AFC East Preview



by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

The AFC East could turn out to be very interesting this year!

Perennial power New England wants to keep its Belichick/Brady dynasty going. Very few players and assistants remain from the early days of that glorious run. But, the guys who matter most are still capable of winning, even if they struggled to a disappointing 10-6 mark last year.

The New York Jets under new head coach Rex Ryan finished 9-7, but peaked at the right time as they won at Cincinnati and at San Diego in the AFC playoffs before falling to Indianapolis. In terms of the postseason, we may have already seen a changing of the guard!

We continue our August series of NFL Divisional Previews today with the AFC East. That should get you ready to watch tonight's New Orleans/New England game on national television. The series began this past Sunday with the NFC East. Please check the archives if you missed that report. Our series will continue daily over the next week, with a one-day exception so we can run key boxscore stats from the first full week of Preseason action in our Monday report. Tomorrow's feature conference: the NFC South.

Let's crunch the key numbers from last year to review how 2009 unfolded for the Patriots, Jets, and the rest of the AFC East...then we'll outline expectations for the coming season based on that information.

N. England....10-6...+6 turnover differential....6th ranked schedule
NY Jets.........9-7....+1 turnover differential....4th ranked schedule
Miami...........7-9.....-8 turnover differential....2nd ranked schedule
Buffalo.........6-10...+3 turnover differential....5th ranked schedule

The first thing to note here is that the AFC East played a brutal schedule last year. They're all a bit better than the final standings makes it seem. And, THAT means that New England was more like an 11-5 or 12-4 team even if they struck viewers as sloppier than normal on both sides of the ball. The Jets were a 10-11 win team in the big picture, and played that way once the playoffs started. Let's note that it ALSO means Miami is probably at least .500 caliber, and making a move back into the playoffs this year.

The second thing that jumps out at us is the soft turnover differential numbers. Even with a great defense, the Jets didn't pick up much ground here because they had a mistake-prone rookie quarterback. If he matures in Year Two as a starter, they could take a big step forward in this stat. New England won the stat in terms of the division, but not in a way that would wow anybody. They have some work to do in terms of executing cleanly on both sides of the ball. Miami is the big news to us. As they get more in synch with the coaching staff, this is a team that can take a big step forward. If they just move to equality in the turnover department...that suggests 10 wins or so against an easier 2010 schedule.

Okay, let's say something about Buffalo. 2009 wasn't as bad as it seemed because they were in a tough division playing a tough schedule. You get the impression from pundits that Buffalo went 2-14 last year, and played like the Detroit of the AFC. That's just not the case. That could make the Bills a nice value team at the start of the 2010 season. Note that Buffalo is one of just three teams who changed head coaches in the offseason. Chan Gailey is running the show now, which should at least lead to higher scoring games if nothing else.

Let's take a look at offenses and defenses from last year. You regulars know our favorite pro football stat (and possibly favorite in ALL sports) is Drive Point production. The numbers in the categories below represent points per game scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more. Cheap field position points aren't counted. Special Teams or Defensive TD's aren't counted. This is as close to 'real' football as it gets.

New England 17.2
Miami 14.5
NY Jets 10.5
Buffalo 6.3
NOTEBOOK: New England still has a great offense, as 17.2 is one of the top marks in the whole NFL (the best teams in each conference played each other in the Super Bowl). Miami is better than you realize on this side of the ball. It was one of the great unreported stories of 2009...the improvement of Miami's offense at driving the field. The Jets aren't actually all that bad for a team with a rookie quarterback. They look to improve this year as long as Sanchez continues on his learning curve. Buffalo's collapse was embarrassing to ownership because they spent so much money on Terrell Owens. A coaching change was mandated by such a horrible showing. Remember that Drive Point scoring has been going up since the holding rules were liberalized. Buffalo finished dead last, 32nd out of 32 teams in this particular stat.

NY Jets 7.1
New England 10.9
Buffalo 11.8
Miami 15.2
NOTEBOOK: No surprise here with the Jets dominating. Again, with scoring going up, a number that low is impressive. The Jets weren't just best in the AFC East, or the AFC, they were at 7.1 when only three AFC teams managed to stay below 10.0. Nobody else managed to stay below 9.0 in this conference (Carolina and SF did so in the NFC). Rex Ryan has built a championship defense.

New England can win with that level of defense if they want to play shootouts every week. It's tough to win playoff games in January though with a number that high. We're surprised Miami ranked so badly. You don't think of them as a shootout team because of the Bill Parcells influence.

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Miami 49%
New England 44%
NY Jets 37%
Buffalo 26%
NOTEBOOK: In terms of classic boxscore statistics (meaning stats we didn't invent ourselves), this is probably our favorite indicator stat. On offense, you can either drive the field or you can't. On defense, you can either shut people down or you can't. You see a huge difference in offenses in the AFC East last year. Miami was stellar. New England ranked in the top eight across the league. The Jets struggled...and Buffalo struggled to a seemingly impossible degree. Nobody else was below 30%. You really have to be pretty clueless on the offensive side of the ball to fail more than two thirds of the time, let alone almost three fourths of the time.

NY Jets 32%
Miami 35%
New England 37%
Buffalo 40%
NOTEBOOK: What a mystery! Miami was great on third downs, but lousy on Drive Points. That tells you they allowed a lot of high impact plays on first or second down. They need to fix that leak if they want to make the playoffs this year. This is something we'll be watching very closely, because Miami has a chance to be a real surprise team this year if they can fix their turnover issues and the big play problems on defense. They have a surprising number of 'great' things in their profile, even while playing a tough schedule.

Frankly, this was the best division in the NFL in this stat in terms of ranking the foursomes. Good to see a division have its priorities in the right places.

Wow...there could really be bedlam in this division outside of Buffalo. And, with a new coach, there's always a chance for immediate improvement there as well (though, we're not particularly big fans of Chan Gailey).

*New England may find out that the game has passed them by...and that last year's fade from glory under Brady (remember he missed the prior season, but made a run at history just before that) was just the early part of a gradual aging process that can't be stopped. Or, everything clicks again and New England's up there with Indianapolis and San Diego as conference powers once again.

*New York falls back to earth, as a blowhard head coach believes too many of his press clippings (a pro version of Notre Dame's Charlie Weis) and the franchise-wide arrogance blows up. You're seeing potential signs of that with preseason holdouts and snippy comments already. The NFL is known for having teams that enjoy a shooting star season before falling back to earth with a thud. Don't assume the Jets are the next big thing. Then again, if the defense holds firm and Sanchez gets better...they really could be the next big thing!

*Miami is a team you have to pay attention to in our view. They went 7-9 last year against a tough schedule, and with a negative turnover differential. Several studies over the years have shown that teams often bounce back strong from that combination. Miami has some good pedigree stats anyway. That and a bounce back could lead to something special.

Talk about volatility! We won't make any grand statements here in early August. We do expect one of the big stories of 2010, whether good or bad, to come from this division.

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Back tomorrow with a look at last year's Super Bowl champ...and a different team that's become a popular darkhorse choice to go the distance this year...

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