Nfl Preview 2004

The League

September 09, 2004|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN STAFF

DIVISION PREVIEW

AFC EAST

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

1 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Bill Belichick (82-70), fifth season with Patriots, 10th in NFL.

Last season: 14-2, first place. Beat Carolina in the Super Bowl, 32-29.

Burning question

Will disgruntled CB Ty Law and malcontent RB Corey Dillon disrupt team harmony or join the flow?

Must-do project

Commit to a running game. QB Tom Brady (right) has been able to produce big plays even without a reliable ground game, but Dillon could make him -- and the offense -- awesome.

Team MVP

Brady's at his best in the big games.

On the hot seat

After a contentious offseason haggling over his contract, Law will try to duplicate an almost perfect 2003 season on the corner.

Upside

DT Vince Wilfork fell to the Patriots' 21st pick in the first round, filling their biggest hole on defense.

Downside

The last time they won the Super Bowl, they missed the playoffs the following year.

Projection

The rest of the division is in transition; the Patriots should dominate and be in position to repeat.

BUFFALO BILLS

2 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Mike Mularkey (0-0), first season with Bills.

Last season: 6-10, third place, under Gregg Williams.

Burning question

Can RB Willis McGahee (right) accept a backup role behind starter Travis Henry and wait his turn?

Must-do project

Mularkey and QB coach Sam Wyche must restore Drew Bledsoe's confidence, which took a beating last year when the Bills were 28th in passing.

Team MVP

MLB London Fletcher was the centerpiece of the rebuilding job done by the deposed Williams.

On the hot seat

The arrival of WR Lee Evans with a late first-round pick could cost Josh Reed playing time and catches.

Upside

Mularkey got a Pro Bowl season out of Kordell Stewart in Pittsburgh (2001) and helped Tommy Maddox win a starting job in Pittsburgh. Now he'll work on Bledsoe.

Downside

J.P. Losman's leg injury will slow his path to the starting job.

Projection

The Bills have enough weapons to threaten on offense; it's unlikely they've got enough to catch New England, though.

NEW YORK JETS

3 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Herman Edwards (26-25), fourth season with Jets.

Last season: 6-10, fourth place.

Burning question

How quickly can the Jets' defense absorb the attack schemes of new coordinator Donnie Henderson and be playoff-ready?

Must-do project

Fix the run defense. DT Dewayne Robertson was a non-factor last season as a rookie; he needs to become an enforcer this year.

Team MVP

When QB Chad Pennington went down last year, the Jets collapsed. They are a different team without him.

On the hot seat

RB Curtis Martin is 31 and slowing down. Former Maryland RB LaMont Jordan has been waiting four years for the job.

Upside

A year after losing playmaker Laveranues Coles, the Jets found his replacement in WR Justin McCareins, acquired in a trade with Tennessee.

Downside

The defense got much-needed speed by adding LBs Eric Barton and first-round pick Jonathan Vilma, but the scheme will take time to master.

Projection

Depending on how quickly the Jets adapt to Henderson's defense, they could make a playoff run.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

4 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Dave Wannstedt (83-82), fifth season with Dolphins, 11th in NFL.

Last season: 10-6, second place.

Burning question

Does it matter who plays quarterback -- Jay Fiedler or A. J. Feeley -- with this ravaged offense?

Must-do project

Find some offensive replacements fast. After losing RB Ricky Williams and WR David Boston, the suspect offensive line looks like a strength.

Team MVP

DE Jason Taylor is the leader of a defense that knows it has no margin for error now.

On the hot seat

With a mandate to make the playoffs, Wannstedt was struggling to replace injured and departed players all through training camp.

Upside

The Dolphins' defense is still playoff caliber.

Downside

It's hard to imagine the Dolphins will be able to overcome all the turnover they've had since last season.

Projection

The playoffs look hopeless and Wannstedt is left with a salvage job.

SCHEDULE

NEW ENGLAND

9-9 Indianapolis, 9 p.m.

9-19 at Arizona, 4:15 p.m.

9-26 Open

10-3 at Buffalo, 1 p.m.

10-10 Miami, 1 p.m.

10-17 Seattle, 1 p.m.

10-24 N.Y. Jets, 4:05 p.m.

10-31 at Pittsburgh, 4:15 p.m.

11-7 at St. Louis, 4:15 p.m.

11-14 Buffalo, 8:30 p.m.

11-22 at Kansas City, 9 p.m.

11-28 Ravens, 1 p.m.

12-5 at Cleveland, 1 p.m.

12-12 Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

12-20 at Miami, 9 p.m.

12-26 at N.Y. Jets, 4:05 p.m.

1-2 San Francisco, 1 p.m.

BUFFALO

9-12 Jacksonville, 1 p.m.

9-19 at Oakland, 4:15 p.m.

9-26 Open

10-3 New England, 1 p.m.

10-10 at N.Y. Jets, 4:05 p.m.

10-17 Miami, 1 p.m.

10-24 at Ravens, 1 p.m.

10-31 Arizona, 1 p.m.

11-7 N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m.

11-14 at New England, 8:30 p.m.

11-21 St. Louis, 1 p.m.

11-28 at Seattle, 4:15 p.m.

12-5 at Miami, 1 p.m.

12-12 Cleveland, 1 p.m.

12-19 at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

12-26 at San Francisco, 4:05 p.m.

1-2 Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

NEW YORK JETS

9-12 Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

9-19 at San Diego, 4:15 p.m.

9-26 Open

10-3 at Miami, 4:15 p.m.

10-10 Buffalo, 4:05 p.m.

10-17 San Francisco, 1 p.m.

10-24 at New England, 4:05 p.m.

11-1 Miami, 9 p.m.

11-7 at Buffalo, 1 p.m.

11-14 Ravens, 1 p.m.

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