AFC East Preview

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS HEAVY FAVORITES ONCE AGAIN IN AFC EAST

We begin our series of NFL Divisional previews from a stat perspective today with the AFC East, home of the defending conference champion New England Patriots. We'll stick with the AFC day-by-day through Thursday...with our AFC Preview falling on Thursday, just in time for the big TV game matching San Diego and Green Bay on ESPN.

Next week we'll study the four NFC divisions on Monday through Thursday. The NFC East will kick off the week Monday to get you ready for that night's Dallas-Oakland game on ESPN. We'll wrap up the two week blitz with the NFC South because Atlanta will be on TV that Thursday Night against Cincinnati on FOX.

Yes...football is back on TV...football is back on the big electronic walls in the Vegas sportsbooks...and football is back, front and center, here in JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK!

The stats we'll be focusing on in this year's previews are:

  • Won-Lost record: to remind you of the final standings

  • Turnover Differential: to remind you of luck, experience, and inexperience

  • Strength of Schedule in 2011: because that's always HUGE when evaluating a season

  • Yards-Per-Play on Offense and Defense: the new bread-and-butter stat amongst handicapping's elite

  • Third Down Rates on Offense and Defense: one of our favorite indicator stats for TRUE quality

Let's jump right in. The New England Patriots are once again heavy favorites in the AFC East, and clear favorites in the AFC as a whole in terms of the Super Bowl. If you've been watching ESPN a lot of late, you might think it's the New York Jets who are the favorites...with shirtless Tim Tebow in line to be the next league MVP. Let's see what REALLY happened in the AFC East last year...and whether or not Tebow is likely to make a difference.

2011 FINAL AFC EAST STANDINGS
New England: 13-3 (+17 turnovers, 13th rated schedule)
NY Jets: 8-8 (-3 turnovers, 7th rated schedule)
Miami: 6-10 (-6 turnovers, 9th rated schedule)
Buffalo: 6-10 (+1 turnover, 4th rated schedule)

Notebook: The Jets were supposed to be a lot closer to the Patriots than FIVE games last year. But, they had real trouble executing when it mattered most. Mark Sanchez was too mistake-prone. The defense wasn't quite the force it had been in the past. And, well, the Patriots still run their offense like clockwork until facing a top quality defense in the postseason. There's probably been no better "regular season" team in the history of football than the Pats in the Belichick/Brady era. Nothing's happened since 2011 that would make 2012 any different.

Oh, the next time somebody tells you that turnovers are random in the NFL...show him New England's turnover differentials during the Brady era. Smart teams know how to avoid turnovers on offense...and how to force teams playing catch up to commit them. That's not random. New England is very likely to have a strong turnover differential again this year. That's one of the defining characteristics of their dynasty.

Can Buffalo or Miami become relevant? Each had flashes of quality last year. Buffalo ran out of gas down the stretch when Ryan Fitzpatrick tried to play through an underreported injury. They're probably better than 6-10 quality when he's at full health. But, you can't assume full health with mediocre teams. They don't have the depth to weather all the storms that come their way. Miami is the only team in the division with a new head coach (Joe Philbin), and may be the only team with a new starting quarterback depending on how quickly top draft pick Ryan Tannehill picks up the offense. It's always dangerous to be optimistic about teams dealing with that kind of transition.

The good news for the bottom three teams in the AL East is that they all played very tough schedules last year...and are therefore probably a bit better than people realize. Be sure you factor that in when making your assessments. You'll see as we run through the full AFC this week that the East is the ONLY division that played a tough schedule. Last year's toughest schedules were played by the NFC East first, and the AFC East second...the locales of the two eventual Super Bowl teams.

OFFENSIVE YARDS-PER-PLAY
New England: 6.3
Buffalo: 5.7
Miami: 5.1
NY Jets: 4.8
Notebook: Some of you may not be that familiar with this stat. That's why you're success rate in the NFL has been disappointing! New England's 6.3 was the best mark in the whole AFC, and ranked third in the NFL behind New Orleans (6.7) and Green Bay (6.6). Buffalo is slightly above average for an AFC team. Miami and the Jets were disappointments. In fact, the only offenses worse than the Jets in the AFC were Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Jacksonville. So, a DISASTER for Mark Sanchez and the Jets when it comes to the simple basics of moving the ball. That's why the local media is pinning so much hope on Tim Tebow. They watched one of the ugliest offenses in football week in and week out in 2011.

YARDS-PER-PLAY ALLOWED DEFENSIVELY
NY Jets: 5.0
Miami: 5.3
Buffalo: 5.9
New England: 6.2
Notebook: A complete reversal here...with the Patriots having to overcome a soft defense with their great offense...while the Jets and Dolphins had to overcome lousy offenses with strong defenses. In short, New England played extreme shootouts, Buffalo played garden variety shootouts, while the Jets and Dolphins played yawners. You have to look at how the differentials combine with turnover differential to get the best read here.

New England: +0.1 ypp, +17 turnovers
Buffalo: -0.2 ypp, +1 turnovers
NYJ: -0.2 ypp, -3 turnovers
Miami: -0.2 ypp, -6 turnovers

It's a competitive division beneath New England, with turnovers serving as a tie-breaker. And, frankly, the Pats aren't all that awesome once you take turnovers out of the mix. That's why they can look so vulnerable vs. quality teams who don't make mistakes.

OFFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
New England: 46%
NY Jets: 35%
Miami: 33%
Buffalo: 32%
Notebook:  Same general story here, except that Buffalo falls down to the bottom. That means the Bills had a big play offense that struggled to move the chains but could strike with a moment's notice. Nobody but the Pats could be trusted to move the chains. That's another hallmark of the dynasty. This is a team that understands the percentages. They move the chains...they don't give the ball away...and they're in position to make history every year.

DEFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
NY Jets: 33%
Miami: 34%
Buffalo: 40%
New England: 43%
Notebook: Buffalo starts to look more like a 6-10 team when you add third downs into the mix. They struggled to move the chains on offense, but were pretty porous on defense when it was time to get a stop. This composite of stats really helps you see why New England succeeded, and while the others failed to hang with them over the course of 16 weeks. The bottom three all have stuff they can do well. But, problem areas eventually jump up and bite you.

What's the outlook for 2012? Here's what the composite of Vegas and offshore "Regular Season Win" projections suggest.

AFC East Regular Season Win Projections
New England 12
NY Jets 8.5 or 9
Buffalo 7.5 of 8
Miami 7.5 or 8

No surprises there. Miami will have to convince us they can make a run at the .500 mark during this current transition. We wouldn't be surprised if the Jets bring some new fire this year in what's obviously a gut check season for the coaching staff and several veterans. We'll be looking to back Buffalo and the Over vs. soft opposing defenses because that's a team that often gets disrespected by the public. We'll be looking to fade New England vs. smart opponents who don't turn the ball over.

Now that football is officially underway, it's time to lock yourself in at great rates for the full season. You can do that right here at the website with your credit card. Or, call the office at 1-800-323-4453 if you'd like to chat with one of our representatives. Be sure to check on football/baseball combination packages. We won't have a chance to talk much baseball here in the NOTEBOOK the next few weeks...but BIG, JUICY WINNERS will be available daily.

Back with you Tuesday to preview the AFC North, where Baltimore and Pittsburgh tied for first place last year with 12-4 records. We strongly encourage you to print out all of our divisional previews this week and next so you have them handy throughout your Preseason and September handicapping efforts (and do that with the college conference previews too!). It's time to GET UP TO SPEED in the NFL!

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