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2017 AFC East Preview: New England Patriots primed to run the table

Tom Brady

The AFC East remains the one division experts can easily predict. The New England Patriots won their eighth consecutive division title in 2016, surpassing the record held by the 1973-1979 Los Angeles Rams.

The 2017 season presents little change from a year ago. The Patriots enter the campaign as the decided favorites to not only win the AFC East, but also another Super Bowl crown. Oh, and they might just run the table on their way to a repeat.

Here is a look at the 2017 AFC East in order of predicted finish:

4th – New York Jets

The New York Jets last made the playoffs in 2010, and unless a miracle takes place, it won’t happen this season. Their successful 2015 season proved to be nothing more than a fluke. Buoyed by journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s career year, the Jets finished 10-6 and nearly beat the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 to earn a playoff spot.

The magic disappeared from the Jets in 2016. Fitzpatrick came crashing back to earth, and running back Matt Forte failed to make a difference in an offense doomed from the beginning. Defensively, the Jets finished 11th in the NFL in total yards allowed, which should be enough to win some football games. However, the woeful offense failed to take advantage of the stellar defense. The Jets finished 5-11.

New York will be worse this season. The defense maintains some talent on defense, including defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and cornerback Morris Claiborne. Yet, the Jets offense leaves little to the imagination.

Quarterback Josh McCown is nothing more than a placeholder for next season. He brings stability and heart to the offense, but that’s about it. Forte looked a little over the hill in his first year as a Jet, and there is little hope he’ll bounce back this season. Backup Bilal Powell played well, rushing for 722 yards on only 131 carries.

Still, the rest of the offense is young and inexperienced. Second-year wide receiver Jalin Marshall should provide athleticism and versatility for the Jets, but he often disappears in big moments. Should he overcome past struggles, Marshall might emerge as a star. It’s a lot to ask for from both Marshall and the team as a whole. The team lacks the talent to succeed.

Two players to watch: The aforementioned Marshall is a weapon to be developed properly. He needs to have the ball in open space for him to succeed. The Jets could have a star on their hands if they use him in the right situations.

Defensively, Wilkerson must produce a stronger pass rush, especially with linebacker Sheldon Richardson traded to Seattle. His ability to disrupt opposing offensive lines will be a major reason why the team finishes in last place or not.

Game to watch:  Sunday, October 8 at Cleveland Browns. The Jets’ quest for the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft likely runs through Cleveland. If the Jets win there, they might just have to plan on picking No. 2 overall.

Predicted Record: 2-14

3rd – Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills’ struggles tend to cause heads to shake across the league. They always appear to be on the rise only to fall back into obscurity by the end of the season. The 2017 Bills bring in a new era. They let their two top receivers move on via free agency and trade, while welcoming new blood to support quarterback Tyrod Taylor.

Unfortunately, the changes to the offense fail to fix a real problem: the quarterback position. The Bills need a franchise quarterback. If Buffalo fans want an explanation as to why the Bills fail to make the playoffs every year, the lack of a true field general remains the single most important reason why. This season will be no different. Taylor brings heart and mobility to the offense, but he simply doesn’t have the physical tools to be a successful franchise quarterback.

Elsewhere, expect the offense to rely heavily on running back LeSean McCoy. He proved that he is still one of the top running backs in the NFL in 2016. McCoy rushed for 1,267 yards and 13 touchdowns on only 234 carries, while also catching 50 passes for 356 yards. The offense will succeed if he does, but there are limitations.

The Buffalo defense finished 19th overall in total defense in 2016. However, head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier expect improvement after moving the defense to a 4-3. The scheme fits the current personnel well. The front four, in particular, should shine. If the unit plays up to its potential, the defense could develop into a top 10 unit by season’s end.

Two players to watch: Taylor remains the man in charge of the Bills offense. The team will survive or thrive under his watch. The Bills will struggle to win six games if he fails to simply manage the offense.

Cornerback E.J. Gaines established himself as a legitimate NFL starter during his first year in the NFL. Unfortunately, a season-ending Lisfranc injury derailed his career in 2015. Since then, Gaines has not regained his early form, but the hope is that a change of scenery will rejuvenate his career.

Game to watch: Sunday, November 19 at the Los Angeles Chargers. Both teams enter the season hoping to surprise the NFL by earning a spot in the playoffs. Posting a win in Los Angeles would provide the Bills with a signature win outside of the division – one they will need to squeak past upstarts like Miami and others.

Predicted record: 6-10

2nd – Miami Dolphins

It has been a long time since the Miami Dolphins were relevant, but sooner or later they will finally break through. At first, the Dolphins appeared cursed with the season-ending injury to quarterback Ryan Tannehill. However, his injury and the subsequent signing of former Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler might just change the fortunes of the Dolphins.

Cutler and Dolphins head coach Adam Gase formed a solid bond in Chicago, and it carried over into the preseason. Cutler looked reborn after years of disappointment. He should thrive in Gase’s offense.  The receiving corps provides several options for Cutler, and running back Jay Ajayi figures to improve on his breakthrough 2016 season.

Unfortunately, several potential issues plaque this roster. The front office did what it could to address those problems, but most of their moves reek of desperation. Miami Herald beat writer Armando Salguero pointed out several of these concerns over the weekend. He specifically noted the lack of depth at the linebacker position. There are also concerns over the cornerback position and with the offensive line.

Overall, the Dolphins appear to be in a position similar to last year. Holes on the roster prevented the team from challenging the Patriots in 2016, and this year presents the same issue. The potential for success is there, but too many question marks make it difficult to see the Dolphins making the playoffs this season.

miami dolphins Hard Rock Stadium

Al Diaz/Miami Herald

Two players to watch: The Dolphins offense will succeed or fail with Cutler. They paid him good money to lead the offense, and with the defense mired with its own issues, Cutler must live up to his contract.

Speaking of the defense, linebacker Rey Maualuga joins a linebacker corps in need of help. Maualuga should stabilize the group, but no one knows if he will provide more than that. Maualuga’s success will determine how effective the defense will be.

Game to watch: Sunday, October 8 vs. Tennessee Titans. The Titans seem primed to win the AFC South. The Dolphins need a win to start a grueling stretch in their schedule featuring nine games in 11 weeks against playoff contenders. If there is ever a must-win situation for Miami, this is it.

Prediction: 8-8

1st – New England Patriots

The New England Patriots enter the 2017 season with destiny staring at them. They bring back a loaded roster on both offense and defense led by the ageless future Hall of Famer Tom Brady. The Patriots’ schedule and roster works in their favor; an undefeated season beckons them.

Still, two concerns stand in the Patriots’ way. First, running back LeGarrette Blount joined the Philadelphia Eagles after rushing for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. He leaves a huge hole in the Patriots running game, especially in the red zone. New England boasts several talented running backs on the roster, but none of them possess the same tools as Blount. Finding his replacement will be key for the Patriots.

The other concern surrounds injured wide receiver Julian Edelman. He suffered a season-ending ACL injury during the preseason. The team will miss his clutch performances and will need someone to step into his role as a possession receiver. Danny Amendola probably fits the bill.

Meanwhile, the defense remains a strength for the Patriots. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore adds another skilled talent to an already loaded unit that should dominate, much like it did last year.

Overall, the road to the AFC East title ,and probably the Super Bowl, runs through Foxborough. Expect the Patriots to make a serious run at another undefeated season.

Two players to watch: I hate to point out the obvious here, but tight end Rob Gronkowski’s injury problems continue to plague his career. When healthy, he’s the best tight end in the NFL. The only question is whether or not he can stay healthy.

Rob Gronkowski, Patriots

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy joined the Patriots via trade in October 2016. He performed well for New England, but no one really knows what he can do as the full-time starter. Van Noy’s abilities give him a chance to become a Pro Bowl linebacker with the right system, which is exactly what the Patriots have.

Game to watch: Sunday, November 19 at Oakland Raiders. There are few teams that can challenge the Patriots in the AFC. The Raiders might just be one of them. Look for this game to serve as a possible AFC Championship Game preview.

Prediction: 15-1