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TGS 2015 PRO FOOTBALL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE AFC EAST
Following is our preview of the NFC East, courtesy Senior Editor Chuck Sippl.  As usual, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with 2014 straight-up, spread, and O/U marks included.  Next up will be the NFC North...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

                                                                     by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor


NEW ENGLAND (Straight Up Record 15-4; Pointspread Record 11-8; O/U 11-8. Defeated Baltimore 35-51 and Indianapolis 45-7 in the Playoffs; Won Super Bowl 28-24 over Seattle)...Surely it can be stated that New England won Super Bowl XLIX by the thinnest of margins. But after a tranquil, restful offseason devoid of any distractions or controversy, the Patriots should be considered huge favorites to repeat.

Wait a damn minute! Who put that sentence in here??? [Ed. Note. That’s why we hate those fantasy geeks in accounting.]

All lame attempts at humor aside, the rules-bending, oft-fined Patriots are no better than the fourth early betting choice in Las Vegas to prevail in February at Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, trailing at least Seattle, Green Bay and Indianapolis. If the initial Tom Brady suspension of four games is upheld, New England will drop a few more spots down the list.

Nevertheless, we’ll stick with our annual prediction of New England capturing the AFC East, which the Pats have done for the last six years, and 11 of the last 12 (the only exception being 2008, when Brady sustained a torn ACL in the season opener). Under thorough, all-business, yet flexible and creative HC Bill Belichick, the Patriots have otherwise been able to overcome all obstacles to rule over their division. And those obstacles include last Sept. 29's 41-14 demolition by the Chiefs in Kansas City, after which, for the next several days, sportswriters and talking heads throughout the media were authoring eulogies for the New England dynasty.

It turns out the funeral was postponed at least one more year. At this writing, however, the 39-year-old Brady finds himself dueling in federal court with Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL, with Brady seeking to 1) have his four-game suspension reduced (which might happen) and 2) to clear his name in the eyes of the public (unlikely to happen outside of the great state of Massachusetts).

Our focus here is not on the curious twists in “Deflate-Gate” (or, as some prefer, the more colorful “Ball-Ghazi”). Rather it’s on whether New England in 2015 will again win the AFC East (which is quite possible, even with second-year QB Jimmy Garoppolo starting four games) and the Super Bowl (which is not likely). Among other negatives facing opposing a Patriot repeat is the simple fact that only once in the last nine years has the defending Super Bowl champion won a game in the postseason! And that was Seattle’s pair of victories over Carolina and Green Bay (in OT) on the way to last season’s Super Bowl.

Every team needs a little luck to go all the way, considering the parity in the NFL. But the Pats got plenty of good fortune last season. Picking up veteran, much-needed CBs Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner prior to the campaign. Adding underappreciated 6-3 WR Brandon LaFell (74 recs., 7 TDs LY) from Carolina. A healthy season (82 recs., 12 TDs) from previously-injured, difference-making TE Rob Gronkowski. Also from diminutive 5-10 WR Julian Edelman (92 recs.). Plus, the late-season dismissal of power back LeGarrette Blount by the Steelers, allowing the former Patriot to provide a needed late-season boost to the N.E. ground game. Then, there was the 14-point playoff comeback vs. Baltimore amid controversy in the Division Round of the playoffs. Brady’s fourth-quarter TD drives against Seattle in the Super Bowl came with four Seahawk DBs either out or seriously limited by injuries. And, finally, the brain cramps by Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson at the one yard line.

Such a string of events is unlikely to be repeated, even if the mobile, quick-armed Garoppolo (19 of 27 LY) wins two of his four expected starts, which he might very well do. Remember, Brady was also only in his second season when he took over for the injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001. And, with plenty of time to plan, rest assured HC Belichick and off. coord. Josh McDaniels will have a gameplan customized to Garappolo’s strengths. Note also that N.E. started only 2-2 last season.

Plus, as long as the exceptional Gronkowski (who has enjoyed a well-publicized, fun-loving offseason) stays healthy, the Pats are likely to be able to work their four-receiver variations to good effect. Smallish complementary TE Tim Wright (6 TDC LY) has been allowed to slip back to the Buccaneers. But the Pats have added 6-7 former Buffalo TE Scott Chandler, who is an even better red-zone threat and blocker.

It is once they get to the playoffs that New England is likely to run into major roadblocks. Brady (64%, 33 TDs, 9 ints., 4109 YP in 2014) is getting no younger. And the Pats’ ground game (18th LY, even with Blount) can be erratic. CBs Revis and Browner have moved on for better paydays. So has mammoth run-stuffer and defensive leader Vince Wilfork. Top draft pick Malcom Brown (DT, Texas) will help the rebuilding up front. And the LBing crew of Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins, and Dont’a Hightower is among the better starting units--if it can stay healthy.

In the secondary, Super Bowl interception hero Malcolm Butler will get a chance to see if he can hold up for the entire season. But the veteran free-agent additions of CBs Bradley Fletcher (from Philly) and Tarell Brown (from Oakland) do not inspire much confidence. Nickel-back addition Robert McClain (Atlanta LY) has previously been let go by three teams. Last year’s presence of cover specialist CB Revis and big, physical CB Browner allowed Belichick lots of flexibility with the N.E. defense. Even then, the Pats’ margins over Baltimore and Seattle in the postseason were razor-thin, thanks partly to the hampered Seahawk DBs in the Super Bowl.

SUMMARY...There’s a lot of defensive strength among New England’s rivals in the AFC East. But not the same type of leadership at head coach and clutch playmaking at QB. Expect the Bills, Jets and Dolphins to all have their moments in 2015. But they won’t have the consistency or resiliency that has so often been demonstrated by the Pats. This year’s New England team--even if unfazed by all the “Ball-Ghazi” distractions--still rates on top of the East. Advancing further vs. a toughening AFC figures to be more difficult.


BUFFALO (SUR 9-7; PSR 9-7; O/U 3-13)...It’s a new era in Buffalo. Last fall, Terry & Kim Pegula, owners of the NHL Buffalo Sabres,  assumed ownership of the team. Late last December, HC Doug Marrone surprisingly opted out of his Bills’ contract after just two years. And last January, fired Jets’ coach Rex Ryan moved his bloviation from the Big Apple to western New York. The loyal, but playoff-hungry Bills fans apparently like the move, as ticket sales and pre-2015 optimism have soared. Apparently going 15 years without a playoff appearance is enough to make the Bills’ Nation forget that they have hated Ryan for the last six years when he was coach of AFC East rival New York, with whom he was only 46-50 in the regular season (but 4-2 in the playoffs). Ryan was ousted by the Jets after going four straight years without a winning season.

Even more interesting is that Ryan--not exactly known as a “quarterback whisperer”--has been tabbed to lead a second team with continuing issues at the most important position. Vying for the QB job heading into the season are 11-year veteran Matt Cassel (3 TDs, 4 ints. LY in Minnesota), who disappointed in starting chances with the Chiefs and Vikings; third-year Bills QB EJ Manuel (only 58% LY), who has twice been unable to lock up the job in Buffalo; mobile Tyrod Taylor, the backup the last four years in Baltimore; and Matt Simms, who never even got a genuine shot when he was with Ryan in New York. As the late, great Howard Cosell once said from the broadcast booth of a baseball game when the camera was fixated on renowned hitting coach Charlie Lau (who was picking his nose at the time), “NOT a pretty picture.”

Which is a bit of a shame, as the Bills have accumulated a quality cast of receivers, an imposing group of rugged offensive linemen with impressive size (even by today’s standards), and several proven RBs, headed by former Eagle star Shady McCoy (1607 & 1319 YR the last two seasons). Moreover, Ryan was greatly enthused to inherit an aggressive defense (league-leading 54 sacks last year) that seems to fit exceedingly well with the 4-3 hybrid that is the Ryan favorite.

Perhaps the key question to be answered is whether one of the QBs (Cassel likely to get the first chance) will step forward to fully exploit targets such as wideouts Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, and Chris Hogan, plus WR/KR Percy Harvin, and maybe even world-class long jumper and sometimes WR Marquise Goodwin. 6-7 TE Scott Chandler has departed for the hated Patriots, but the Bills have snagged versatile (and faster) Charles Clay from the Dolphins. Greg Roman, the 49ers’ offensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh, has been tasked with pulling the Buffalo offense together and improving last year’s 21.4 ppg (18th in the NFL).

For much of the Chip Kelly era in Philadelphia, it seemed like McCoy was the most elusive RB in the league. But McCoy obviously was not Kelly’s type of player, judging from the verbal feud that followed McCoy’s trade to the Bills (for former Oregon LB Kiko Alonso). And McCoy did not exactly impress over the summer with the party-animal dimensions displayed all over the Internet and discussed repeatedly in the media. There is a chance that the once-famed “ground and pound” offense Ryan employed with the Jets might not be best suited to the 5-11, 208 McCoy (beginning his seventh season), who found a lot of openings the last two years in Kelly’s fast-paced spread attack.

It is the material on the Buffalo defense that made Ryan most eager to accept the Bills’ job. 6-3, 331 Marcel Dareus (10 sacks LY) is perhaps the top penetrating DT in the league. Mario Williams (14½ sacks LY) will move his 6-6, 288 frame to an OLB/DE position, but will mostly help set the edge on early downs and then hound QBs on passing downs. OLB Jerry Hughes will bring his 10 sacks from the other side. DE Kyle Williams (9th year; 5½ sacks in 2014) should also get a new lease on life under Ryan. The Bills were able to deal the productive Alonso (who’s coming off an ACL tear) because of the work of ILBs Nigel Badham (104 Ts) and Preston Brown (109 Ts LY from the 6-1, 251 run-stuffing rookie star from Louisville).

Although the Bills’ secondary lacks the depth and versatility of the Buffalo front seven, Ryan has the essentials he needs to run his pet stunts up front. Still, he needs CB Leodis McKelvin (only 10 games LY due to a fractured ankle), CB Stephon Gilmore, backup CB Corey Graham, and appropriately-named, nickel-back Nickell Robey (only 5-8, 168) to stay healthy. Aaron Williams is the team’s top safety.

SUMMARY...One of the first things the Peculas did was to scratch the notion of any more Bills’ home games being played in Toronto. Plans for a new stadium are in the works. Offseason spending on players was way up. The Ryan/Buffalo defense, on paper, appears fierce. And, best of all for Bills’ fans, Game Two is at home vs. the rules-bending Patriots, who (at this writing) will be without the leadership of “suspendee” Tom Brady! Later in the season, however, come a trip to London, plus a rare stretch of three road games in three weeks. The Bills’ defense will wreak havoc. But the offense must prove its mettle if Buffalo is to topple the division-dominating Patriots. However, with some competent QBing, the Bills will be in the playoff hunt.


NEW YORK JETS (SUR 4-12; PSR 7-9; O/U 7-9)...Many of the defenders who have played under Todd Bowles in the recent past have asked, “What took so long?” The 51-year-old Bowles has more than paid his dues in earning his chance as an NFL head coach. Playing for the young Bruce Arians at struggling Temple in the 80s. Putting in eight years at safety in the NFL after going undrafted. Two years in the front office of the Packers. Three years as a college assistant. Fifteen years as an NFL assistant, including the last three as defensive coordinator (the last two for Arians in Arizona). Bowles has even had a taste of being a head coach, going 2-1 in Miami in 2011, filling out the term of Tony Sparano after the latter was fired near the end of the season. Bowles even owns a Super Bowl ring from Washington’s 42-10 rout of Denver in January of 1988.

While with the Cardinals the last two seasons, Bowles has helped build and guide one of the more versatile and aggressive defenses in the league despite having to deal with more than the normal complement of key injuries. Along the way in his career, Bowles has coached under two former Bill Parcells assistants (Al Groh and Sparano), as well as spending two years in Dallas working under Parcells himself. Bowles has impressed at virtually every stage of his development along the way, last season being named the NFL’s assistant coach of the year.

Not surprisingly, the former safety has spent virtually his entire career mentoring players on the defensive side of the ball. So it was a bit surprising that the Jets--vastly in need of help on offense after finishing 28th in scoring (only 17.7 ppg) and last in passing last year behind struggling second-year QB Geno Smith (59.7%, 13 TDs, 13 ints., 8 fumbles, 3 lost) and the now-jettisoned Michael Vick. It turns out that Smith was one of those college QBs who needed to be brought along slowly and not immediately thrown into the fray of complex NFL defenses. Worse yet, Smith has gotten only marginal help from what has been one of the worst groups of NFL receivers during his short tenure. In his two seasons in New York, Smith has compiled only 25 TDP vs. 34 ints, 71 sacks, and 7 lost fumbles, for a -16 turnover count.

It has become pretty clear that the strength of six-year Jets’ HC Rex Ryan was not in QB development (note the “needless” 2013 Mark Sanchez shoulder injury in preseason; don’t ask about Tim Tebow and Michael Vick). Tasked with placing the meandering Smith on a positive track is new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, one of those guys well respected as an offensive architect and play caller, but not so highly regarded as a head coach. Gailey has been out of the NFL wars since being dismissed after going 16-32 as HC in Buffalo from 2010-12. Moreover, Smith has taken it upon himself to work in the offseason with Southern Cal throwing expert Tom House, the former baseball pitcher who has worked with many players of both sports (including Tom Brady, Carson Palmer & Drew Brees) on their motion and mechanics. It has also been noted that Smith’s final three games of 2014 were among his best, as he completed 53 of 80 (66.3%) with 5 TDs and only 1 int., with the only loss in the three contests by one point to the Patriots.

And all of this was before Geno suffered a broken jaw in early August during a training camp dust-up with LB IK Enemkpali, who was subesquently released.  But not before KOing Geno for six-to-ten weeks, thus thrusting the well-traveled Ryan Fitzpatrick, signed as a potential stop-gap in the offseason, into the starting role, probably into October.  Baylor rookie Bryce Petty, who was not expected to see action this fall, suddenly became the new backup, which prompted the Jets to scurry for another QB as preseason entered mid-August.  Short of an emergency trade, the Jets were left to contemplate adding an unattached journeyman, such as Matt Flynn (released earlier in August by the Patriots), reportedly about to be signed before the second preseason game against the Falcons.  While Fitzpatrick might not be much of a short-term drop-off from Geno, the entire QB situation has become increasingly unsettled for  the Jets weeks before the regular season commences, and the preseason-opening 23-3 loss vs. the Lions hardly allayed any non-Geno fears.  Not good.

There is also renewed hope among Jets fans this season following the addition of more help for Smith in free agency and the draft. Power wideout Brandon Marshall (who does not come without “baggage”) has pulled down 179 balls the last three years with the Bears. Deep threat Devin Smith arrives from Ohio State (but will be slow to start the season following broken ribs early in camp). The team his hoping the arrival of Marshall will allow Eric Decker—reliable, but no burner—to return to his effective complementary role after Decker caught 74 aerials last season. TE Jace Amaro, a former go-to guy at Texas Tech, should easily improve on last year’s 38 receptions as a rookie. Overall, however, the Jets’ receivers still lack the dynamism of many NFL teams.

Chris Ivory (821 YR in 2014) showed last season he can be a force on the ground. And this season, the Jets have more depth in the persons of Stevan Ridley (the former Patriot who had fumble problems at times) and Zac Stacy (former Ram), as well as holdover Bilal Powell. Not much breakaway ability, but with a hope that former Seattle OLmen James Carpenter and Breno Giacomini will add punch to an OL that is set on the left side with T D’Brickashaw Ferguson and G Willie Colon, plus very good C Nick Mangold. Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick is the new backup QB in New York. While he might be reckless, Fitzpatrick is capable of providing instant offense at times off the bench.

Thus, the offense appears marginally improved. But it is on defense where former safety and defensive coach Bowles is expecting the most improvement. First of all, he inherited a fairly gnarly group in DLs Muhammad Wilkerson & Sheldon Richardson, plus LBs David Harris, Demario Davis, Calvin Pace and Quinton Coples. Then, Bowles nabbed one of the plums of 2015 free agency by signing former Jet/Buc/Pat Darrelle Revis, ready to pair him once again on the corner with long-limbed Antonio Cromartie. With reliable S Marcus Gilchrist added from San Diego and nickel-back Buster Skrine from Cleveland--plus the return of last year’s injured CB Dee Milliner and S Antonio Allen--Bowles would appear to have solved the depth issues at DB that plagued the team in 2014.

Even the suspension absence of DT Richardson for the first four games this season appears to be covered by the addition of No. 1 pick Leonard Williams of USC in the draft and veterans Kevin Vickerson & Stephen Bowen in free agency. Third-rounder Lorenzo Maudlin (Louisville) has impressed early at OLB, while Bowles’ tutelage is expected to help last year’s first rounder Calvin Pryor at safety. Even if everything doesn’t work out as planned, the Jets still figure to have one of the tougher and deeper defenses in the league, one that will help the marginal New York offense more than in recent seasons.

Although Arizona’s promising season of 2014 (the Cards were 9-1 in mid-November) was subsequently ruined by QB injuries, Bowles’ Cardinal defense greatly impressed by the way it never gave in to opposing offenses under difficult circumstances. If Bowles gets his pet platoon going the way he hopes to, don’t look for a lot of prevent defense from the Jets, whose cluster of DB injuries began fazing the team early in the 2014 campaign. With this year’s group, Bowles will try to intimate foes early and often with his defenders, seeking to keep as much pressure as possible off New York’s marginal offense.

SUMMARY...Defense Bowles has. Offense, we’re not so sure. And the road schedule is daunting for a team that was last in passing in 2014. The Jets will be tougher to beat this season, but they’re unlikely to be in the postseason unless Geno Smith recovers quickly from his broken jaw, upgrades his form from last season, and his offseason optimism gets somehow translated into reality.


MIAMI (SUR 8-8; PSR 7-8-1; O/U 8-8)...Last season, the Dolphins were in the midst of playoff contention through three-quarters of the season, standing 7-5. But a poor 1-3 mark to close the season finished that idea and has led to a bit of a makeover on offense. Speed receiver Mike Wallace (67 recs. & 10 TDs LY) and possession guy Brian Hartline (39 & 2) expressed displeasure with some of the playcalls in 2014 and were thus been sent packing (Wallace to the Vikings and Hartline to the Browns). But Dolphin fans are not shedding many tears, as by the middle of last season rookie Jarvis Landry of LSU had taken over as the go-to guy in the Dolphin offense. Landry, who paired with Odell Beckham Jr. in 2013 to give LSU the most dynamic WRing duo in the nation, ended 2014 with 84 catches and 5 TDs, with the promise of a big upside in the re-styled Dolphin attack.

2015 will be the second season for the team under offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who was plucked from the staff of Chip Kelly to install a version of the uptempo style favored by the Philly coach. HC Joe Philbin, who is still looking for his first winning season in Miami (7-9, 8-8 and 8-8 so far), set a goal of 25 ppg in 2014, and the Dolphins (24.2 ppg) nearly made it. Philbin, who managed to survive the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin hazing scandal in 2013, has set the same ppg goal this season. Lazor, in his second year of the scheme, says last season’s introduction of the offense was like teaching geometry to the players; this year, it’s more like trigonometry.

The triggerman of the attack will once again be Ryan Tannehill, now in his fourth season, who was reading defenses much better last season, passing for 4045 yards while hitting 66.4% with 27 TDs and 12 interceptions. However, Miami’s plan this season to add rangy (6-3) Louisville WR DeVante Parker opposite the blossoming Landry hit a snag in June, as Parker—the 14th overall selection in this year’s draft—underwent foot surgery. That’s an ominous sign considering that Parker missed seven games last year due to foot problems. Next in line among the Dolphins’ WR corps are aging former Packer/Viking Greg Jennings and still-developing former Saint Kenny Stills. While the team lost versatile H-back/FB/TE Charles Clay to Buffalo, Miami added Browns’ TE Jordan Cameron, he of the 80 recs. in 2013, but also of the concussion problems of 2014.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins entered camp with concerns along their offensive line. Due to frequent OL changes and QB Tannehill’s youth, Tannehill has been sacked 139 times in his first three years (46 LY), the most of any QB in the league. Despite improving forward wall talent (e.g., second-year RT Ja’Waun James, third-year G Dallas Thomas), things remain unsettled up front, as LT Branden Albert is trying to come back from a torn ACL last November. While Mike Pouncey is among the best at C, that kind of stability has been lacking in the other OL spots.

One thing the OLmen have as a group is muscle, which helped Miami finish 12th in rushing LY, with Lamar Miller collecting 1099 yards on the ground. There is some depth and variety behind Miller in former Sooner Damien Williams, rookie fifth-round pick Jay Ajayi of Boise, and former 49er LaMicheal James.

On defense, the Dolphins landed one of the biggest fish of free agency, with former Detroit bad boy Ndamukong Suh signing a reported six-year, $114 million deal. Suh has been having a fun time dominating the Miami guards early in camp. But he dominates most guards anyway. The Miami brain trust figures that the inside force of Suh (36 sacks in his five years in Detroit) should make things easier for Dolphin edge rushers Cameron Wake (11½ sacks LY) and Olivier Vernon (6½). OLB Jelani Jenkins (team-leading 110 Ts last year) emerged as a force in 2014 to join underrated MLB Koa Misi. The addition of cover corner Brent Grimes from Atlanta two years ago has helped stabilize the Miami secondary. And CB Jamar Taylor flashed an upside in 2014 in his second season. Now, the pressure provided by the intimidating Suh is expected to help the team improve upon last year’s 14 interceptions. One big downer for the Dolphin defense has been the disappointment of 2013 top pick OLB Dion Jordan, who has only one career start, three career sacks, and is suspended for all of 2015 for substance-abuse violations.

SUMMARY...Concerns in the OL and new QB/receiver chemistry development do not bode well for the Miami offense in 2015. The Bills and Jets appear improved in a rugged division that is well-balanced behind perennial champ New England. Just a couple of key losses to longtime rivals could add up to another frustrating season for the Dolphins and turn up the heat big time on HC Joe Philbin.


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