As the season draws near, NFL on FOX analyst Brian Billick gives his predictions for each division in 2012.
New England Patriots
Last season, the Patriots were the sixth-worst defense in NFL history in terms of yards per game. Let me say that again. The Patriots were the sixth-worst defense in NFL history. Sounds strange to say for a team that is the defending AFC champion, but when you have Tom Brady under center, he hides a lot of flaws on the rest of the football team. The defensive holes were recognized and addressed in the NFL Draft as New England drafted defense with its first six picks. Of that class, first rounders Chandler Jones (defensive end) and Dont’a Hightower (inside linebacker) should most immediately move into starting roles early in the season. Something the defense did well in 2011 that it will need to carry over into this season was create turnovers. They finished tied for third in the NFL with 34 takeaways, and giving Brady an additional 34 possessions is lethal to opponents.
On offense, while the Patriots must replace retired tackle Matt Light, the biggest loss may actually be BenJarvus Green-Ellis. While he wasn’t a flashy player in the backfield, he was extremely reliable. Green-Ellis has yet to fumble in the NFL, a span that covers 536 offensive touches. The running back position remains the biggest question mark as New England waits to see if Shane Vereen or Steven Ridley will step up in their sophomore season. An interesting wrinkle: tight end Aaron Hernandez has taken extra reps both during and after practice from the running back position, and actually taking handoffs, not just as a decoy.
As if the Patriots need any help returning to the playoffs, the schedule is definitely favorable for them to do just that. The Pats will have their toughest road game in Week 3 against the Ravens, but get to host the Texans, Broncos and 49ers, the toughest remaining opponents on the schedule.
It will be Bill Belichick’s 13th season in Foxboro, but there will be two new coordinators — sort of. Josh McDaniels previously called plays for Brady from 2006-08 before leaving to become head coach of the Broncos. After McDaniels served as offensive coordinator for St. Louis in 2011, the Patriots made an unprecedented move in hiring him just before the playoffs that season. On defense, it will be last year’s secondary coach, Matt Patricia as coordinator, his first experience ever running a defense.
Prediction: 11-5, first in the AFC East.
The sexy offseason acquisition of Mario Williams from Houston was needed in Buffalo, not only to bolster the 26th-ranked defense, but to prove to the fans that the Bills are willing to spend the money to become competitive again. Add defensive end Mark Anderson, another offseason acquisition, and defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, and Buffalo has many believing this to be the best front four in the game. While that is yet to be determined, the added talent will help move the Bills out of the cellar of the division. It won’t be easy though.
In recent seasons, the Bills have given away two starting left tackles to the Philadelphia Eagles — Jason Peters and Demetress Bell, and will now rely on rookie Cordy Glenn to protect the blindside. Glenn is a solid lineman, but he will have some growing pains as he transitions into the NFL and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will be looking over his shoulder because of it. On defense, the Bills’ added pass rushing will assist a defense that gave up more than 232 yards per game through the air last season, as will first-round pick Stephon Gilmore in the secondary. He has the ability to be a special player in this league.
Unlike last season, when the Bills took advantage of an easy schedule to jump out to a 5-2 start before suffering through a seven-game losing streak when the competition stiffened, the 2012 schedule is front-loaded with tough opponents for the Bills. After road games against the Texans and the Patriots in Weeks 9 and 10, the Bills will play the Dolphins twice as well as the Colts, Jaguars, Rams and Seahawks before hosting the Jets to end the regular season. Those are games in which the Bills should at the very least be competitive.
Head coach Chan Gailey, offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins, and general manager Buddy Nix all enter their third season in their respective positions, while Dave Wannstedt takes over as defensive coordinator after a season as the Bills’ assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach.
Prediction: 9-7, second in the AFC East.
New York Jets
The Jets, and more specifically head coach Rex Ryan, have built a reputation for being a tough, physical and in-your-face football team. They are also known for their big personalities . . . on and off the field. But that may finally be catching up to them. The 2011 season started with yet another Super Bowl prediction from Ryan and ended with top players describing the locker room as being in disarray. So in true New York fashion, what do the Jets do? They go out and sign the most highly talked about player in all of the NFL, Tim Tebow. Both Tebow and Mark Sanchez have publicly handled the potential QB controversy in a very professional manner, but I’m not convinced Sanchez needed a fire lit under his read end as much as he needed a staff to stand behind him and show confidence in his abilities. Let’s not forget, this is a team that had the AFC Championship Game in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, both times led by Sanchez. With that said, I do understand the strategy behind signing a dynamic player and leader like Tebow. When the Jets utilized the so-called wildcat offense with Brad Smith, it was very difficult for teams to prepare for, and now with an actual quarterback running the wildcat, the creativity is endless. But, and this is a very big but, no matter if it is Sanchez or Tebow, the Jets’ quarterback will be running for his life if the team does not address a number of concerns along the right side of the offensive line.
On defense, the Jets allowed more than 20 points per game for the first time in Ryan’s three seasons in charge and finished tied for 17th in sacks in 2011. That is atypical of Ryan and was quickly addressed in the NFL Draft by selecting the most prototypical pass rusher available in Quinton Coples with the 16th overall pick.
The Jets catch a break by hosting three of their four West Coast opponents (if you count the Cardinals) and only have to cross country once, to play the Seattle Seahawks (in Week 10, and coming off the Jets’ bye week). Additionally, five out of New York’s first eight games will be at home, but that also means the Jets will close out the season with five of their last eight on the road. Better hope to start fast and carry that momentum into the second half of the season.
The most notable change to the staff is at offensive coordinator, where Tony Sparano takes over for Brian Schottenheimer. Sparano has already made changes in practice, such as the entire offense, even the slappies on the sidelines, must chase down the ball carrier after an interception or fumble recovery — not necessarily something that will directly correlate with on-field situations, but it is the discipline it inspires that will make a difference.
Prediction: 8-8, third in the AFC East.
As this thing plays out in front of our very eyes, albeit through the cameras of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” I can assure you that this is as real as reality television gets. What you see is what is actually happening. And what you see is a team that is trying to find its identity. The Dolphins made the right move in selecting Ryan Tannehill eighth overall and inserting him into the starting lineup. You don’t use a pick that high on a guy to sit on the shelf for a season or two. Yes, Matt Moore was the team MVP last season, but that was a team that only went .500 over the course of his 12 starts. In this league, it is all about winning now, and .500 will rarely get you in the playoffs, and that is all Moore can get you. So yes, you start the rookie, and yes, I will be critical of him being a first-round talent during the evaluation process. Only time will tell, but the Dolphins need to find out right now.
As for the remainder of the roster, the wide receivers are an obvious concern, but I do like what the running-back combination of Daniel Thomas and Reggie Bush bring to the table. Defensively, the team was sixth-best in points allowed last season, but struggled to stop the pass and to create turnovers. That was under former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, one of the best in the business. With the offseason acquisition of cornerback Richard Marshall from Arizona to join Sean Smith, the Dolphins sport a secondary strong enough to convince the team to trade Vontae Davis to the Colts.
Coming off the bye in Week 7, the Dolphins have a stretch of five winnable games against the Jets, Colts, Titans, Bills and Seahawks. But the key will be how they handle the start of the season. Last season’s 0-7 start proved too difficult to overcome and Miami will need to be at least 3-3 heading into that bye week if it wants to even sniff the playoffs.
Joe Philbin enters his first season as an NFL head coach, but he has plenty of offensive pedigree on his resume. Combine that pedigree with new offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and the Dolphins should have a bright future on the offensive side of the ball. It will be Kevin Coyle’s first opportunity as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, although he has served in that capacity for Syracuse, Maryland, and Fresno State. Prior to joining the Dolphins, Coyle was the defensive backs coach for 11 seasons in Cincinnati.