Fall Stampede – 2021 AFC East Preview

Eric Urbanowicz
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Last year, it finally happened: for the first time since 2008, the New England Patriots missed the playoffs completely. Meanwhile, the division winning Buffalo Bills would advance to the AFC Championship Game before falling to the Kansas City Chiefs, 38-24. It was a season for the ages, but now questions have arisen.

Will New England finally see a new dark age? Can Buffalo avoid the same fate that befell the 2009 New York Jets? Will New York finally put it together?

While we may have to wait for the season to start for those answers, we can preview what’s to come.

 

Buffalo Bills

Record in 2020: 13-3

Key Player: Wide Receiver – Emmanuel Sanders

Player To Watch: Defensive End – Gregory Rousseau

Last year, the Buffalo Bills finally slayed the dragon that was the New England Patriots. As big of a feat as that is in today’s game, their mission isn’t accomplished until they hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Last year they were close, but that only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

The passing game took real strides last year, going from the 26th passing attack to the third. Aided by an MVP type performance from quarterback Josh Allen, this team was hard to stop. Adding veteran wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders should do wonders for this team, in addition to the playoff and Super Bowl success he’s had in his career.

While the passing went up, the running game went down. After a top rush attack in 2019, the team fell to 19th. While trusting Allen isn’t a bad thing, Buffalo is going to need to get their running game going if they’re to make a serious run for a Super Bowl.

Then there’s the defense, which is good, except for their defensive line. In 2020, their defense was 13th against the pass and 17th against the run. While the secondary did its job and the linebackers did well, they couldn’t get any pressure up front.

Drafting defensive ends Gregory Rousseau and Carlos “Boogie” Basham were definitely steps in the right direction. The thing is, they were two defensive ends with the most questions in their game. Should they step up and prove their critics wrong, then Buffalo may be able to turn the tables on their strongest competition. Prediction: 13-4

 

Miami Dolphins

Record in 2020: 10-6

Key Player: Linebacker – Jaelen Phillips

Player To Watch: Wide Receiver – Will Fuller

The Miami Dolphins enter this season looking really good on paper. They have their quarterback set in Tua Tagovailoa along with new weapons like wide receivers Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle. They also worked on their defense by adding safeties Jevon Holland and Trill Williams and linebacker Jaelen Phillips.

So where’s the question? Well, will they be as good in practice as they are on paper?

Perhaps this is no more apparent than with Tagovailoa. Despite a 6-3 record as a starting quarterback, his passing numbers don’t answer enough questions for people to be completely confident. For example, in his nine starts, he’s thrown over 200 yards four times, while throwing under 100 yards three times (including a game where he was benched in fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos).

The defense will also have a lot to prove. Despite forcing the most turnovers in the NFL in 2020, they were 20th in yards allowed, 22nd in passing yards allowed and 16th in rushing yards allowed. While they were a top ten team in points allowed, they also allowed the body punches that lead to the knockout.

If Miami is to have a shot at a Wild Card berth, they’re going to have to really buckle down and focus. They need Tagovailoa to take that next step and the defense to focus more on prevention while less on turnovers. This is a playoff caliber team when playing smart, time to show it off. Prediction: 10-7

 

New England Patriots

2020 record: 7-9

Key Player: Cornerback – J.C. Jackson

Player To Watch:  Quarterback – Mac Jones

The question isn’t if quarterback Mac Jones takes over starting duties from Cam Newton, but when? The continued deterioration of Newton was apparent, despite moments of his past self. With Jones apparently gelling with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the clock is ticking.

This defense was top 10 against the pass and top 10 in terms of points allowed. The defense really isn’t the point contention for this team. The return of cornerback Stephon Gilmore should do wonders across from J.C. Jackson and next to Jonathan Jones. Add to it rookie defensive linemen Ronnie Perkins and Christian Barmore, as well as veteran linebackers Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy, and this defense could be very dangerous.

New England will have some growing pains on offense, and that may keep them out of the postseason for a second straight season. That said, this team could be closer to competing than what many may think. Head coach Bill Belichick, for all the guff he’s given about his past exploits, is still one of the best coaches of all time. Prediction: 9-8

 

New York Jets

2020 Record: 2-14

Key Player: Wide Receiver – Denzel Mims

Player To Watch: Defensive End – Carl Lawson

Forget what happened last year under Adam Gase, mainly because he’s to the New York Jets what Freddie Kitchens was to the Cleveland Browns: a mistake. The hiring of Robert Saleh could be the rectifying moment of this franchise. Just don’t expect instant gratification.

They continued to build up their offensive line by drafting guard Alijah Vera-Tucker and signing tackle Morgan Moses, to protect rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. They also added wide receivers Elijah Moore, Keelan Cole and Corey Davis to give Wilson more weapons. Will Wilson live up to his second overall pick hype, especially with no mentor behind him?

The defense should be destructive under Saleh. Adding defensive linemen Sheldon Rankins and Carl Lawson to complement Quinnen Williams has the potential to make this line lethal. The secondary may need some retooling but if the line can do what Saleh had the San Francisco 49ers’ line doing, then the secondary play may not matter as much.

This year should see growing pains for New York and realistically, a lot of pieces will be thrown in the fire early. They’re more than likely going to finish with more wins than last year, but sometimes it just takes one thing to go wrong. Give this team another year or two and we could see them take over this division. Prediction: 6-11

Eric Urbanowicz

Connecticut

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