Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cliffhanger in the AFC East

Do the Patriots have the greatest chance of falling out of contention in their division?

Three weeks into the season the Jets, Dolphins and Patriots each find themselves at 2-1. While the Jets currently hold the lead in the division with victories over both Miami and New England, there's a lot of games left to be played. With teams as talented as these there could be some major shuffling in the AFC East standings.

However, based on the schedule ahead and how some of these teams have looked so far, there's some that are going to have to start stepping up their game...and soon. Otherwise, they might see themselves slip out of the discussion in the AFC East.

Below I look at each team's next six games to see how the AFC East should shape up at mid-season.

The Miami Dolphins
The team that needs to start playing their best football early on is the Miami Dolphins. Of the three contenders in the AFC east, the Phins have one of the most difficult schedules ahead. Of their next six games, half will be on the road. They'll host the Patriots Monday night, the Steelers with Big Ben in week 7 and the Titans in week 10. During that span they will travel to Green Bay, Cincinnati and Baltimore to meet a Ravens team reunited with Ed Reed. No doormats to be found.

Right now, Miami is still watching second year quarterback Chad Henne develop. He's going to need to improve quickly if the Dolphins are going to get through that tough stretch. The good news for Dolphins fans is that Henne and Marshall seemed to get something going in Sunday night's loss to the Jets. If they're going to compete with high powered offenses like the Packers or Patriots, that has to continue.

The Dolphins have played very well so far. Their goal line stand against Adrian Peterson and the Vikings in Week 2 showed they're a defense capable of making big stops and Henne's developing chemistry with Marshall gives a glimmer of things to come. However, they face some very formidable opponents over the next six games and I don't see them as tough enough to come away with a winning record.

I see the Dolphins going 2-4 in this next stretch, beating out the Patriots and Bengals but falling to the Titans, Steelers, Ravens and Packers. This would put the Dolphins at 4-5 by mid-season.

The New England Patriots
He threw 50 TDs before! He can do it again.
The AFC East team with the most to worry about are the reigning division champions. The Patriots' start to the season has been less than encouraging. After the defensive stink-fest they put on in their final two pre-season games, everyone half-joked that the Pats would have to put up at least 30 points a game to win and, so far, that's been exactly the case. The defense has given up more and more points each passing week (24,28,30) and the only time the offense didn't score more than 30 points, they lost. A troubling trend. Especially considering the fact that the Pats face a schedule almost as tough as the Dolphins', perhaps even worse.

The obvious problem with the Patriots right now is their secondary. They have the youngest group in the NFL and it's really shown up on game day. In each game, the Patriots have allowed the opposing quarterback to throw for over 200 yards and at least 2 touchdown passes. You can definitely throw on New England. They've faced only one elite receiver so far - Chad Ochocinco - and they let him reel in 12 catches for 159 yards. It's hard to imagine what they'll give up to some of the top receivers they'll see in the upcoming weeks.

The Patriots play four of their next six games on the road. Hosting the Ravens and Vikings while traveling to Miami, San Diego, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. In 2009, the Patriots won only one road game and their struggles in enemy territory continued this season against the Jets.

Not only that, but the problem with this next stretch of games for the Patriots is that they don't look to match up particularly well with any of these teams...except Cleveland.

I can see Brandon Marshall making McCourty, Arrington or Butler each look pretty foolish this Monday night. Also, the Chargers' passing attack looks as explosive as ever even without Vincent Jackson. It's hard to believe that New England's DBs will be able to compete in that contest either.

While the Vikings have struggled so far to start the season, their problems could be over by the time they roll into Foxborough. Unlike the Jets and Dolphins, the Patriots will have to face Favre's favorite target, Sidney Rice. With Adrian Peterson to account for and Rice running amok in the Patriots' secondary, you can't like this match up either. Especially with Jared Allen terrorizing Brady all day.

The Patriots facing the Steelers on the road can just be chalked up as a loss right now. They might as well not even play this game. With Big Ben back behind center he's sure to chew up a sub-par Patriots' defense and it's hard to picture Brady lasting in that shoot out when he's going up against Troy Polamalu and the league's best defense.

While the Ravens have so many offensive weapons, Joe Flacco continues to be a question mark for me. Reeling after that playoff loss I see the Patriots bringing their best effort against the Ravens and snatching a victory. Brady has a lot more weapons to attack that defense with than he did last January and Baltimore will still be without Ed Reed at that point, giving the Patriots offense an edge.

I see the Patriots going 3-3 in this stretch, overcoming the Ravens, Browns and Vikings but falling to Miami, San Diego and Pittsburgh - earning New England a 5-4 record at mid-season.

The New York Jets
Barring any more off-season trouble, the Jets look good
The Jets have probably looked the best of all three contenders thus far. They lost the first game of the season but bounced back with impressive victories over both New England and Miami, already giving them an edge in the division. Mark Sanchez hasn't looked as inept as last year's 20 interceptions indicated and with Santonio Holmes returning to the line-up soon this team looks to become very dangerous. Plus, their absurdly easy schedule helps.

Over the next six games, the Jets have lucked out over their division rivals. Even though four of those games are away, they get their hardest opponents at home and the easiest on the road. The Jets travel to Buffalo, Denver, Detroit and Cleveland while hosting the Packers and Vikings.

There's only one team in that group that could give the Jets serious trouble, and that's the Green Bay Packers. Also, the Broncos are an interesting pick as an upset. I believe their passing game can overcome the Jets and that Champ Bailey could give Mark Sanchez some fits.

Other than that, their next greatest challenge is the Vikings. However, the Jets face them before Sidney Rice returns to the lineup, making this a much easier feat. Favre has simply looked lost without his best receiver and the aggressive Jets defense won't take it easy on him.

I would predict the Jets go 4-2 in this stretch, beating Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland and Minnesota while losing to the Packers and Broncos. This would leave the Jets with a 6-3 record at mid-season and still at the top of the AFC East. However, off-season troubles bear watching with all of the personalities on this Jets team. A losing streak could bring out the worst in the New York locker room.

These are just predictions based on 3 weeks of the regular season and surely anything can happen in the NFL. After starting 3-0 last year, I never expected the Jets to fall apart mid-season against sub-par opponents but it happened. However, at-least until mid-season, it looks good for the Jets and not so bright for the Pats and Dolphins. Yet, if either the Dolphins or Patriots can get through the next six games with a +.500 record they'll be proven as a force to reckon with.

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