Who will win the AFC East in 2016?

The AFC East has been the least interesting division for over a decade because of one team: the New England Patriots. The Patriots continue to find ways to win this division, regardless of the circumstances that may interfere. With another one of those circumstances getting in the way, is 2016 the year when the reigns of the AFC East are finally snatched from the four time Superbowl champions?

The New England Patriots will find a way to win the AFC East, like they always do.

To answer the question posed in the introduction: no, 2016 is not the year when the reigns are snatched away from the New England Patriots. For the past 15 seasons, the Patriots have been the class of the AFC East and the entire AFC conference. The legendary duo of Head Coach Bill Belichik and quarterback Tom Brady has produced some of the greatest and most controversial moments in NFL history. Following the fifth straight season which saw this team reach the AFC Championship game, New England finds themselves in an interesting position in 2016. Despite not having Brady for the first four games of the campaign, due to a suspension pertaining to the “Deflate-Gate” scandal, expectations are still very high for the Patriots.

Brady’s suspension and early season injuries will result in some stagnant performances from the Patriots’ offense during the first four weeks, but this unit will eventually balance itself out and return to being the top-tier productive offense fans have grown accustom to. Brady will be back by the fifth game of 2016 and he will likely have a healthy core of receivers and tight ends to work with. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is dealing with a hamstring injury, at the moment, but the acquisition of veteran Martellus Bennett will take pressure off Gronkowski allowing him to not be so heavily relied on [he will still be Tom’s primary target, but won’t be targeted as much because of the twin-tight end opportunities with Bennett]. The ground game will be anchored by running back LeGarrette Blount, with adequate depth backing him up. Wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will continue to be consistent pass catchers in the slot and big bodied receiver Chris Hogan will provide that physical intimidating catcher out wide [something the Patriots have not had in quite some time]. The offensive line is makeshift and already beat up. This was not a good line in 2015 and no real improvements were made to it. Brady can only hope he can have a clean pocket because defensive ends and tackles are finding quicker ways to get to him. There are question marks surrounding the New England offense, but Brady’s return will relieve fans from most of those concerns.

Most NFL fans believe the Patriots will have a top-10 defense in 2016. The defensive unit is underrated, and deserves more respect than its given, but suspensions and free agency losses will make it tough for this squad to crack the top-10 list. The pass rush was very good in 2015, finishing second in total sacks, but the loss of defensive end Chandler Jones will weaken the pass rush. There is still talent on all three levels, however, with a very solid linebacker core and talented secondary. The slight regression in the pass rush, on the flip side, will contribute to an overall defense not being quite as good as it probably should be. This is still a talented defense that is within the top-13, but top-10 is very tough to reach.

Overall, Brady’s suspension will expose the Patriots in the first four weeks for their opponents to take advantage of. Those first four games are not easy [Arizona, Houston, Buffalo, Miami] and backup Jimmy Garoppolo will have his work cut out for him. Tom will be back and New England will regain their footing in their division. The Patriots will win the AFC East in 2016. Win-loss prediction: 11-5

The New York Jets will be competitive once again, but playoff aspirations might be a stretch.

The New York Jets had a surprisingly good 2015 season. Finishing with a 10-6 record and barely missing the playoffs, Jets fans were left feeling confident about the direction of their team. With a productive offense and top-seven defense, most expect New York to take the next step and actually win the AFC East with second year Head Coach Todd Bowles. The Jets will be competitive, but playoff aspirations will be much tougher than the fan base will care to admit.

The Jets’ offense was very productive last season. Veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick performed at a Pro-Bowl level, running back Chris Ivory displayed consistency on the ground and wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker provided stability in the passing game. This was an offensive unit that contributed to a couple of big wins against the New York Giants and New England Patriots at Met Life Stadium. While the Jets’ offense performed very well in 2015, the expectation for massive improvements in 2016 just does not make much sense. This will not be a bad offense this season, but Fitzpatrick probably won’t play better than he did last year. Ivory departed to the Jacksonville Jaguars, but New York picked up veteran running back Matt Forte from the Chicago Bears. Forte is a good runner and should pick up where Ivory left off, if not produce more than Chris, but the offensive line struggled in run blocking and Forte is older and more susceptible to injury. Marshall and Decker will provide stability at the wide receiver position, but last season was more than likely the peak. The offensive line was not all that impressive, it was surprising to see the level of consistency this unit had last year behind this line. It is unclear whether or not this group will improve upon 2015 or remain at the same level. If that’s the case, this Jets offense will be lucky to repeat its performance from last year. There will likely be a step back in 2016.

The defense, however, displayed tremendous potential with a nice mix of young and veteran players. This was a defensive unit that ranked fourth overall in yards allowed, second against the run, ninth in points allowed and 12th in sacks in 2015. This was a very good unit last year and will keep the team in several games, score wise, this year. The defensive line is talented, the linebacker core has solid depth and the secondary is younger and faster. Their ability to rush the passer will be solid, the run defense will be top-10 and the secondary will make plays with future hall of fame cornerback Darrelle Revis anchoring the back four. The New York defense will be solid once again in 2016.

With a talented defense and still a solid offense, the Jets should be competitive this season. However, with the rise of other teams in other divisions, New York’s chances of making the playoffs are questionable, at best. Win-loss prediction: 9-7

The Buffalo Bills are in “do or die” mode in 2016 or else things will drastically change.

The Buffalo Bills had high expectations heading into the 2015 season, but they failed to meet those expectations. A team that was widely considered a playoff team deteriorated into an 8-8 team with more question marks heading into 2016. Despite the offense flashing potential in several areas, the defense took several steps back under Head Coach Rex Ryan. The Bills are in a do or die situation in 2016.

The offense had periods where it flashed tremendous potential in 2015. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor showed the organization he can be the player who elevates the offensive unit to the next level both as a passer and runner. Running back LeSean McCoy battled with on and off injuries, but still rushed for almost 900 yards on the ground. McCoy is one of the most talented runners in the National Football League and he will have a lot of depth to back him up at the position. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins improved in his second year in the league, but second option Robert Woods needs to take the next step and join Watkins in developing a legitimate receiving duo for Taylor in the passing game. Tight end Charles Clay will need to improve on his 2015 performance and elevate his status in becoming a vertical tight end threat for the passing game. The offensive line produced at a surprisingly decent level in 2015, but the depth along the line is extremely thin. The Bills are only carrying eight offensive lineman, so fans hope no starters suffer serious injuries. This is an offense with a surprising amount of talent in several areas. If everything can finally mesh together, this unit could put up some impressive numbers in 2016.

The defensive side of the ball suffered mightily in 2015 under Ryan. Rex tried to implement a hybrid and “aggressive” 3-4 defensive scheme to an already established base 4-3 system and the results were what they ended up being. The pass defense finished fourth overall in 2014, but finished 19th in 2015. The Bills were 15th in points allowed last season; they were fourth in the league two years ago. Buffalo totaled 21 defensive sacks last year; they led the league with 54 sacks in 2014. Bottom line: the defense regressed big time and Rex’s scheme is to blame. Dropping defensive ends into coverage makes no sense for this unit and it showed with ridiculously bad numbers against the pass in 2015. Ryan went out and hired his brother Rob to be the new defensive coordinator for this once elite unit. [Rob] Ryan’s addition is a questionable one: why would one team want two Ryans? Regardless, this defense has talent on the line, in the linebacker core and in the secondary. There is quite a bit to like with several of the players, but the overwhelming expectation is for the two Ryan brothers to get in each other’s way and mess things up once again. If this team has any hope of competing for a wild card spot, Rex and Rob need to coach this defense back on the right path and quit trying to do too much.

The Buffalo Bills went from an organization with reasonable expectations after the 2014 season to an organizations that resembles the New York Jets under Rex Ryan. He failed in New York, that city could not wait to get rid of him, but he better not screw up his shot in Buffalo. Giving Rex the benefit of the doubt one last time, the Bills do have talent on both sides of the ball to be competitive in 2016. Win-loss prediction: 9-7

The Miami Dolphins are going to improve because they have to.

The Miami Dolphins are a poorly run organization. It is not as bad as the Cleveland Browns, but it is bad in the sense that this team should be much better than it has been over the last four years. The Dolphins had expectations to possibly win the AFC East over the New England Patriots in 2015, but finished 6-10 instead. The hiring of new Head Coach Adam Gase was done in part because of the slight regression in quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s game last season. With Gase now in charge, and with a roster that looks good enough to be competitive, the Dolphins’ fortunes will be better in 2016 because they have to be.

The Dolphins’ offense flashed a brief moment of dominance during a two week stretch in October last year. This unit, however, still struggled to put points on the board as they had eight games where they scored less than 20 points. As mentioned earlier, Tannehill slightly regressed following the massive contract extension he received prior to the season. Despite the slight regression, Ryan’s numbers were still very solid as he has the dual threat ability to be a problem for opposing defenses. Working with quarterback guru Gase should result in instant progression in Tannehill’s performance in 2016. The Miami running game is solid with starter Arian Foster looking to prove himself once again to becoming a threat on the ground once again. The wide receiver core is young and talented and tight end Jordan Cameron is looking to prove himself in this offense as well, following a lackluster 2015 campaign. The Dolphins’ offensive line is solid and should improve in run blocking this season. This is an offense with talent and potential to do nice things in 2016.

The Miami defense is filled with veteran starters, but veterans with a couple years left in the tank. The defensive line lost Olivier Vernon to the New York Giants in the off-season, but still poses as a threat to weaker offensive lines. The Dolphins’ defensive unit finished 25th in the National Football League in yards allowed, 19th in points allowed, 28th against the run and 25th in sacks in 2015. On paper, this defense should produce much better numbers than what they did last year. Off-season attention to the defensive line, linebacker core and secondary will provide for more depth at all three levels. Linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell also provide for younger talent at their respective positions. The selection of cornerback Xavien Howard was praised by everyone at Dolphins Camp due to his aggressive style of play in the secondary. Physicality is what the Miami defensive back group needed and Howard is a step in the right direction. This defense will improve in pass rush, pass coverage, run stuffing and forced turnovers in 2016.

The Miami Dolphins are going to see dramatic improvements this season. Gase is the right coach for the right team at the right time. This roster is talented, but the proper direction was never there. Adam’s direction of Tannehill will pay dividends and the rest of the team will follow suit. The record might not see dramatic improvement, but the play on the field will. Win-loss prediction: 8-8


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