2014 AFC East Power Rankings

Format is modified from last year’s preseason PRs. Enjoy.

1. New England Patriots

2013 record: 12-4
Division Winners, Lost In AFC Championship Game

A Year Later…

The Patriots, who were plagued with injuries and the speed bumps of young talent, still managed one of the league’s best records, were undefeated on their own field and came within two scores of another Superbowl appearance in the Belichick-Brady era. The league’s foremost dynasty of the day were there usual selves in the offseason, balancing efforts towards free agency and the draft to augment an already strong team. The additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner at CB should at least equalize the loss of Aqib Talib, who performed at a high level for the squad in 2013. The team also brought in ex-Panthers wideout Brandon LaFell, who should provide depth and push last year’s younger group (Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson) forward. On that front, Julian Edelman proved capable of playing the Wes Welker role the Patriots were missing. Amongst Brady’s favorite targets, Rob Gronkowski was dominant when healthy, but couldn’t stay healthy for long. His return to physical well-being could easily be a tipping point for this team’s Superbowl hopes.

2014’s Prospects…

They seem as high as any team in the NFL. They’re playing in a shaky division, where they’ve dominated almost every year since 2001. The talent base is improved from a season ago, but health concerns (Gronkowski, LB Jerod Mayo, WR Danny Amendola) and the age of their most pivotal defensive player (NT Vince Wilfork) will tell the tale this year. The Patriots may be the closest thing to a division winning lock in football, but nothing is guaranteed. That being said, I can’t see them falling behind, especially with the resiliency they displayed in 2013.

Chances At The Big One…

As bright as any team in the AFC not from Denver, the Pats can run the table up until the higher-powered offense of Denver shows up. There are many upstarts and consistently solid teams in the AFC, but none with the experience and grit New England have under their belts. The AFC Championship is almost expected.

Under The Radar…

Watch for DE Chandler Jones, who flew under the radar despite 11.5 sacks in 2013. He’s entering his 3rd season and is primed to become more disruptive with the return of Wilfork and Mayo to the fold.

2. Buffalo Bills

2013 Record: 6-10
Last In Division, No Playoff Berth

A Year Later…

Most of the news out of Buffalo has been centered around the death of longtime owner Ralph Wilson and the fallout of what may become of the franchise as a result. Beneath this story, however, there is a franchise who seems to be moving forward in a way that other teams in the AFC East not named the Patriots simply aren’t. The talent base is, on paper, superior to the Dolphins and Jets and, if games were played on paper, the Bills might have a chance to give New England a serious run at the division crown.

But, games aren’t played on paper, and this team goes into 2014 with question marks. None bigger than E.J. Manuel, who struggled in typical rookie QB fashion but caused more concern with a rash of injuries that kept him out of nearly half the season. This year, the weapons around him have improved, and look no further than rookie wideout Sammy Watkins for proof. This kid has all the skill needed to quickly become a top-10 at his position in the NFL, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets there in a hurry. The backfield remains solid, with added depth behind incumbents Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. The latter needs to improve his production, something the coaching staff has noted. This is a pivotal key for the Bills in 2014, along with improved performance across a picked-apart offensive line that has gone from strength to liability in short order.

Defensively, new coordinator Jim Schwartz has a nice bounty of talent at his disposal, especially across the defensive line. The preseason loss of breakout linebacker Kiko Alonso is going to be impossible to fully overcome, but there’s no reason why the Bills’ D shouldn’t finish in the upper half of the league in points/yards allowed. The secondary has some holes, but solid pressure from the likes of Mario and Kyle Williams should alleviate that.

2014’s Prospects…

I am going out on a limb by putting these guys 2nd in the division, but I truly believe they have no excuse not to be. So long as injuries don’t mount atop the painful loss of Alonso, this team should find a way to win at least one, possibly three more games than they did in 2013. I won’t say they’re a playoff team…but a little overachieving and the full potential reached by their younger prospects could see the Bills in the hunt.

Chances At The Big One…

Not great, not great at all. But, if Manuel turns into the player the Bills assumed he would when they made him a high-first round draft pick, the possibilities end where his progress does. Again, on paper, this team has it where it counts (for the most part)…

Under The Radar…

All the recent talk about Watkins and free agent pickup Mike Williams has left young Robert Woods as a bit of an afterthought to many. From my perspective, however, Woods could end up being the most statistically active pass catcher in Buffalo this year. If Watkins starts drawing double teams and the offensive staff is wise enough to make C.J. Spiller a viable threat on passing downs, Woods is going to have some choice opportunities in single coverage situations.

3. Miami Dolphins

2013 Record: 8-8
2nd (Tied) In AFC East, No Playoff Berth

A Year Later…

Sadly so, my Dolphins are still very much a “what if?” team, three years into head coach Joe Philbin’s tenure. This is a make-or-break season for him, and quite a few players. None more so than Ryan Tannehill, who has shown flashes of brilliance but very little consistency and some trouble with his deep accuracy. It was clear, however much it suited him, that former OC Mike Sherman’s system was not conducive to results, as Miami finished near the bottom of the league in yards gained and points scored. Enter Bill Lazor, a Chip Kelly disciple who is already hyping up fans with thoughts of a high-paced, run-heavy, wide-open offensive attack. The question that must be answered: can Tannehill perform in a faster offense? Almost as important is whether or not Lamar Miller, newcomer Knowshon Moreno (once he’s healthy) or even the perennially disappointing Daniel Thomas can chew up the yards such an offense covets. More important than all that? Is this (nearly) brand new offensive line up to the challenge of making the other questions answerable at all? With powerhouse center Mike Pouncey out at least two or three games with a bad hip, the Dolphins’ opening day offensive line will be 100% different than the line that finished the year in 2013. This, more than anything, is the biggest hurdle this team needs to jump to remain relevant.

No concerns to report defensively, but some improved play from last year’s big free agent linebackers, Dannell Ellerbee and Phillip Wheeler, is necessary. Also, filling the huge gap NT Paul Solai left when signing with the Falcons is going to be something to watch.

2014’s Prospects…

It seems that many pundits don’t believe this team can do any better than the 8-8 record they put up in 2013. I’m inclined to agree, and actually believe the scales may be tipping towards a drop in their overall record, especially with the growing pains of a new offensive scheme and line. I don’t WANT to believe it, but it’s pretty clear…this team is going to have to come together quickly in order to remain in the mix.

Chances At The Big One

They’re just not there yet. Not as a team, not with the talent they currently will be fielding. It would be a miracle if this Miami Dolphins squad were playing in February. A welcome miracle, believe me, but the likelihood is somewhere between slim to none.

Under The Radar…

2nd round pick Jarvis Landry has been turning heads since OTAs, and much like Robert Woods, may get lost in the shuffle of opposing defenses keying on the skills of Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and emerging threat Charles Clay at TE. If he can beat out Brandon Gibson (who was impressive up until going down for the year in 2013) for snaps in the slot, Landry could make an impact.

4. New York Jets

2013 Record: 8-8
2nd (Tied) In AFC East, No Playoff Berth

A Year Later…

Last year, I had nothing but low expectations for the Jets, who were entering the season with a litany of concerns. Mark Sanchez was being phased out for a rookie, Geno Smith, who seemed further from a sure thing than I was comfortable with. Their skill positions were in apparent shambles, and their defense was showing some uncharacteristic gaps. To go from all that shakiness and fight for an even record was probably the greatest feat any AFC East team accomplished in 2013, but this is a new year and, despite their solid offseason acquisitions and surprisingly solid play a year ago, I don’t see this team going much further (and perhaps even taking a step back).

Those additions are most prominent on offense, where Eric Decker comes in at WR, with the apparent goal of making him their #1 threat. He may very well have that ability, but it’s easy to lean more towards him being a ‘tweener who excelled around the stocked weaponry of the Broncos’ offensive attack. More vital, in my opinion, is the addition of speedster Chris Johnson, who departed Tennessee after several successful (and one unbelievable) seasons. With gas in the tank and an offensive philosophy of getting the most out of their backs, Johnson has no excuse not to excel with the Jets…so long as Geno Smith and the passing game can keep opposing defenses from stacking the box.

2014’s Prospects…

Flip a coin. Rex Ryan continues to squeeze the most of out his talent and, with an influx of it in key areas, the Jets could turn a corner in 2014 and make a serious playoff push. Or, what I think more likely, is that this team essentially has to do what they did last year just to break even; overachieve and overachieve some more. They have weapons, proven weapons in particular on the defensive line, but the holes in the secondary and uncertainty across the offense lead me to believe they’ll come up short of the postseason. How short is anyone’s guess as well.

Chances At The Big One…

This team was once led to consecutive AFC Championships by Rex Ryan and, because of that, you have to consider them the AFC version of the New York Giants: one year they can look lost, the next they can possibly fight their way into high contention. While I don’t think it likely, they’ve shown the ability to do it in the recent past. That, at least, keeps hope alive for Jets fans that something miraculous could indeed happen.

Under The Radar

With all the talk of Chris Johnson and what he may bring to the running game, I think last year’s team rushing leader, Chris Ivory, is getting lost in the media shuffle. Ivory averaged 4.6 yards per carry on a little under 200 touches and showed tenacity in hitting the hole and discipline in waiting for his holes to open. Johnson will get his share of carries, but Ivory is going to be a focal point of this offense…or at least he should be, considering what he’s already put on tape in one season.

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