AFC EAST ROUNDTABLE: The Playoff Push

Scout.com insiders were asked three questions about the AFC East division and the teams' standings within the division. Each insider was asked to assess the team they cover and predict that team's chances to make the postseason. Here are their thoughts on what to look for over the final four games of the season.

1) Do the team standings in the AFC East match your expectations from the first half of the season? How have your expectations changed since the half way mark?

Dan Leberfeld (Jets): The standings match my expectations. Once Tom Brady got hurt, you could throw a blanket over this division, especially with Miami getting Chad Pennington. Without Pennington, Miami is probably 3-9, or something like that right now. I figured the Bills would come back to the pack because of injuries and a disappointing offensive line and pass rush. The Jets will probably win the division because they are currently in first place and have the easiest schedule down the stretch.

Alain Poupart (Dolphins): This has been a division full of surprises. From the halfway point of the season, my view is that I expected New England to still be first. I was definitely surprised to see the Jets win at Tennessee and the Bills' collapse has been a tad surprising as well. Given their schedule, what the Dolphins actually hasn't shocked me.

Tyler Dunne (Bills): I expected the Bills to fall back to earth after their 4-0 start - but I don't think anybody predicted the free-fall that actually transpired. After losing six of eight games, Buffalo's playoff hopes are virtually nil. The Jets wins over New England and Tennessee surprised me, but still I think New England is in good position to win the division. With games against Seattle, Oakland, Buffalo and Arizona, the Pats easily could run the table and finish 11-5.

Jon Scott (Patriots): The way things stood at the half way point you could see how the Patriots might falter down the stretch. They gave up huge games to the Dolphins and the Chargers, looking every bit as vulnerable without Tom Brady as one would imagine. Then they turned things around to reel off a series of wins to take the lead. At that point it seemed feasible, even likely that they'd win the division. I think the close losses to the Jets and the Colts are going to hurt them. The blasting they took from Pittsburgh seems to have put them too far out of the hunt to have a realistic shot to catch New York. I really didn't expect the Jets to beat the Titans. I thought Buffalo would be the ones contending for the division more than the Jets. The New York free agent frenzy has come along faster than anticipated.

 

2) What does your team have to do to make the playoffs, and do you think they can do it?

DL (Jets): The Jets have improve their pass defense if they want to make the playoffs, and then do some damage in the second season. They are currently 30th in the NFL against the pass. It's a combination of the pass rush fading and instability at one safety spot and one cornerback spot. With the pass rush becoming pedestrian, certain players have to hold on in coverage too long and they can't do it. The Jets are in dire need of a pass rusher that opponents have to game plan for (like Ware, Harrison or Porter). Currently, they don't have one.

AP (Dolphins): What the Dolphins have to do, I believe, is continue to find a way to win close games. That's the easy answer because there isn't any one thing the team does great or does poorly every week. It's constantly changing. One week, Chad Pennington is great but the running game struggles; the next week, Pennington doesn't have to do much and the team rushes for 140 yards. One week, the defense is stuffing the run; the next, it's making plays in the secondary. The constant has been the team's ability of late to make enough plays in the fourth quarter to pull out close victories (examples include Seattle, Oakland and St. Louis). The Dolphins have a favorable schedule down the stretch but close at the Jets, where they'll have to pick up their game and, again, play well in the fourth quarter. Can they do it? Absolutely. Nothing we have seen of this team suggests it's going to crash, and the biggest reason is Pennington. The reality is the Jets and Patriots probably are still more talented, but to put anything past the Dolphins at this point would be foolish.

TD (Bills): Win out and pray. Sure doesn't look good the Bills, and I'm not just referring the mathematical progression that'd need to play out. After two demoralizing losses to Cleveland and San Francisco, Buffalo is a team in hysteria. Any progress made back in September has evaporated. The Bills will be lucky to knock off any of the remaining teams on their schedule (Miami, New England, Denver, New York Jets). Barring a miracle - internally and externally - the Bills will miss the playoffs for the ninth straight season. Theoretically, Buffalo would be able to flip the standings with games against three divisional opponents. Realistically, Dick Jauron's team is in shambles far too much to even consider that. Injuries and ineptitude are colliding to new lows every week.

JS (Patriots): New England has to win at least three of the next four and hope the Jets drop two. Otherwise they have to win out and hope Baltimore or Indianapolis falter. The Patriots should be able to win three of their next four, but winning them all will be a challenge. With all the injuries on defense, it would be really tough to say they'll win out. They'll probably finish 10-6 and lose out in a tiebreaker like Cleveland did a year ago.

 

3) What are the biggest challenges for your team for the next four games?

DL (Jets): The biggest challenge for the Jets over the next four games is to deal with two West Coast trips (San Francisco and Seattle) two weeks a part. This is difficult late in the season. The players are already banged up and tired at this stage of the season, and you throw in two round trip flights out West, and that could really wear them out. And Seattle could be the toughest of their remaining games. That stadium is brutal to play in, and Hasselbeck is the kind of quarterback who gives them trouble.

AP (Dolphins): Offensively, it's reestablishing the running game on a consistent basis. Defensively, it has to be generating more pressure on the quarterback and getting someone other than Joey Porter contributing on a steady basis. On special teams, it's continuing to bear down and avoid giving up the long returns that have hurt this team throughout the season.

TD (Bills): Buffalo has major issues at quarterback. After struggling mightily for six games, Trent Edwards now is hampered by a groin strain. It looks like he'll miss Sunday's game against Miami in Toronto. Maybe more. Enter: J.P. Losman. The helter-skelter Losman will get yet another shot to soften his bust label. Don't count on it. Minus an explosion in Kansas City, Buffalo's offense has been consistently bad for two months. Don't expect a sudden turnaround in a gauntlet of games to cap the season

JS (Patriots): New England has to find a way to field a linebacker unit with two recently signed players who were out of football all year; Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau. The rag tag assortment of players available on defense has forced the team to change it's starters every single week this season. Something to think about is that New England lost 2 starting linebackers, 1 starting safety, 1 starting cornerback, 2 backup linebackers and 2 backup cornerbacks yet they're still in the playoff hunt. If they're going to make it, Colvin and Seau will need to perform close to the level they played in 2007, and the new bodies in the secondary will need to pull their weight. On offense Matt Cassel can't afford another meltdown like the one against Pittsburgh or it's over.

Dan Leberfeld covers the New York Jets for Jets Confidential Magazine
Alain Poupart covers the Miami Dolphins as the Associate Editor of Dolphin Digest
Tyler Dunne covers the Buffalo Bills for the Buffalo Football Report
Jon Scott covers the New England Patriots for Patriots Insider

 


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