Afc East

September 05, 2002|By KEN MURRAY

Buffalo Bills

Last season: 3-13, fifth place.

Coach: Gregg Williams (3-13), second year with Bills.

Story line: Can 10-year veteran QB Drew Bledsoe resurrect his career as well as the downtrodden Bills?

Power game: If Bledsoe can still play, he's got a deep passing game waiting to happen in WRs Eric Moulds and Peerless Price. The Bills want to be more physical on offense -- they drafted OT Mike Williams in the first round -- and throw deep more often.

Achilles' heel: The Bills' defense lacked leadership a year ago and was poor against the run. Free-agent MLB London Fletcher, moving over from the Rams, should help in both areas.

Pressure's on: Gregg Williams, who got the job over the Ravens' Marvin Lewis a year ago. Williams' defense was slow to jell and his offense too inconsistent. He can't afford another 3-13, and he's got the added pressure of playing in what might be the NFL's best division.

Ticket to San Diego: The Bills need to get to respectability first, but it things break right, they could have a special year. It all depends on Bledsoe, who was 7-19 in his last 26 starts for New England.

Miami Dolphins

Last season: 11-5, second place. Lost wild-card game to Ravens, 20-3.

Coach: Dave Wannstedt (62-66), third year with Dolphins, ninth in NFL.

Story line: With RB Ricky Williams, will the Dolphins become a power running team and a Super Bowl favorite?

Power game: Williams gives the Dolphins what they haven't had since the Don Shula coaching era -- a running game. If he can overcome his tendency to fumble, he will keep Miami's fine defense off the field more and make Jay Fiedler a better quarterback. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner will use Williams in the passing game a lot.

Achilles' heel: As valiant as the Dolphins' defense has been, it wasn't very good against the run last year, ranking only 17th. The team revamped the defensive line after losing two defensive ends in free agency, and brought in defensive linemen Rob Burnett, Jay Williams and Larry Chester.

Pressure's on: Ricky Williams. He's expected to take the Dolphins to the Super Bowl, but he wasn't the answer in New Orleans after the Saints traded their entire draft for him.

Ticket to San Diego: The Dolphins are usually terrible in December. But a strong running game might change that and their usual dreary postseason flop.

New England Patriots

Last season: 11-5, first place. Beat St. Louis in Super Bowl, 20-17.

Coach: Bill Belichick (52-60), third year with Patriots, eighth in NFL.

Story line: Was the Patriots' magical season accomplished with smoke and mirrors or can they duplicate their success?

Power game: Belichick's expertise on defense powered the Patriots' season-closing nine-game winning streak. The Patriots led the AFC in red-zone defense and ranked sixth in the NFL in points allowed. They played their best when it mattered most.

Achilles' heel: The offense hit its stride after QB Tom Brady took over for Bledsoe early in the year, but generated just one touchdown per game in the postseason. The Patriots need more. In the off-season, Belichick made a key move by upgrading the team's receiving positions.

Pressure's on: RB Antowain Smith. Cut by the Bills last year, Smith rushed for 1,157 yards and 12 TDs. He needs to duplicate his performance and keep the heat off Brady.

Ticket to San Diego: The Patriots have a lot of room for improvement, despite their Super Bowl victory. But if Brady plays at a Pro Bowl level again, they should make the playoffs and get a chance.

New York Jets

Last season: 10-6, third place. Lost wild-card game to Oakland, 38-24.

Coach: Herman Edwards (10-6), second year with Jets.

Story line: After getting the Jets to the playoffs in his first year, can Edwards take them deep into the postseason with aging Vinny Testaverde at quarterback?

Power game: RB Curtis Martin, 29, gets better with age. He rushed for a career-high 1,513 yards last season, averaging 4.5 a carry. That bailed out the 29th-ranked pass offense and kept the Jets in almost every game.

Achilles' heel: The Jets had trouble defending the run last season. In an overhaul of their defense, they brought in DTs Josh Evans and Larry Webster and LB Sam Cowart. They won last year because they were opportunistic on defense, leading the league with a plus-18 in turnovers.

Pressure's on: Testaverde. At 38, he's coming off foot surgery, and he also missed time in training camp with a jammed thumb. He was 15-14 in TD-to-interception ratio a year ago. Chad Pennington is still waiting for his shot, although he's no sure thing.

Ticket to San Diego: Under the charismatic Edwards, the Jets should have won the AFC East. If their rebuilt defense jells, they could make a strong playoff push.

TEAM PREVIEWS BY KEN MURRAY

MVP candidate -- WR Troy Broan, Patriots

Impact rookie -- TE Randy McMichael, Dolphins

Best pickup -- QB Drew Bledsoe, Bills

Biggest loss -- QB Drew Bledsoe, Patriots

Most Vulnerable -- Coach Gregg Williams, Bills

Best comeback -- LB Sam Cowart, Jets.

STAFF PREDICTIONS

Jamison Hensley

JETS -- SUPER BOWL WINNER.

Dolphins*

Patriots

Bills

Ed Lee

Jets

Patriots*

Dolphins

Bills

Brent Jones

Dolphins

PATRIOTS*

Bills

Jets

Ken Murray

Jets

Patriots*

Dolphins

Mike Preston

Patriots

Jets*

Dolphins

Bills

* -- Wild card team, ALL CAPS -- AFC champ,

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