2010 NFL Preview: AFC East Predictions

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady calls a play against the New Orleans Saints in the first quarter of their NFL pre-season football game in Foxborough, Massachusetts August 12, 2010.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder  (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

2010 NFL Division Previews & Predictions: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West | 2010 Question Marks Series

The AFC East is arguably the most difficult division to predict because the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins all have enough talent to claim the top spot but all three also have huge question marks that could hold them back.

The Bills, on the other hand…not so hard to predict. (Sorry Buffalo fans.)

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the AFC East this season. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes in 2010.

1. Patriots

What to Like: Wes Welker is apparently healthy, which is a great sign for Tom Brady and the rest of the Pats’ offense. Although they failed to recapture the magic they had in 2007, the offense ranked third in the NFL in yards per game, sixth in total points and eighth in third down percentage. Along with Welker and Randy Moss, Brady will also have talented rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez to throw to in the passing game and Julian Edelman proved when filling in for Welker last season that he can be productive as well.
What Not to Like: It appears that the pass rush, or lack thereof, will be a massive concern all season. It was a concern heading into the offseason, it’s been a concern thus far in preseason and it’s going to remain a concern unless guys step up. Granted, Tully Banta-Cain is coming off a career year and rookie Jermaine Cunningham has potential, but Derrick Burgess needs to stay motivated and be productive. If he doesn’t and Banta-Cain can’t put up the numbers he did last year then Bill Belichick’s defense could suffer at every level. There’s also the very real concern that starting left guard Logan Mankins will skip the entire season because of a contract despite, meaning promising but inexperienced tackle Sebastian Vollmer will be inserted into the starting lineup.
Keep an Eye On: Darius Butler
In five starts last season, Butler had three inceptions and although he was inconsistent in coverage and needs to cut down on penalties, he could blossom into a star this season. He has already become a leader in the locker room.
The Final Word: Even though the offense stalled in the second half of some games last season, it will still be tough to stop this team a weekly basis. Plus, after struggling to a 2-6 record on the road last season, the Pats will face only two 2009 playoff teams away from Foxboro this year. In fact, six of the 2009 playoff teams they face this year will have to come to New England, which is obviously a major advantage. I think given the problems that the rest of the teams have in the division, the Pats will once again come out on top, although this is far from a Super Bowl team in my eyes.

New England Patriots 2010 Question Mark: Pass Rush

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2010 NFL Question Marks: New York Jets

Jan 17, 2010; San Diego, CA, USA; New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez (6) takes the snap during the 2010 AFC Divisional playoff game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. The Jets defeated the Chargers 17-14.

Merry training camp season, everyone. It’s been a long offseason, but football is finally gearing up again and to celebrate I’m rolling out a new series on TSR entitled “2010 NFL Question Marks,” where I discuss one or two of the biggest concerns that teams have heading into the new season. Granted, some teams have more issues than others, but I’ll primarily be focusing on the biggest problem areas. Today I’ll be discussing everybody’s chic pick for 2010, the Jets.

Ah, the New York Jets – the media darlings of 2010.

How can you not like the Jets this year? The players have taken on the swagger and confidence of their head coach, their defense is among the top-3 in the league, they’ve upgraded their roster thanks to a couple of shrewd offseason moves (i.e. trading for Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie), and they have a young running back (Shonn Greene) who might be knocking on the door of stardom this season.

But alas, there is one chink in the armor and he goes by the name of Mark Sanchez.

When you think about it, it’s rather amazing that a team coming off a 9-7 season that barely made the playoffs is garnering so much Super Bowl attention this offseason. Not to mention, they also have a quarterback who is a) coming off surgery and b) hasn’t proven that he can carry a team on his own yet.

Granted, it’s not fair to criticize Sanchez for not having a Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco-like rookie year. Most first-year quarterbacks struggle and seeing as how Sanchez was able to lead his team to the AFC Championship Game last year despite his rookie struggles speaks for his potential.

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Is LaDainian Tomlinson done?

There seems to be two schools of thought on LaDainian Tomlinson at this point in his career: You either fall into the category that believes he has nothing left in the tank, or you think his declining production is in direct correlation to the Chargers’ poor run blocking over the past couple of years.

At least one NFL general manager “with multiple Super Bowl rings” falls into the latter of the two categories.

From the New York Post:

“If you watch the films from the end of last year, the guy had nothing left,” a general manager with multiple Super Bowl rings said last week. “It’s not a knock on him personally. All those carries are going to catch up to anyone.”

The above quote comes from one of New York Post columnist Bart Hubbuch’s most recent columns. Hubbuch also writes that, “it didn’t take a grizzled NFL scout to notice in the Jets’ recent workouts that Tomlinson just doesn’t look like the same player who terrified opposing defenses with his slippery moves and sublime hands for nine seasons with the Chargers.”

Well, no kidding. LT will turn 31 in a couple of days and it’s not like the Chargers limited his carries earlier in his career. He was their workhorse for the better part of nine seasons and there’s certainly a lot of wear and tear on those tires.

The question is, can he still be productive? In a two-back system, I think the answer is yes, especially consider that the Jets have a better O-line than the Chargers, although the loss of Alan Faneca certainly hurts. Assuming the Jets keep all of their backs fresh, LT can still be a valuable piece.

That said, I highly doubt we’re going to see a resurgence here. Again, he’s on the wrong side of 30 and has been slowing down over the past two seasons. I still think he can be effective, but he might not come close to the 730 yards and 12 touchdowns that he produced last season. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a nice complement to Shonn Greene in New York’s running game.

I think it’s a little early to stick a fork in him this season.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Thomas Jones set to become a free agent?

According to a report by NFL.com, it’s unlikely that the Jets will pick up Thomas Jones’ $3.3 million roster bonus and if so, the 32-year-old back will become an unrestricted free agent on March 9.

The Jets were hoping that Jones would take a pay cut by restructuring his deal, but the running back declined. With Shonn Greene and Leon Washington already on the roster, New York has the luxury of letting Jones go, even though he’s coming off a career year after rushing for 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Jones started to show his age in December, but he would still bring value to teams in search of running back help this offseason. The Texans and Chargers are obvious choices, but don’t rule out a team like the Eagles adding a veteran back like Jones to complement youngster “Shady” McCoy now that Brian Westbrook is out of the picture.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

An upset is in reach if the Jets can stick to their strengths this weekend

To alter a phrase from Denny Green: The Jets are who we think they are. They have the best defense in the NFL and can run the ball with Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene behind a solid offensive line.

That’s it. They play good defense and rely on their great running game to win. And as they get ready to take on the red-hot Chargers in San Diego this weekend, the Jets should remind themselves what their strengths are because their strengths match up very well with their Divisional Round opponent.

The Chargers can flat out throw the ball. They rank fifth in the NFL with 271.1 passing yards per game and have averaged 28.4 points per contest. Philip Rivers has played at a MVP-type level all season and he has a bevy of weapons at his disposal in Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson and Darren Sproles.

However, the Jets have the top pass defense in the league and have limited opponents to just 153.7 passing yards per game. Cornerback Darrelle Revis has emerged as a lockdown corner and will no doubt keep Jackson at bay in one-on-one coverage. Rex Ryan’s defense excels at being aggressive and taking away opponents’ best weapons so if there were any team that could limit what the Bolts’ passing attack can do, it would be Jets.

Another thing to consider is that behind Jones and Greene, the Jets have the best running game in the league. Meanwhile, the Chargers have allowed over 110 rushing yards per game this season and could struggle containing New York’s ground attack.

The Jets won despite of rookie Mark Sanchez – not because of him. So if they can control this game from the ground and limit how effective Rivers is in the passing game, then the Jets’ solid season will continue past this weekend.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

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