AFC East Preview

PATS AND JETS IN FANTASTIC FEUD

We continue our NFL Divisional previews today with the AFC East. That will help get you ready for the NY Jets at the Houston Texans tonight on ESPN…the first 2011 edition of Monday Night Football. And, it will also set the stage for what could be an AMAZING battle this year between the New England Patriots and the New York Jets.

*The Pats are perennial favorites to win the league title, even though it's something they haven't done in quite some time. After closing the 2010 season absolutely on fire, the Pats were dispatched the first time they took the field in the postseason by the hated Jets.

*The Jets have played in the AFC Championship game each of the last two years despite a young, inconsistent quarterback because the defense has been truly out of this world. Should Mark Sanchez show signs of improvement…we're talking about a team that may finally kick the door down this season.

Las Vegas loves great quarterbacks, so the Pats and Tom Brady are once again early season favorites to win the division (and the whole AFC). REALITY loves defenses in big games. The Jets' defense was a lot better than the Patriots' defense was last year. If New England doesn't do anything about that, 2011 could end up looking a lot like 2010 for fans in Foxboro. That's great in November and December, but not so much in January!

Let's run the numbers from last year and talk about possibilities for this season…

2010 FINAL AFC EAST STANDINGS
New England: 14-2 (+28 turnovers, 6th schedule)
NY Jets: 11-5 (+9 turnovers, 3rd schedule)
Miami: 7-9 (-12 turnovers, 2nd schedule)
Buffalo: 4-12 (-17 turnovers, 1st schedule)

This is the first division we've discussed this summer that played a very tough schedule in 2010. If you missed our earlier reports on the NFC West and the AFC West last Thursday and Friday, please check the archives. New England went 14-2 while playing a tough schedule! The Jets were a very respectable 11-5 vs. an even tougher slate. You wonder what Miami and Buffalo would do in different divisions. Miami just missed the .500 mark while playing a brutal schedule and suffering turnover migraines. Were they really any worse than AFC West champ Kansas City in the big picture?

The biggest number that jumps out there is the +28 in turnovers for New England. This is a very smart team that understands the nuances of risk and reward. But, something THAT big is hard to maintain over a larger sampling. The media didn't talk much about it last year because they love Tom Brady and Bill Belichick so much. But…it was TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL rather than raw production that really set the Pats apart from the field last year. You'll see in a bit that their defense was subpar except for their ability to force takeaways from desperate teams playing catch up. In the playoffs, they weren't facing a desperate team playing catch up…they didn't get any turnover breaks…and they didn't win on their home field as big favorites.

OFFENSIVE DRIVE POINTS PER GAME
New England 17.9
NY Jets 11.4
Miami 9.8
Buffalo 8.6
Notebook: As we mentioned last week, league average was around 12.0. So, the Patriots offense was fantastic at driving the field for points (so surprise there). The Jets were probably a shade above average once you adjust for strength of schedule. Miami and Buffalo clearly have some work to do if they're going to get mentioned this year. We're having troubles mentioning them in this preview and there are only four teams! The pressure is really on Chad Henne and coach Tony Sparano to take a step forward this year. Hopefully a friendlier schedule (it almost has to be friendlier by default) will help. We'll keep an eye for value spots on Buffalo this year because they were probably a little better than people realized last season. This offensive Drive Point category will be the place to look for red flag signals early in the year.

DRIVE POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME
Miami 10.5
NY Jets 10.8
Buffalo 11.8
New England 14.4
Notebook: Impressive marks for the first three teams when you realize they all played very tough schedules…AND they had to face the Pats offensive juggernaut twice apiece. New England's number is particularly embarrassing because they allowed 14.4 points per game on drives of 60 yards or more even though they never had to face their own offense! Yes…some extenuating circumstances because they were in a lot of second half 'prevent' formations. Still…most other teams with big leads didn't perform this poorly in such a key stat. As we said up front…New England has to improve its DEFENSE if they want to go the distance. Everyone knows the offense is going to be great. Scoring 48 points on a patsy gets you nowhere in January. Assuming the Dolphins can keep this up, look for them in defensive dog spots this season.

OFFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
New England 48%
NY Jets 40%
Miami 40%
Buffalo 38%
Notebook: Not much new of note here, as third down percentage often aligns with Drive Point production. You see who's great. You see who has work to do. The bottom three would have graded out better vs. softer schedules…which means they're more impressive than you might have thought in this area.

DEFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
NY Jets 37%
Miami 37%
Buffalo 43%
New England 47%
Notebook: Here we go. This is where the Jets surge forward to playoff material and New England gets exposed as a team with a weak link. On IMPORTANT defensive plays…when it's essential to shut down your opponent so you can get the ball back or force a field goal…the Jets slam the door while the Patriots turn to Swiss cheese. During the regular season, Brady can overcome a Swiss cheese defense because he's so great…particularly if a +28 turnover differential is smiling down from the heavens. The world changes in the playoffs. New England needs to change with it.

Great showing by the way for Miami, a team that deserves more plaudits for their defense than they were generally getting last year.

2011 AFC EAST OUTLOOK
It's too early to tell whether or not offseason personnel changes were just cosmetic…or will shape the championship campaign. Chad Ochocinco's best days are behind him. There are already rumors that Albert Haynesworth will be cut before the season (some rumors about '85' in that light too, but that would hit the Pats in the pocketbook). It may look like the NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS upgraded. Maybe they're about to take a step back because the laws of math won't keep smiling on their turnover differential.

The NEW YORK JETS have a chance to improve because Sanchez is still in the early stages of the quarterback learning curve. If he DOES get better, and the defense keeps hurting people…we may be looking at the next version of the Pittsburgh Steelers here. By that, we mean, a perennial championship contender because of a great defense and a productive quarterback. On the other hand, Sanchez is far from certain to become an impact player…and you already get the sense fortune smiled on this team two years in a row by pushing them into the championship game. A lot of volatility here…with a group that may not handle volatility with maturity.

We have to admit we're interested in the MIAMI DOLPHINS in an off-the-radar kind of way. But, how can you invest confidently in Chad Henne? It's scary to think how good this team would be with a top notch quarterback. They don't have that, so we're still looking at a Wildcard longshot.

Not much to like about the BUFFALO BILLS beyond the fact that they were probably better than it looked last year. It's tough to play great against the league's toughest schedule, particularly when you're not deep in talent yourself. Maybe that will create some good dog spots in the first half of the season.

For now, a replay of last year seems like the safest call. New England is very likely to have the best regular season record if Brady stays healthy. They won't be the best 'playoff style' team in January though if they don't upgrade the defense. The Jets should be right there…and have a chance to be something special if things snap into place for Sanchez. Miami and Buffalo will have to earn any coverage they get.

We're back to baseball Tuesday and Wednesday here in the HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK to get you caught up with pennant race developments. We're planning to compare and contrast the Texas Rangers and LA Angels tomorrow to help you handicap their head-to-head series in the AL West. Wednesday we'll try to figure out if the Arizona Diamondbacks are for real. They've surged into first place in the NL West in recent days…but will be sternly tested in Philadelphia and Atlanta this week.

Thursday, it's back to football, as our NFL divisional previews resume in time for some TV football. This weekend's college conference preview will feature the Mid American Conference as we roll through the mid majors in August. The regular season is just around the corner!

Don't forget that game day baseball and football releases are available for credit card purchase right here at the website. JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK is off to a 60% start already in the NFL, and we will have something for you this evening in the Jets/Texans game on ESPN. We have great rates on longer term packages as well. If you'd like to build a two-sport combination package, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Be sure you're with us every day in the NOTEBOOK so you know what's REALLY going on in the world of sports!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

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