In this world nothing is certain but death, typos and the New England Patriots.
There's no fighting the first two, but every year the AFC East lines up to take a run at the Patriots. For the last five years, they've collectively failed as the Pats have won the division by an average of four games per year, which in a 16-game season amounts to Patriots first, daylight second.
And that's not a trick of the numbers either. Sure, the Patriots went undefeated last year while nobody else won half their games, so New England won the East by nine games. But two other times in their five-year run, the Pats taken the division by exactly four games.
The two years before the five-year streak, the Patriots shared the division title. The last year the AFC East was won outright by a team that doesn't call Foxboro home was 2000, Bill Belichick's first year as coach, when he ran his career record to 41-55 with a 5-11 last-place finish. The champ that year was the Miami Dolphins, led by a strong defense and the immortal aerial attack of Jay Fiedler to Oronde Gadsden.
That won't be happening this year.
1. New England Patriots (16-0, first place in 2007)
The Patriots are coming off the most frustrating one-loss season in the history of football. Including two playoff games they went 18-0, something no other team had ever done, before getting upset by the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
There were distractions aplenty, of course, with Spygate and various other off-field whizzing matches, mostly involving the unpleasant demeanor of Belichick. But on the field Tom Brady, newly blessed with receivers Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth, led one of the greatest offenses in history, one complimented by a good-enough defense.
They spent the first half of the season blowing people away, winning their first eight games by an astonishing average score of 41-16. That's high school stuff. Things got tighter in the second half. Aside from a 56-10 blowout at Buffalo, the Pats won the rest of their games by the average score of 29-20 as the offense slowed and opponents threw everything they had at them.
You don't go 16-0, never mind 18-0 including a playoff win over the tough Jacksonville Jaguars and another over the game but depleted San Diego Chargers, without being ridiculously, historically good. But you have to be a little lucky too. Playing the 2007 season over again, the Patriots might go something like 14-2.
In other words, really, really good. They can afford to take some hits and still be really good. They have taken hits. Stallworth, a big upgrade over the old WR vaccuum but not a great player, is gone to Cleveland, but the big hit came on defense, where cornerback Asante Samuel led a squad of free-agent departees including fellow DBs Randall Gay and Eugene Wilson -- and good-old wide receiver-cornerback Troy Brown -- and linebacker Roosevelt Colvin.
Of course, the Patriots lose players every year, and they rarely miss a beat. Out goes Colvin, in comes first-rounder Jerod Mayo. And so it goes.
2. Buffalo Bills (7-9, second place in 2007)
The Bills were an OK team last year that got hit hard by injuries but also won a couple of squeakers and feasted on the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets to end up with a decent record. They were even in the playoff picture before the three-game losing streak that ended their season and made a nice bookend with the three-game losing streak that started their season.
The Bills are a promising team. Hamstrung by playing in an old stadium in a small, depressed market -- they're putting their toe in the waters of Toronto with a home game Dec. 7 -- they've drafted, traded and signed free agents wisely and prudently over the last few years.
They have a promising quarterback and a strong runner in sophomores Trent Edwards and Marshawn Lynch, and they've taken their best shot at improving the defense by trading for mammoth tackle Marcus Stroud and signing linebacker Kawika Mitchell. They also have great special teams.
Things have to go their way, particularly in the training room, but there are worse bets for a playoff spot.
3. New York Jets (4-12, third place in 2007)
The Jets are trying to go from unmitigated disaster to the playoffs in one season. Why not? They went the other direction last year.
In the offseason the Jets signed or traded for big-time offensive linemen Alan Faneca and Damien Woody, fullback Tony Richardson, linebacker Calvin Pace and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins. And there was one other guy. Give me a second, I'll think of his name.
If Brett Favre plays the way he did in 2007, there's reason to jump on the bandwagon. That's a big if. Favre will be 39 next month and figures to continue the decline that was dramatically interrupted last year.
A lot will depend on the running game keeping the pressure off of Favre, which would allow him to avoid the desperation heaves that made him an interception machine at mid-decade in Green Bay. Thomas Jones wasn't very good last year. The offensive line upgrades should help him, but he's a 30-year-old workhorse running back, which means that in football years, he's older than Favre.
Coach Eric Mangini was a genius in 2006 when he led the Jets to the playoffs in a big surprise. He wasn't so genius when they went 4-12 last year. His Jets now look like a team built for this year that's going to play about .500 ball. That won't be enough for him to get the genius tag back. Will it be enough for him to keep his job?
4. Miami Dolphins (1-15, fourth place in 2007)
Bill Parcells is running things and the Dolphins are in full reclamation mode. They'll win more games than they did last year, which likely would have happened just by accident under the old, incompetent regime.
It'll have to be enough for this year, but here's the first prediction for 2009: The Dolphins will be better than the Jets, and if they get some breaks they'll contend for the playoffs.
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