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September 07, 2001

EAST DIVISION

Buffalo Bills

Last season: 8-8, fourth place.

Coach: Gregg Williams, first season with Bills.

Strength of schedule: 27th.

Starting QB (W-L): Rob Johnson (9-10).

Best move: Picking up FB Larry Centers in free agency for the new West Coast offense. Centers has 685 catches, most ever for a back.

Weakest link: The Bills ranked last in the NFL in punt- and kick-return average. First-round pick Nate Clements, a CB, is expected to return punts, and Chris Watson will handle kick returns again.

Pressure's on: Johnson, who was the QB of choice over fan favorite Doug Flutie. He was sacked 49 times in 306 pass attempts - one every 6.2 drop-backs - the highest sack rate in team history.

Biggest question: Will Johnson emerge as a franchise quarterback and vindicate the decision to dump the more popular Flutie?

Key statistic: The injury-prone Johnson has been knocked out of the game in seven of his 18 Bills starts.

Ticket to New Orleans: It's more likely the Bills will take a plunge than reach the Super Bowl in Williams' first season.

New England Patriots

Last season: 5-11, fifth place.

Coach: Bill Belichick (41-55), second season with Patriots, seventh in NFL.

Strength of schedule: 20th.

Starting QB (W-L): Drew Bledsoe (63-58).

Best move: Bringing in a phalanx of mid-level free agents at bargain-basement prices. The Patriots needed an overhaul, and Belichick did it as inexpensively as he could.

Weakest link: The Patriots averaged just 3.3 yards per rush attempt last season, which tied for 28th in the league. Among the free agents they signed was Buffalo reject Antowain Smith. Still, the running game could fall into the hands of J. R. Redmond, a third-round pick in 2000.

Pressure's on: The offensive line. Last year, this patchwork ensemble got Bledsoe sacked 45 times. This year, the Patriots will be very young and very inexperienced at the tackles.

Biggest question: Can Bledsoe regain his status as one of the elite quarterbacks in the league without the suspended Terry Glenn, his best receiver?

Key statistic: Minus a rushing threat, the Patriots scored 23 touchdowns in 53 possessions inside the opponent's 20. That ranked 24th in the NFL.

Ticket to New Orleans: Not anytime soon. If the Patriots can escape the division cellar, it would be a major accomplishment.

Miami Dolphins

Last season: 11-5, first place. Lost to Oakland in divisional playoff game, 27-0.

Coach: Dave Wannstedt (51-61), second season with Dolphins, eighth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Tied for fifth.

Starting QB (W-L): Jay Fiedler (11-5).

Best move: Getting speed receivers for the offense in free-agent James McKnight and second-round pick Chris Chambers.

Weakest link: Now that the Dolphins have speed on the outside, the quarterback must go deep. Fiedler threw 11 interceptions in the final five games and was awful in the playoff loss.

Pressure's on: Fiedler, because he's on a short leash. The Dolphins ranked 27th in pass offense in 2000.

Biggest question: Can the Dolphins follow the Ravens' script of tenacious defense and efficient running game well enough to reach the Super Bowl?

Key statistic: The Dolphins have lost six straight games to the Jets, including last year's 40-37 overtime epic when they blew a 23-point fourth-quarter lead.

Ticket to New Orleans: The defense is at a Super Bowl level, but the offense is strictly one-dimensional. So much rides on the quarterback that the Dolphins could get to New Orleans, or miss the playoffs altogether.

Indianapolis Colts

Last season: 10-6, second place. Lost to Miami in wild-card game, 23-17.

Coach: Jim Mora (117-90), fourth season with Colts, 14th in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Third.

Starting QB (W-L): Peyton Manning (26-22).

Best move: Upgrading the receiving corps by drafting WR Reggie Wayne. He should take some defensive heat off Marvin Harrison.

Weakest link: Run defense killed the Colts in 2000, when they gave up 121 rush yards per game and 4.3 a carry. Missing out on the draft's best tackles, the Colts settled for recycled DT Christian Peter. They'll also have two new starters at linebacker in Rob Morris and Marcus Washington.

Pressure's on: Mora, who is 0-6 in the postseason at New Orleans and Indianapolis. It's an ugly record.

Biggest question: How many touchdowns will Manning have to produce if the defense doesn't improve?

Key statistic: RB Edgerrin James has more 100-yard rushing games (19) over the past two seasons than any other back in the NFL.

Ticket to New Orleans: If the Colts can toughen up the middle of that defense, Manning and James can torment opponents with their balance.

New York Jets

Last season: 9-7, third place.

Coach: Herman Edwards, first season with Jets.

Strength of schedule: Tied for fifth.

Starting QB (W-L): Vinny Testaverde (69-92-1).

Best move: Drafting Maryland's LaMont Jordan in the second round as heir apparent and understudy to workhorse RB Curtis Martin. Jordan will get an opportunity to play and learn right away.

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