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2002 Divisional Opponent Analysis
It is time once again for my look at Miami's divisional opponents. Unfortunately, my skill here last year seemed to be equal to my ability to pick winning lottery numbers. Last season, I predicted the Patriots to finish last in the division and the Colts to challenge us for the divisional championship. So I'll eat my crow, and congratulate New England on their Superbowl victory.
This season, I feel that the race in the AFC East will be much tighter. The Patriots haven't lost much (other than backup Drew Bledsoe), while the Bills have certainly improved. And the Jets have had the Dolphins number 8 straight times. But Miami didn't sit on their hands this off-season, and have improved as well in my opinion. So which team will win the AFC East? Before I answer that, I'll take a look at the Dolphin's divisional competition.
The Good - The Bills trade for QB Drew Bledsoe rivals that of Miami's trade for Ricky Williams, and will certainly improve the Bills offensively. A big upgrade over injury prone Rob Johnson, Bledsoe should have some success in Kevin Gilbride's offense. He'll have former Pro Bowler Eric Moulds to throw to. Moulds has tons of talent, and without all the baggage that former Bledsoe target Terry Glenn carried. Throw in Peerless Price, rookie Josh Reed, and FB Larry Centers, and Bledsoe should have plenty of opportunity for success.
The Bills took some steps to shore up their offensive line. They signed former Bronco Trey Teague to start at LT, and drafted mammoth Mike Williams to start at RT. With Jerry Ostroski returning from Injured Reserve and Pro Bowler Rueben Brown anchored at OG, the Bill's offensive line should be improved from last year.
Overall, the Bill's offense wasn't that bad last year, ranking 13th overall in the league. With improvements at QB and along the OL, the Bills should be even better offensively.
The Bad - Last year, the Bill's defense ranked in the bottom 3rd of the NFL. (21st overall.) A lot of the problem was the weakness along the defensive line. The Bills drafted BYU's Ryan Denney to replace the retired Phil Hansen. With 2nd year man Aaron Schobel on one side, Denney will battle Erik Flowers and a host of question marks for the other starting spot. Pat Williams is solid at his DT position, but who will play next to him is another question mark.
The Bill's running game appears to be somewhat cloudy. Travis Henry looked okay as the starter, but went down with an injury late in the season. This left Shawn Bryson to try and make his mark. Byrson rushed for over 100 yards twice in 3 games, but must battle Henry and free agent signee Richard Huntley for playing time. All 3 are decent, but the Bills still lack the Thurman Thomas type playmaker at runningback.
The (Ugly) Truth - The Bills are headed in the right direction. Heck, after a 3-13 season, they have no where to go but up. The solved some problems on offense, but problems remain on the defensive side of the ball. The Bills tried to make up for the loss of Sam Cowart by signing former Ram linebacker London Fletcher, and picking up Eddie Robinson. But the DL and safety positions remain weak. But like I said before, this team has no where to go but up. While I think it is still too premature to talk playoffs, an 8-8 season is not unreasonable.
The Good - The Jets improved an already strong position with the signing of LB Sam Cowart. Teamed up with Mo Lewis and Marvin Jones, this group could be one of the best in the NFL if Cowart is fully recovered.
Curtis Martin was 2nd in the league in rushing yards last season. He also had 10 rushing TDs, and shows no sign of slowing down. He is an extremely durable RB, and will again be the focus of the Jet offense. With FB Richie Anderson and backup LaMont Jordon, the Jets have a deep and talented backfield.
The Bad - For a team that has playoff aspirations, there is certainly a lot of question marks; the biggest being along the offensive line. The Jets lost OT Ryan Young to the expansion Texans, and OG Kerry Jenkins in free agency. They signed Dave Szott to replace Jenkins, but he is already lost for the season due to injury. Add to that the injury to Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae (the Jets hope to have him back by late preseason) and the defection of OL coach Bill Muir, and you can see why the Jets have a jumbled mess of an OL.
The last season, the Jets ranked almost at the bottom of the NFL in passing, 29th overall. Many criticized OC Paul Hackett, including several players and personal within the organization. The Jet's starting QB, Vinny Testaverde, is almost 39, and his having big problems with his right foot. Yet he was given a 5 year extension. The Jet organization is praying that Testaverde will be ready for the season. And rightfully so as backup Chad Pennington is , as ESPN's Len Pasquarelli writes, "no closer to taking over the No. 1 job now than he was as a rookie. About the only chance he has of being elevated to the starter's spot is if Testaverde isn't totally rehabilitated from spring surgery to remove a benign tumor from his right foot." If Testaverde continues to have injury trouble, and/or continues to struggle in Hackett's West Coast offense, the Jets could have problems.
The Jet's schedule is no cream puff, especially in December. The Jets travel to Oakland, Chicago, and New England, and must face Denver and Green Bay at home. And all in December. If the Jets don't win several games early, there might not be much Christmas cheer in NYC this year.
The (Ugly) Truth - The Jets did try to fill holes created by the expansion draft and free agency. Signing Aaron Beasley, Donnie Abraham, and Sam Garnes to replace Aaron Glenn, Marcus Coleman, and Victor Green was a nice move althought it was not an upgrade in my opinion. DT Larry Webster and LB Sam Cowart (if he stays healthy) will improve the Jet's run defense. But problems on the offensive side of the ball could spell trouble for a team that ranked 24th in the league offensively last year. Couple that with the potential/future salary cap problems (Testaverde's 5 year deal and Curtis Martin's remaining $20.8 million salary over the next two years for example), and the Jets could find themselves in a rebuilding mode in the not too distant future.
The Good - Fresh off of a Superbowl victory, the Patriots went through the off-season without losing much at all. Troubled receiver Terry Glenn is gone, but he wasn't really a factor last year anyway. Drew Bledsoe is also gone, traded away to the Bills for a 1st round draft pick. But otherwise, the Patriots return their Superbowl roster pretty much intact while managing to add a few decent free agents.
Receiver Donald Hayes (59 catches last year) will have more of an impact than Terry Glenn did last year simply because he'll be on the field. The Patriots also improved their receiver corp with the addition of 1st round pick TE Daniel Graham and free agent signee TE Christian Fauria. All should help to take some pressure off of Pro Bowler Troy Brown, who had only 1 TD catch in the final 8 games.
The Patriots also did a nice job of re-signing many of their own free agents. Players like Antowaine Smith and Ted Johnson helped get New England into the Superbowl, and re-signing them will help to keep the team's chemistry intact.
The Bad - While Tom Brady guided the Patriots to the Superbowl and walked away with the MVP award, it remains to be seen if he can repeat his preformance. I can name several QBs who took their team to a Superbowl victory, only to fade off into NFL obscurity a year or two later. (Doug Williams and Mark Rypien are the first two players that come to mind in case you were wondering.) Brady had only 145 yards passing in the Superbowl, and a 77.9 QB rating throughout the playoffs. Not substandard, but not exactly "Montana-like" either. And should Brady struggle, there will be no Drew Bledsoe to fall back on. The only seasoned veteran backup on the roster would be Damon Huard. And Dolphin fans should know all about him.
The Patriots won't catch teams by surprise this year. While many football fans will label New England's Superbowl win a fluke (I tend to think that they were rather lucky), the Patriots will be hard pressed to repeat last year's surprising performance. The Patriots will have targets on their chest, and teams will be gunning for them. How the Patriots react to this kind of pressure will directly affect their performance on the field.
The (Ugly) Truth - The Patriots should again challenge for the AFC East title. But things won't be easy for them. Both Miami and the Bills have improved. The AFC East is arguably the toughest in the league, and repeating their 2001 performance won't be easy. I can see New England going 10-6 or 11-5, and giving Miami a real challenge for control of the AFC East.
So, how do I think the AFC East will end up? I am picking Miami to win the division. (Call me a homer if you want.) I think that New England will come a close second and will make the playoffs as one of the 2 wild-cards. (I predict the Broncos to get in as the other wild card.) At third place, I think the Bills will be a much improved 8-8 team. Finally, I think that injuries to Testaverde and along the OL will take their toll, and the Jets come in last at 7-9. (PS. I think that on September 22nd, the Dolphins will break the curse and finally beat the Jets.)