NFL 2009 - AFC East preview
After falling one game short of a perfect season in 2007, the New England Patriots were handed another severe blow in 2008 as Tom Brady was ruled out for the season after a sickening opening day injury.
The Pats had been expected to get over their Super Bowl XLII upset and once again seriously challenge but, with the untried Matt Cassel replacing Brady, New England were left without even a sniff of play-off action.
The shock post-season representatives of the highly entertaining AFC East, courtesy of a final day victory over Brett Favre's New York Jets, were Tony Sparano's miracle Miami Dolphins who, in the process, became the second team to complete a ten game turnaround from the previous season.
Now, with Brady back, are the perennial power-house Patriots going to prove too strong for their Eastern Division rivals?
Buffalo Bills - 10/1
Dick Jauron's Bills flew out of the starting blocks last season, winning five of their first six before the expected slide kicked-in. Offensively and defensively there were flashes of excellence but all too many times they were messy and inconsistent as they ended at the foot of the East with a 7-9 record.
This season though Trent Edwards has support in the shape of shy, retiring Terrell Owens after his big move from the Dallas Cowboys. The Pro-Bowl receiver should guarantee at least 8-10 TDs and if he can get along with Lee Evans then the Bills will have an aerial offence to boast about. Marshawn Lynch needs a big year to make them a potent ground threat but his health is questionable at best.
On the defensive side of things it's hard to predict any great improvements with pass rusher Aaron Maybin the only noticeable acquisition. Aaron Schobel's return to health does mean the defensive ends will give opposing quarterbacks something to think about but they still lack something against the running game.
Prediction: 3rd but much closer than last year
Miami Dolphins - 8/1
Bill Parcels and Tony Sparano arguably performed one of the best quick-fix management jobs in NFL history as they led the Dolphins to the play-offs last year and they'll look for even more this time around.The Wildcat formation was at first a surprise but quickly became a symbol of the refreshing Dolphins as they marched to the post-season thanks to a run that saw them win nine of their last ten.
Chad Pennington was a revelation after being written off by the Jets; Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown were a premier double threat from the backfield and Ted Ginn started to look like a first round draft choice. All will need to be just as good this time.
The return of Jason Taylor could be a mixed blessing for the defence. He's a team leader, adds much needed experience but he seemed to have little left in the tank in his year in Washington. Dolphins' management did little wrong last season so they must be sure his presence will benefit the impressive Joey Porter, and a strong pre-season may be all the proof needed for backers.
Prediction: 2nd - only just missing out in the East but play-off bound nonetheless
New England Patriots - 2/9
Matt Cassel, Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison may have gone but New England is still rejoicing at the return to health of Tom Brady. They barely missed out on the play-offs last season; this year they look a far more solid bet - if Brady can get another consecutive starts streak going.
The ground game was good last year despite the absence of a recognised number one runner and you can be sure it will be even better this year with the arrival of former Jacksonville star Fred Taylor. However, the real excitement comes with the reunification of Brady and Randy Moss - a combination that combined for 23 touchdowns in 2007.
Last season, much of the Pats failure was blamed on an ageing defence but it was certainly not disastrous. Two of the old guard, Vrabel and Harrison, have left which could spell trouble but new blood at the corners may be enough to breathe new life into a suspect secondary. Watch out for Jerod Mayo who should produce big things in his sophomore year.
Prediction: 1st but don't expect 16-0
New York Jets - 8/1
After two years of underachievement the Jets spent big in their vain attempt to bring AFC play-off football to New York. Brett Favre was the icon but Alan Faneca, Calvin Pace, Damien Woody and Bubba Franks, amongst others, were expected to lead the Super Bowl challenge - they didn't.
The failure cost Eric Magnini his job and his replacement, Rex Ryan, will now be given the typical Big Apple treatment if he doesn't get the Jets firing. A lot of the burden will fall at the feet of quarterback Mark Sanchez, who'll be hoping to replicate last year's star rookies Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan, but it's not a given. At least the Jets should be able to rely on Thomas Jones to get them consistently moving up the gridiron.
Rex Ryan is known for tough defences and, with the acquisition of Bart Scott, his job may have been made a whole lot easier. The former Raven will tackle, pass rush and sack and, most importantly, bring the intensity required to inspire the whole unit. If the offence isn't firing then at least the defence should keep scores close.
Prediction: 4th not a million miles away but a rookie quarterback could spell trouble