Two years ago, the AFC East was one of the most competitive divisions in the National Football League. The Patriots won 14 games en route to a third championship while the New York Jets went 10-6 and the Buffalo Bills were 9-7, just missing becoming the third team in the division to reach the playoffs.
Things changed quite a bit last year as New England won the division crown with a relatively underwhelming 10-6 record and got into the playoffs as the fourth seed. The AFC East went from a division of contenders to a one-horse race.
Fans can expect 2006 to be another season filled with surprises in the ever complicated AFC East. All four teams underwent significant roster changes and will be relying on new faces to be difference makers. Here is a list of impact players in the AFC East and how they'll be affecting this year's divisional race.
New England's second wide receiver's production has increased each year since 2003 - going from 34 receptions to 44 in 2004 to 59 in 2005. With David Givens bolting to the Tennessee Titans as a free agent, the Patriots need to find someone reliable to complement Tom Brady's favorite target, Deion Branch. Florida product Jackson could be that someone if he can exploit one-on-one matchups on the outside when defenses double team Branch. The Patriots signed free agent Reche Caldwell from San Diego, but Caldwell - like David Terrell - has yet to meet the high expectations he garnered coming out of college.
It's a no-brainer that the starting quarterback is an impact player on any team. But when and if Culpepper can return to his All-Pro form after having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee will be paramount to whether Miami can build on a promising end to 2005. Culpepper's health could make or break the season for the Dolphins. If healthy, his ability to scramble and make strong, accurate throws on the run could make Miami's offense more dangerous than it has been since the days of Dan Marino. But if the Dolphins are forced into playing backup Joey Harrington, Nick Saban's defense better be prepared to be on the field an awful lot.
Brown is essentially Part 2 of the Culpepper scenario. As a rookie last season, Brown carried the football 207 times. Upon Ricky Williams' return after his four-game suspension to start the season, Brown split carries with the veteran the rest of the season. With Williams now lost for the entire season thanks to another league drug policy violation, Brown is going to carry the ball a lot more this season. If his increased work load doesn't wear on him late in the season, he will be the perfect complement to Culpepper's mobility on play action passes and bootlegs.
The Jets used their two first round picks in this year's draft to revamp an offensive line that lost its veteran stalwarts Kevin Mawae and Jason Fabini. The fourth overall pick, Ferguson was by far the best offensive lineman in the draft and will undoubtedly start at tackle right away for the Jets. Center Mangold is likely to win the job at center as well, making New York's offensive line suddenly quite young. Teams like the Patriots and Dolphins will surely test the youngsters with zone blitzes and increased pressure to try to confuse protection assignments. Ferguson and Mangold's learning curve will be essential in Chad Pennington's attempt to repair what was a weak, ineffective passing game last season.
Age finally began to take its toll on the 33-year-old Curtis Martin last season as the veteran averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. Martin's days of carrying the ball 300-plus times look to be over. Houston showed some promise at the end of last season with his best game coming against Miami in December as he ran for 84 yards on 15 carries and also caught four passes. Exactly how much the Jets can expect out of a sixth-round pick like Houston is unclear. Houston isn't going to explode for many 50-yard scampers, but he is a solid possession running back who can wear down defenses with his bruising north-south style. With a young offensive line and one of the weaker passing quarterbacks in Pennington, the Jets will need to run the ball a lot this season. But it can't just be all Martin all the time anymore.
These aren't the same Bills that Price left after 2002. Gone is number one target Eric Moulds and quarterback Drew Bledsoe. If Price is going reestablish himself as an effective receiver, he'll have to find a way to make himself a factor downfield - something that was missing in three seasons with Atlanta and Dallas. While Lee Evans looks to be on the verge of becoming a number one target, Price's effectiveness will ultimately determine how dangerous quarterback J.P. Losman's passing attack becomes. If teams become comfortable doubling Evans and leaving a lone defensive back on Price, Buffalo's offense will be far more predictable.
Part 2 of this two-part series can be found on PatriotsInsider.com tomorrow
Dave Fletcher is a longtime contributor to Patriots Insider. An accomplished writer and sports analyst, you can find more of his articles by searching for "Dave Fletcher" in the archives on PatriotsInsider.com
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