In the first installment of the 2012 NFL Season Preview I broke down the NFC East and let you know which teams will go over, and which teams will go under their Vegas win totals. This week I dive into the AFC East, a division that the New England Patriots ran laps around a season ago. The eventual AFC Champions finished the year with a mark of 13-3 while the rest of the division turned in rather mediocre seasons, all finishing between 6 and 8 wins.
AFC East Preview with Vegas Over/Unders
Without further adieu here is Part 2 of an 8 part 2012 NFL Season Preview, with stone-cold locks for each team’s win total over/under. (Reminder: over/under’s are courtesy of Cantor Gaming)
Buffalo Bills (2011: 6-10, 2012: O/U 7 wins, O: -110, U: -120)
Key Additions: DE Mario Williams (free agent), DE Mark Anderson (free agent), CB Stephon Gilmore (draft), QB Vince Young (free agent)
Key Subtractions: OT Demetress Bell (Eagles), CD Drayton Florence (Broncos)
Through five weeks in 2011 the Bills were one of the biggest storylines of the young NFL season, jumping out to a surprising 4-1 start. Following a week 9 loss to the Jets, things went straight south for the upstart Bills. The Bills allowed an average of 32 points per game while scoring just a tick over 14 during a 7 game losing streak that was finally snapped on Christmas Eve. Nevertheless, the Bills believe they found their franchise quarterback in Harvard grad, and Wonderlic King of the NFL, Ryan Fitzpatrick. The team locked up the former 7th round pick last November with a six-year extension worth a total of $59 million and $24 million in guaranteed money.
Defense was the clear weakness for last year’s Bills squad, ranking 26th in the league overall while allowing 371 yards per game. The Bills D particularly struggled against the run where they ranked 28th in the NFL with 139 rush yards allowed per contest. The Bills also struggled tremendously to get to the opposing QB, ranking dead last in the NFL with 23 sacks. The bright side for the Bills? The team made possibly the biggest splash of the offseason bringing in superstar pass rusher Mario Williams on a monster six-year deal with $50 million in guarantees. Williams was not the Bills only upgrade at defensive end; the team added former Patriot Mark Anderson who is coming off double-digit sacks in 2011. The monumental improvement in the pass rush should help mitigate any other potential defensive deficiencies. These two additions along with rookie CB Stephon Gilmore (the South Carolina product who has drawn tremendous reviews thus far) will make for a much stronger Buffalo defense in 2012.
With what should be a much-improved defense it will be up to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills offense to turn this team into a true contender in the AFC East. Fitzpatrick finished the year 11th in passing yards (3,832) and 9th in completion % (62.0). Where Fitzpatrick struggled was in the interception department (most in the NFL), finishing with a TD:INT ratio of just 24:23. Fitzpatrick will need to show major improvement in his decision-making if the Bills are to make the leap to playoff contention. The Bills feature a strong two-headed monster at running back in Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller, who both averaged over 5 yards per carry last season and are viable threats in the passing game. Wide receiver Stevie Johnson (creator of this hilarious celebration) emerged as a true number one option racking up 1,000 yards on 76 receptions and 7 TD’s. WR David Nelson and TE Scott Chandler round out a formidable group of pass catching options in Buffalo.
Prognosis: 7 wins does not seem insurmountable for the 2012 Bills. Last year’s team managed to win 6 games despite Fitzpatrick leading the league in picks, getting minimal pressure on the opposing quarterback, and feature back Fred Jackson missing 6 games with an injury. The boost provided by DE Mario Williams (along with Mark Anderson) should be enough to solidify a defense that really struggled a year ago. Even marginal improvements from Ryan Fitzpatrick will make the Bills already competent offense that much better. The Bills also have a favorable schedule as they seek just their first winning season since 2004. The Bills 2012 schedule ranks as the 3rd easiest in the NFL with opponents posting a .473 win percentage in 2011. The Bills schedule really sets up for some W’s down the stretch as they face Miami, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, St. Louis, Seattle, and Miami again in weeks 11-16.
Prediction: Bills OVER 7 wins
New England Patriots (2011: 13-3 AFC Champions, 2012: O/U 12 wins, O: -120, U: -110)
Key Additions: WR Brandon Lloyd (free agent), DE Chandler Jones (draft), Dont’a Hightower (draft), S Tavon Wilson (draft), DE Trevor Scott (free agent), S Steve Gregory (free agent)
Key Subtractions: DE Mark Anderson (Bills), WR Chad Johnson (Dolphins), RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Bengals), LT Matt Light (retirement)
The New England Patriots have eclipsed the double-digit win mark in each of the last 9 seasons, recording an average of 12.6 wins per season since 2003. This year figures to be much of the same for the defending AFC Champions. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are still there, and to be honest that’s all that really matters. The Patriots made a conscious effort to bolster a defense that gave up 411 yards per game last season, the second worst mark in the NFL. The Pats kept their offense mostly in tact, which is certainly not a bad thing for a team that was second in the league in yards and third in points in 2011.
New England needed to infuse some young talent into their defensive unit that came in near the bottom of the league in yards allowed each of the last two years, and they accomplished just that with their first three picks in April’s draft. The team was able to add two likely contributors to their front seven in the first round in Syracuse DE Chandler Jones (21st overall) and Alabama LB Dont’a Hightower (25th overall). Jones and Hightower, both of whom New England traded up to select, figure to give the Patriots a significant boost in the pass rush and serve as young defensive building blocks to go alongside linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo. In the second round the team grabbed Illinois safety Tavon Wilson who will bring much-needed depth to a secondary that has had its share of woes in recent years. New England also made notable defensive additions via free agency acquiring DE Trevor Scott and S Steve Gregory who both should have a legitimate chance to start when the season opens in September. These five additions will give the Patriots crucial depth that they have lacked on defense and could make them an even more dangerous team in 2012.
The potent Patriot offense will look mostly the same outside of the departure of RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis to Cincinnati. The WR corps should be even stronger this year as New England replaced the artist formerly known as Ochocinco with an actually productive NFL receiver in free agent Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd has posted consecutive seasons of 70+ catches and 950+ receiving yards, a substantial upgrade over Ochocinco who provided more headache than substance for the Pats in 2011. The only lingering concern over this offensive group might be WR Wes Welker’s looming contracting situation. The two sides were unable to reach an agreement on long-term deal this offseason and as a result Welker will be playing under the franchise tag. However, Welker maintains that the contract negotiations are in the past and he is purely focused on the upcoming season. If Welker’s word is to believed there is no reason this offense won’t be a top 5 unit once again in 2012. To fill the void left by Green-Ellis the Patriots will rely on last year’s third round pick from LSU Stevan Ridley and fan-favorite (who doesn’t love a 5’8” caucasian RB?) Danny Woodhead. It’s unlikely Green-Ellis’ departure will significantly slow the Patriots who have had just one 1,000 yard rushing season (1008 by Green-Ellis in 2010) since Corey Dillon ran wild in 2005. Go ahead and pencil in New England for one of the NFL’s top offenses in 2012, just as they have been for practically every season since Tom Brady became Tom Brady.
Prognosis: 12 wins is the highest over/under set in Vegas for any NFL team (tied with Green Bay), but there is nothing about that number that is unattainable for this group. New England has tallied 12 or more victories in six of the last nine seasons, and I expect they will make it 7 of 10 this year. As if the Patriots needed any more help going over 12 wins they will face the easiest schedule in the entire league based on 2011 winning percentage (.453), with just 4 of their 16 games coming against teams who won 9+ games last year. I won’t go as far as CBS pundit Pete Prisco, who has pegged the Patriots for another undefeated season, but I have little doubt the Patriots will win at least 12 games. If they can get even modest contributions from their five newcomers on defense, to go along with a dynamite offense, the Patriots will be quite a powerhouse in 2012.
Prediction: Patriots OVER 12 wins
New York Jets (2011: 8-8, 2012: O/U 8.5 wins, O: -115, U: -115)
Key Additions: QB Tim Tebow (trade), S LaRon Landry (free agent), S Yeremiah Bell (free agent), WR Chaz Schilens (free agent), DE Quinton Coples (draft), WR Stephen Hill (draft)
Key Subtractions: LaDanian Tomlinson (retirement)
The Jets figure to be one of the toughest teams to predict in the NFL this year, thanks in large part to their quarterback tandem that offers more hype than substance. Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow (I. Don’t. Like. Him.) , two of the biggest products of the ESPN Hype Machine in the league, combine to form a QB duo that fans of every other NFL team couldn’t be more sick of hearing about…and it’s only training camp. Last March the Jets made it clear Mark Sanchez was their franchise QB by inking the former USC signal caller to a 3 year contract extension with $20 million in guaranteed money. Later that month the Jets essentially created their own quarterback controversy by trading a couple of draft picks for Broncos QB Tim Tebow. It was an interesting move considering how much heat Sanchez had already endured as the Jets starter, and the amount of pressure the Broncos dealt with from fans to make Tebow the starter when Kyle Orton struggled out of the gate in 2011. You have to think as soon as Sanchez throws his first interception there will be a large pocket of delusional Jets fans clamoring for Tebow to take the reins. The successes or failures of these two players will seemingly solely determine the course of the Jets 2012 season.
Regardless of what nonsense goes on with the Jets QB situation New York boasts one of the league’s most stout defenses. The Jets made three significant additions to a defense that already ranked 5th in the league in yards allowed in 2011, surrendering just 311 yards per game to their opponents. The team will likely start a pair of newcomers at safety in free agent acquisitions LaRon Landry (who is a large individual) from Washington and Yeremiah Bell from Miami. In addition to an already tremendous cornerback trio of Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie (and his eight kids), and Kyle Wilson these Jets may be even tougher to throw on than their 2011 group which was 5th in the NFL in pass yards allowed. With their first round pick the Jets added North Carolina DE Quinton Coples to bolster a front seven that ranked 18th in the NFL in sacks last year. The Jets defense surely would have been solid even without any additions this year, but solid contributions from those three could make them even stingier in 2012. The question is, can the Jets offense limit their turnovers and put up enough points to make this team a true playoff contender?
Sanchez has shown some signs of consistent development in his first three NFL seasons, improving notably each year in yards, touchdowns, QB rating and completion percentage (still just 56.7%, 28th in the NFL…behind Tavaris Jackson…and Rex Grossman). Head Coach Rex Ryan has made it clear that Sanchez is the team’s starting QB at this point of camp. (Sidenote: just when you thought Rex Ryan had been unusually quiet this offseason…he went ahead and proclaimed himself the best defensive coach in football) The best case scenario for the Jets would be for Mark Sanchez to take his game to another level this year and become a true franchise quarterback, making the Tim Tebow controversy irrelevant in the process. Where the Jets season could fall apart in a hurry is if Sanchez struggles in the early going as pressure mounts for the Jets to give Tebow more snaps under center…disaster. Between WR Santonio Holmes, RB Shonn Greene (who the Jets are banking on a big year from), TE Dustin Keller and rookie speedster Stephen Hill out of Georgia Tech the Jets have enough weapons for their offense to succeed…if they can get competent quarterback play. For better or for worse the Jets QB play will seemingly decide the team’s fate in 2012. Will it be another year full of turnovers and inconsistent offensive play holding back a dominant defense, or will Sanchez (or heaven forbid Tebow) take the next step and transform this team into a two-way powerhouse that can truly contend in the AFC?
Prognosis: This has to be one of the toughest over/under win totals to pick based on the unpredictability of the quarterback position. Will Mark Sanchez step up and be the consistent franchise quarterback the Jets are paying him to be, or will his poor decisions and bottom of the barrel completion percentages persist? Will Tim Tebow be used effectively as an offensive weapon and in red zone packages or will he become a crippling distraction if Sanchez happens to falter? The Jets start out with the tougher portion of their schedule with road trips to Pittsburgh and New England and home dates with San Francisco and Houston. Following their bye week in Week 9 New York’s schedule eases up with games against the Rams, Seahawks, Cardinals and Jags. Overall their schedule ranks as the 20th most difficult in the league. This Jets defense has already carried an even shittier version of Mark Sanchez to two NFC Championship games. 8.5 wins? Why not.
Prediction: Jets OVER 8.5 wins
UPDATE 11:22 PM Wednesday: No more than two hours after I type the words Jets & OVER ESPN reports that CB Antonio Cromartie said he is the 2nd best wide receiver on the roster…and he was serious. “I’m not going to take anything away from my ability, so when you ask me that question, I’m going to say, yes, I believe I’m one of the best receivers on the football team, next to Santonio Holmes.” Cromartie’s comments immediately stirred things up in the Jets camp, newly added WR Chaz Schilens took exception with his remarks and concluded, “I just wouldn’t say it. It’s not something I would say … but I’m not him, I guess.” Rex Ryan had to meet with the media and assure everyone “I will handle this. I’m aware of it. I’ll handle it”. Gotta love the Jets. If only they were just on Hard Knocks every year…
Miami Dolphins (2011: 6-10, O/U 7.5 wins, O: -110, U: -120)
Key Additions: QB Ryan Tannehill (draft), QB David Garrard (free agent), WR Chad Johnson (free agent), OT Jonathan Martin (draft), CB Richard Marshall (free agent), WR Legedu Naanee (draft)
Key Subtractions: WR Brandon Marshall (Bears), QB Chad Henne (Jaguars), OL Vernon Carey (unsigned), DT Kendall Langford (Rams), OT Marc Colombo (retirement)
With much uncertainty surrounding the training camp quarterback battle in Miami it is difficult to imagine just what this team will look like come September, let alone December and January. To this point the job seems to be former Jacksonville vet David Garrard’s to lose. Garrard’s primary competition is soon-to-be 28-year-old Matt Moore who started 12 games for the Fins in 2011 with relatively impressive results (60.5 completion %, 16 TD, 9 INt, 87.1 QB rating). Moore led Miami to a 6-3 record over their final 9 games, posting the league’s 6th best QB rating during that stretch. Many indications are that 2012 first round pick Ryan Tannehill is a longshot in the Dolphins QB competition, but the first year player has earned some high praise in the early stages of camp. No matter who wins the starting QB job, first year head coach Joe Philbin figures to be longing for the days he spent coaching Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, and the Packers ridiculously talented offense.
The Dolphins quarterback situation has to be one of the most wide open of any team in the league early in camp. Garrard would certainly seem to be a safe choice as the 34-year-old posted 6 consecutive seasons of an 80+ QB rating in Jacksonville before being cut and spending 2011 recovering from back surgery. His teams may have rarely flourished with Garrard under center but he provided the Jaguars with several consistent, reliable seasons which is more than Miami has gotten from its QBs since Dan Marino hung ‘em up in 1999. Matt Moore, the former undrafted Oregon State QB, likely has the potential to put up bigger numbers than Garrard but may not be as safe of a choice. If Moore can show that his performance down the stretch in 2011 was more than a slew of solid games for a team that was already out of the hunt then he just might be able to unseat Garrard, who is the presumed starter. Tannehill would have to be incredibly impressive in camp to take the starting job from two worthy veterans, and getting into camp a couple days late because of contract issues was not a good start. Fortunately for Tannehill his college head coach Mike Sherman was named Dolphins offensive coordinator in January so learning the playbook shouldn’t be too challenging.
The rest of the Miami’s offensive talent is pretty underwhelming, particularly at the wide receiver position where the team traded away Brandon Marshall (Thank you Miami!) and replaced him with Chad Johnson, who wants everyone to know that he smokes pot with Gene Smmons and would like to be in porn… Anyways, WRs Legedu Naanee and Davone Bess will combine with Johnson and TE Anthony Fasano as Garrard/Moore/Tannehill’s primary options through the air. Reggie Bush seems to have found a home in Miami, the former USC superstar ran for over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career in 2011 while averaging 5 yards per carry. Miami hopes their offensive line will show significant improvement in 2012 after allowing 52 sacks in 2011, good for 3rd most in the NFL. With star LT Jake Long and rookie RT Jonathan Martin anchoring things on the outside and last year’s first round pick Mike Pouncey holding down the fort at center you would expect the Dolphins O-Line to be at least middle of the pack this season. Despite a lack of true play making threats at WR (barring a revival by Chad Johnson) Miami has a decently talented offense whose successes and failures will likely be determined by MattDavidRyan Moorrardhill.
Miami’s defense ranked 15th in the NFL in yards allowed at 345 per game, but the run D was stifling as they held opponents under 100 rushing yards per game. That team hopes that the addition of former Panther and Cardinal corner Richard Marshall will help solidify a secondary that returns two starters in CB Vontae Davis and S Reshad Jones. The Miami secondary yielded the 7th most passing yards per game last year so any chance at cracking 7.5 wins will hinge largely on the play of this group. Outside of the yardage allowed Miami’s defense ranked 26th in takeaways with just 19 while each of their three division foes posted over 30.
With an incredible run defense, highlighted by MLB Karlos Dansby, and a formidable pass rush, starring OLB Cameron Wake, it will be up to the defensive backs to turn this unit into the all-around solid defense Miami needs to have any chance at contending. It will be interesting to see how a guy like Wake performs as Miami switches to a 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. Given the uncertainty of the QB position and a lack of high-scoring potential on offense the Dolphins simply can’t afford to get torched through the air like they did last season. However, if the secondary can improve and vault this defense into the top 10 overall then Miami may be able to get just enough from its offense to compete in 2012.
Prognosis: This would be a lot easier to get a feel for after several weeks of practice, multiple preseason games, and a clear-cut starting QB. Whether it’s David Garrard or Matt Moore taking snaps from center in the Dolphins Week 1 opener at Houston the offense will probably rank among the middle of the pack in terms of offensive production. The question is can the Miami defense make the jump to elite status in 2012 and carry this team to a .500 season or better. Their division is pretty competitive overall and I see Miami struggling to reach 8 wins once again this year, just as they have in five out of the last six. Overall their schedule ranks as the 18th most difficult in the NFL. Unless one of their three options at QB greatly exceeds expectations under offensive guru Joe Philbin or the secondary makes tremendous improvements in 2012 I don’t see this team going over 7.5 wins.
Prediction: Dolphins UNDER 7.5 wins
There you have it, our official AFC East Preview! Happy Gambling!