look for this season to be business as usual in Foxborough. Another winter, another banner.