Afceast

September 01, 2000

BUFFALO BILLS

Last season: 11-5, second, lost to Tennessee in wild-card round, 22-16.

Coach: Wade Phillips (37-27), third season with Bills, fifth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: first.

Starting quarterback: Rob Johnson (4-3).

Best move: Making the team younger, faster and more cap-friendly by saying goodbye to aging veterans like DE Bruce Smith, WR Andre Reed and RB Thurman Thomas, then addressing the defensive needs by drafting players like DE Erik Flowers, S Travares Tillman and LB Corey Moore.

Missing piece: Who are the leaders, especially on defense? With Bruce Smith, S Kurt Schulz and CB Thomas Smith gone, there is an identity void. And promising DE Marcellus Wiley is not yet near Smith's class.

Pressure's on: Wade Phillips must figure out which QB he likes and stick with him. Doug Flutie, last year's starter who was benched the week before the playoff loss to the Titans in favor of Rob Johnson, is out for several games with a groin injury. So it's Johnson's team. For now.

Biggest question: Will K Steve Christie rebound from his worst year? He missed nine of 19 field-goal attempts from 30-49 yards and could be nearing the end of a great career.

Key statistic: The Bills led the NFL in pass defense and total defense, which probably won't happen this time around. That means the Johnson-led offense, ranked 19th in passing in 1999, must pick up more slack.

Ticket to Tampa: This is a team people will regard too lightly, what with all of their personnel losses. If WR Peerless Price takes attention away from the outstanding Eric Moulds, the offense could be clicking into January.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Last season: 13-3, first, lost to Tennesseee in divisional playoffs, 19-16.

Coach: Jim Mora (109-90), third season with Colts, 14th in NFL.

Strength of schedule: third.

Starting quarterback: Peyton Manning (16-16).

Best move: Making MLB Rob Morris their top draft pick and installing the former BYU star as an immediate starter. At 250 pounds, he will remind fans of a young Zach Thomas with more bulk.

Missing piece: Someone needs to give RB Edgerrin James a break during his second year. James looked worn out in the postseason, and the offseason murder of Fred Lane forced the Colts to sign Karim Abdul-Jabbar.

Pressure's on: The defense, too porous against the pass in 1999, needs better play from Cbs Jeff Burris and Tyrone Poole. The Colts relied too much on Manning and James, and it caught up with them in the postseason.

Biggest question: He has made tremendous progress and been amazingly durable in two seasons, but can Manning continue to improve and stay healthy?

Key statistic: Manning was sacked a league-low 14 times. That is partly attributable to a seven-blocker scheme the Colts wisely employed to protect their franchise quarterback.

Ticket to Tampa: The defense needs to get stingier, and James and WR Marvin Harrison need to carry excellent regular seasons into the playoffs, which they failed to do last year.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Last season: 9-7, third, lost to Jacksonville in divisional playoffs, 62-7.

Coach: Dave Wannstedt (40-56), first season with Dolphins, seventh in NFL.

Strength of schedule: second.

Starting quarterback: Jay Fiedler (x-x).Best move: QB Dan Marino hung on for a few years too long in his quest to win a Super Bowl. His retirement, which followed a playoff loss that was the most embarrassing in team history, allows the Dolphins to begin anew.

Missing piece: The offensive line includes a rookie OT in Todd Wade and relatively untested G Mark Dixon, who replaces Kevin Gogan. The unit must develop quickly to help Fielder and take pressure off a defense that has carried the team too much in recent years.

Pressure's on: All Fiedler has to do is follow the legendary Marino. NEED NEW SENTENCE Biggest question: Is Chan Gailey, fired after orchestrating some dull, ineffective offenses in Dallas, the right man to lead Miami as its offensive coordinator?

Key statistic: The Dolphins are still searching for a running game. They ranked 22nd in the league last year, and this year's designated starter, J.J. Johnson, has been suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

Ticket to Tampa: Take a nice drive across the state to watch the game.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Last season: 8-8, tie for fourth.

Coach: Bill Belichick (36-44), first season with Patriots, sixth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: tie for sixth.

Starting quarterback: Drew Bledsoe (58-47).

Best move: Getting rid of laid-back head coach Pete Carroll and bringing in Belichick, who is a stickler for organization and discipline, which had been solely lacking under Carroll.

Missing piece: Will the running game ever resurface? The Patriots lost Curtis Martin to free agency, and Terry Allen was a stopgap last year. They have yet to recover from the loss of Robert Edwards to a freak knee injury in 1998. Now it's Kevin Faulk's turn.

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