the AFC East
By Scout.com Staff
The Bills made a frantic push for a playoff spot a year ago, winning six of their final seven games by scoring 252 points in that span under quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
The front office wasn't impressed, noting defense and special teams scored six of the touchdowns. So out went Bledsoe, and in came J.P. Losman, one of the club's 2004 first-round picks.
The Bills are counting on Losman's superior mobility to keep plays alive that Bledsoe couldn't, hopefully generating more consistency.
With workhorse running back Willis McGahee, the NFL's No. 2 defense and its No. 1 special teams, the Bills have the pieces in place to control the ball and win low-scoring games if needed, a formula coach Mike Mularkey brought with him from Pittsburgh.
But first-year quarterbacks are generally coach killers and asking Losman to match Ben Roethlisberger's success last season may be asking way too much.
Three keys for the season:
Quarterback J.P. Losman keeps his cool. Losman struggled controlling his temper
all preseason and opponents are certain to try and get into his head.
- Running back Willis McGahee stays healthy. The Bills want to increase
his workload by 6-10 carries per game. But without Travis Henry (Titans) around,
the drop off to No. 2 is steep.
- Place-kicker Rian Lindell starts living up to his contract. The highest-paid kicker in team history has made just 4 of 12 field goals from 40 yards or longer in his two seasons with the club, and missed a 32-yarder in Buffalo's final preseason game.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
RB Willis McGahee: After topping 100 yards in seven of his 11 starts last year, the former Miami Hurricane is looking to top the 2,000-yard mark. He's bigger and even faster since his devastating knee injury in the 2002 national title game.
LT Mike Gandy: His career was in the trash when cut by the Chicago Bears last November, but he has seized the chance to replace Jonas Jennings (49ers) in Buffalo. He wasn't spectacular in training camp, but he did nothing to lose the job.
WR Lee Evans: He led all rookies with nine TD catches a year ago and had five catches of 50-plus yards. But that was with strong-armed veteran Drew Bledsoe throwing passes. It remains to be seen if a scrambling QB like J.P. Losman can find him deep. Evans caught just five passes in the preseason for a 7.8-yard average.
FS Troy Vincent: A five-time Pro Bowler at cornerback, the classy veteran is making the switch to free safety in his 14th NFL season. The team feels the move will add 3-4 years to his career.
CB/KR Terrence McGee: He took the NFL by storm a year ago, returning three kickoffs for touchdowns and making the Pro Bowl, while also starting 13 games at corner. What to do for an encore?
--CB Nate Clements suffered an undisclosed shoulder injury in the final preseason game against the Lions and his status for the season opener is uncertain. The team has declined to give a medical update other than to say it doesn't believe that Clements' injury is serious. Clements was injured in the first half and did not appear on the sideline in the second half or in the locker room after the game.
--CB Jabari Greer, a second-year pro out of Tennessee who won the nickel job in camp, could start against the Texans if Nate Clements' injured shoulder is more serious than believed. Greer had one start as a rookie.
--RB Willis McGahee had a busy preseason with 38 carries for 124 yards (3.26 average). The Bills were sending him a message -- get used to a heavy workload playing with a new starting quarterback in J.P. Losman.
--QB J.P. Losman struggled in his final preseason game, going 11 of 19 but for just 123 yards with two sacks and his first two interceptions. One was returned for a TD after the ball sailed on him in the wind. The other pick was the result of a tipped ball and not his fault. Losman was sacked six times in four games.
--QB Kelly Holcomb wrapped up an impressive summer in his first season as Buffalo's No. 2 quarterback, going 9 of 10 for 88 yards and leading one TD drive against Detroit. If young J.P. Losman struggles out of the blocks, impatient Bills fans won't be shy about calling for the veteran.
--WR Josh Reed, who was in danger of being cut, was given the chance to showcase himself in the final preseason game against Detroit and he came through with six catches for 67 yards. He shook off one drop. The Bills feel Reed is their best blocking receiver and with rookie Roscoe Parrish (wrist) injured, he will remain Buffalo's slot receiver.
Ross Tucker, who started 17 games at guard and center for the Bills over the past
two seasons, was among the team's final cuts. Tucker, who had off-season back
surgery, was unable to seriously challenge for his old left guard job handed to
free agent Bennie Anderson and also lost out for the No. 2 center job to rookie
Duke Preston. The move, however, leaves the Bills with no proven backups on their
Even after the Dolphins finished the preseason with a 1-4 record after last Thursday's 20-17 loss to Atlanta, coach Nick Saban believes that isn't a harbinger for the regular season to come.
"I don't believe we're a 4-12 team," said Saban, whose team finished with that record last season under previous coaches Dave Wannstedt and Jim Bates. "I believe we're a lot better than that. But we have to do some things to go out and prove it."
That won't be easy playing in the AFC East, which is projected as one of the NFL's toughest divisions. So Saban has touted being "overachievers" to his roster, which is a theme the players have adopted entering Sunday's season-opener against visiting Denver.
"I think everybody has bought into the system and is exciting about what is going on here," Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor said. "It is adjustment for everybody, for him and the players. It is a different era from what it has been in years past and we go about business in a different fashion. We are fine with it. He enjoys teaching us and we enjoy having him around."
Three keys for the season:
consistency at quarterback: Although he enters the season as the starter, Gus Frerotte failed to claim the job outright until the end of the preseason. Frerotte
has familiarity of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's system from having spent
the past two seasons with him in Minnesota but largely failed to apply that knowledge
during the preseason by completing only 45 percent of his passes and leading just
one touchdown drive in four starts. Still, at this point the Dolphins might not
have any better options with A.J. Feeley being demoted to a third-string role
behind Sage Rosenfels, who has just one career NFL start and received snaps with
only third- and fourth-string players during the preseason.
defense: This unit is trying to adjust to three new starters in the secondary
(cornerback Reggie Howard and safeties Yeremiah Bell and Tebucky Jones) and playing
more zone coverages than in the predominantly man-to-man scheme favored by Wannstedt.
There are questions whether Bell and Jones can provide consistent help on deep
- The offensive line: Even with highly touted position coach Hudson Houck in the fold, the Dolphins enter the season with four of the same five starters (left tackle Damion McIntosh, left guard Jeno James, center Seth McKinney and right guard Rex Hadnot) from what was one of the NFL's worst units in 2004. The starting line has played inconsistently during the preseason, but Miami's depth doesn't give Saban and Houck many other options.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
QB Sage Rosenfels was promoted to a second-string role behind Gus Frerotte entering Sunday's season-opener against Denver. Rosenfels replaces A.J. Feeley, who was demoted after a four-of-17 passing performance in Miami's preseason finale against Atlanta.
LB Channing Crowder is expected to start against Denver after a solid preseason. Although unconfirmed by coach Nick Saban, Crowder will most likely be replacing Donnie Spragan at strong-side linebacker.
P Matt Turk held off the challenge of Donnie Jones to remain the team's starting punter despite missing the final two exhibition games with a groin injury. Jones, who was claimed off waivers from Seattle earlier this preseason, could be re-signed to the developmental squad.
RB Ronnie Brown is expected to receive "12 to 15" touches against Denver, coach Nick Saban said. Saban has hinted that Brown, who missed the first three weeks of the preseason in a contract holdout, will be limited until becoming comfortable with the offense.
--WR Derrius Thompson was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury that would have sidelined him until several weeks into the regular season. Thompson, who was injured in the preseason finale against Atlanta, wasn't likely to make the roster despite a five-catch, 98-yard performance versus the Falcons.
--DT Kevin Vickerson was placed on injured reserve with an ACL injury that he suffered in the preseason finale against Atlanta. A 2005 seventh-round pick, Vickerson had shown enough in training camp to make the roster and become part of the team's defensive line rotation.
--DT Larry Chester was waived off the PUP list, which means the Dolphins won't have to guarantee his $540,000 base salary for 2005. Chester, who is recovering from a knee injury suffered last September, could be re-signed later in the season if healthy.
--C Wade Smith was placed on injured reserve with a forearm injury suffered during a practice early in the preseason. Smith was trying to make the conversion to center after playing tackle in his first two NFL seasons.
--RB Lamar Gordon was waived after an unimpressive preseason. Gordon, who only played seven quarters last season after suffering a shoulder injury, cost the Dolphins a 2005 third-round draft pick when acquired last September from St. Louis.
--RB Jesse Chatman was signed to fill the roster spot created by the release of Lamar Gordon. A backup in San Diego the past three seasons, Chatman has familiarity with the running scheme installed by new offensive line coach Hudson Houck from the time the two spent together with the Chargers.
While huge improvements on defense under first-year coordinator Donnie Henderson keyed the Jets going from 6-10 to 10-6 last season, it's the offense that has to make the jump this year. The conservative offense of Paul Hackett is out and Mike Heimerdinger and his extra large playbook are in.
Look for quarterback Chad Pennington to go long a little more often and everyone to get involved on offense, from the fourth wide receiver to the tight end to the backup running back. This team expects at least 21 points a game, a total they managed in just seven games last year.
The Jets will still rely on a defense that ranked seventh overall last season, hoping that veteran corner Ty Law is fully recovered from a serious foot injury and can solidify a secondary desperate for playmakers.
The Jets have lofty goals this season, with several players talking about going to the Super Bowl. That kind of talk will either help propel them toward their goal or set them up for criticism later.
Three keys for the season:
- Quarterback Chad Pennington needs to start well but doesn't
have to put too much pressure on himself. While his surgically repaired shoulder
proved strong by the end of training camp, the first few games will provide a
much better test for Pennington both physically and mentally as he eases into
offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger's new offense. In past seasons, Pennington
has put the burden of winning too much on himself rather than let his teammates
help him. Well his teammates are there for him so Pennington will need to work
within himself instead of forcing matters.
- Special teams coach
Mike Westhoff has rookies in three important positions: kicker (Mike Nugent),
punter (Ben Graham) and kickoff and punt returner (Justin Miller). All three are
areas the Jets have had trouble with in the past so filling them with rookies
could be a risky proposition. Nugent and Graham had excellent camps and better
preseasons, but regular season games are different altogether. Miller has sensational
speed and moves on kickoff returns but he struggled catching the ball on punts.
- Ty Law not only needs to be a playmaker in the Jets' secondary but needs to be a vocal leader for the whole team. The Jets have a number of young players in key roles and will lean on some of the veteran leadership the Jets have in players like center Kevin Mawae and running back Curtis Martin, but Law needs to step in that role as well. When he came to camp, Law occasionally talked about what he could provide to the team by referring to himself in the third person. The Jets need some of that bravado to come through more.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
TE Doug Jolley: The Jets traded a late first round pick to get him in April but he failed to make an impact or impress in the preseason and didn't assert himself as the starter, failing to beat out Chris Baker. The Jets wanted him to be a presence in the middle and help open things up for the running game, but he'll end up sharing the plays with Chris Baker in the early going.
RT Adrian Jones: The move was a much-maligned one. Not the decision to let Kareem McKenzie leave as a free agent, but to start the untested and absolutely inexperienced Jones in his place. Yet other than a sack allowed to former Pro Bowler Michael Strahan, Jones was solid all preseason and got the support of his linemates as well as running back Curtis Martin, who gets most of his yardage on the right side.
K Mike Nugent: He finished the preseason a perfect 4-for-4 with field goals from 40, 48, 35 and 33 yards out. The Jets like his makeup and don't think he'll be rattled by the big kicks, hoping they've found their kicker for the next decade.
--OT Marko Cavka suffered a broken left wrist during the final preseason game and will be out six weeks. The Jets went out and traded with the Packers for reserve guard/tackle Steve Morely.
--WR Harry Williams Jr., a seventh-round pick, had been a favorite for the fifth receiver spot before hurting his knee a few weeks ago. The Jets ended up cutting him but would like to put him on the practice squad and sign a late cut from another team to be their fifth receiver.
--DT Lance Legree will remain in the rotation at nose tackle but will now be Dewayne Robertson's backup at the 3-technique tackle.
--PR Justin Miller opened camp with some dazzling returns and the potential to be a breakout player -- averaging 27.7 yards on kickoff returns -- but dropped five punts in a week and hit the rookie wall in training camp, finishing the preseason averaging just 6.3 yards on six punt returns. It looks like the Jets will use a combination of Miller and Jerricho Cotchery with receiver Justin McCareins also pitching in.
--DE Bryan Thomas will start for John Abraham for at least the season opener. Abraham held out of training camp for the first month and while he bulked up and added 10 pounds in the offseason to help against the run, he needs to get better conditioning. It's likely the Jets will play Thomas on first and second down and bring Abraham in on third down as a pass rushing specialist. Abraham estimates he could go anywhere from 10 to 30 plays against the Chiefs this Sunday.
--SS Oliver Celestin is relocating his parents and several family members from New Orleans to New York this season and doing so with assistance from teammates and the Jets organization. Celestin was born and raised in New Orleans and has been unable to reach several family members since Hurricane Katrina last week.
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