Patriots

A Quick Look at the AFC EastSizing up the Patriots schedule

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A Quick Look at the AFC EastSizing up the Patriots schedule

Here are a few fun facts on the Patriots recent dominance in the AFC East:

Theyve won the division in nine of the last 11 seasons.

In the two seasons they didnt win, they finished with the same record as the champion but lost on a tie breaker.

Since 2001, the only team that comes close to matching the Pats nine division titles is the Colts. Theyve won seven, but will have to wait at least a few years to win another. (The Steelers and Eagles each won six.)

In those 11 seasons, the Pats have a division record of 53-15.

Over that time, there have been a few legitimate threats to the Pats crown, namely Bill Parcells Dolphins and the artist formerly known as Rex Ryans Jets, but in both cases, the Pats rode out the wave.

In the meantime, they reloaded. And now, they start another season as everyones odds on favorite to win the AFC East. (Right now in Vegas, youd have to bet 330 to make 100 on the Pats winning the division.)

So, whats up with the Jets, Bills and Dolphins?

Youve probably been following along, but just in case, heres a quick preview of what the rest of the AFC East has planned for this season.

Well start at the top and work our way down:

Buffalo Bills: Thats right. The days of jumping on the Bills bandwagon in Week 3 and abandoning ship by Week 6 are a thing of the past. This year, were revving things up in Week 1!

And will probably hit eject by Week 4. But for the first time in a long time, theres reason for pre-season optimism in Buffalo:

First of all, the pieces are still there on offense. At running back, Fred Jackson is healthy and CJ Spillers ready to breakout. At receiver, Stevie Johnson can still light you up, Donald Jones and David Nelson know how to get open, and third round pick TJ Graham is a former track star who can do things like this. On top of that, you can do a lot worse at tight end than Scott Chandler at tight end.

However, you cant do much worse than what Ryan Fitzpatrick did at the tail end of 2011. And his ability to turn things around will be the difference between this team making it back to the playoffs for the first time since the Music City Miracle or spending their 13th straight winter watching the playoffs from couch.

You remember the Fitzpatrick mess. Through seven games last season, hed thrown 14 touchdowns and only seven interceptions as the Bills raced out to 5-2 start. At that point, Buffalo rewarded their QB with a six-year59M extension (with a 10M signing bonus.)

In turn, Fitzpatrick unraveled, throwing only 10 touchdowns and 16 interceptions over Buffalos last nine games. By the end of the year, if you had your choice of Harvard alums, youd have rather had Natalie Portman quarterback your team than Fitzpatrick. Not coincidentally, the Bills lost eight of their last nine games and finished in last place for the fourth straight season.

But theres a big question that still hangs over Fitzpatricks horrendous stretch: Was he hurt?

His name didnt show up on the injury report during the season, but it was revealed over the winter that Fitzpatrick may have played the last few months with cracked ribs. The quarterback has refused to blame the ribs for his performance, but heres what Stevie Johnson told the Toronto Sun over the winter: "I know personally, in the huddle, the worst it got -- to my knowledge -- is he barely could say a full play under one breath," said Johnson. "It started right at the halfway mark (of the season). I mean, everybody in the league is injured or is hurt in some way. When it's your quarterback who's got to throw, and it's ribs -- I mean, it's tough. That's the last thing I heard was it was ribs, or what-not.

Seems pretty bad. But who knows how much it really affected Fitzpatricks play. On one hand, in 2009, we saw how much those cracked ribs messed with Tom Brady. But Brady was still respectable. Fitzpatrick fell off a cliff. Either way, the Legend of Fitzpatricks Ribs should be enough to provide him a clean slate in the eyes of Bills fans, and a fair chance to redeem himself this season.

Other than that . . . any news on the defensive side this offseason? Oh right. Mario Williams. The biggest free agent signing in franchise history.

We can talk all we want about the offensive side of the ball, but defense is where the Bill needed the most help last season. They ranked 30th in points allowed, and didnt discriminate in how they gave them up, ranking 29th in passing TDs allowed and 30th in rushing TDs. They also finished dead last in total sacks.

While Williams and former Patriot Mark Anderson should help in the sack column, the Bills drafted cornerback Stephen Gilmore with the 10th pick in last years draft. Hes 6-1, fast and physical and will start right away.

Add it all up, and its hard to imagine the Bills wont easily eclipse their 6-10 record from last season. Especially when, like the Pats and thanks to the NFC West, they have one of the easiest schedules in the league.

But then again, these are the Bills were talking about. Lets just wait and see.

Miami Dolphins: Speaking of which, wait and see is about all they can do down in Miami right now. Theyve handed the keys to a rookie quarterback, surrounded him with zero receiving talent and a feature back who isnt built to be a feature back.

But hey, at least their defense is . . . mediocre? They have a playmaker on the defensive line in Cameron Wake, who finished third in the league with 14.5 sacks two years ago but was held to only 8.5 last season. This spring, he signed a four-year50M extension with 20M guaranteed, so theres a lot to live up to. If hes not worth every penny, the Dolphins D wont have a shot at keeping their anemic offense in games.

New York Jets: The more I read about the Jets, the more Im reminded of the Red Sox. Owners who care more about perception and headlines then what really right for the team. A coach who doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut and can't get out of his own way. A roster that's packed with talent but has the chemistry of a blind date between an Occupy Wall Street alum and a Tea Bagger. It will make it impossible for these guys to gel out on the field. And even if they got the rest of that stuff cleared up (which they won't) there's still a long way to go before reclaiming the spot among the AFC's best.

On one hand, the defense, which ranked 20th in points allowed last year, should be better. They picked up LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell to play safety, and if they both stay healthy, they could be a dangerous duo. Speaking of which, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie have seen better days but can still play with anyone. David Harris is solid in the middle at linebacker and in Ryan, they still have one of the best defensive minds in the game.

But in the end, the Jets offense on top of the day-to-day soap opera will keep this team down. Especially when the offense essentially is the day-to-day soap opera. Honestly, I think the only chance these guys have to really succeed is if one of their two quarterbacks get hurt. I know that's a crazy thing to say, but otherwise, the SanchezTebow controversy will linger and overshadow everything else they're trying to do.

These are uneasy times in Jet Land. Jobs and careers and insane levels of pride are on the line. And without any real plan of how to handle in place, the whole thing seems destined for a repeat disaster.

Take it from a Red Sox fan.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.

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We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.

Have the offseason changes negatively affected the Patriots locker room?

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Have the offseason changes negatively affected the Patriots locker room?

The Patriots improve their record to 4-2 with a win over the Jets, but there are still a lot of concerning factors for New England. Mike Giardi and Dan Koppen talk about something the team isn't used to - close games.

Giardi also dives into whether there is a major problem with the locker room dynamic, and whether all the moves they made in the offseason were blown way out of proportion by the media and fans of the talent added, but didn't factor in the personalities they lost.

Koppen and Giardi also look at how the offensive line play has fallen off, despite the same personnel as last year. Finally, discussing the late scratch of Stephon Gilmore due to a concussion. Anything to read into the timing?