“We’ve got to find a way to win our division.”
That was the decree from Jets head coach Rex Ryan more than seven months ago in Indianapolis. That statement kind of got lost that cold day at the annual NFL Combine because Ryan also guaranteed a Super Bowl win in 2011, but the Green & White know their best shot at getting to America’s Heartland in February is to win the AFC East.
The Patriots are two-time defending division champs, finishing 10-6 in 2009 and 14-2 in ’10. After taking three of five contests (including a 28-21 triumph at Foxboro in the AFC Divisional Round last January) against Bill Belichick and the Pats, Ryan issued a challenge to the rest of the league when training camp commenced in August.
“I think we have to find somebody out there to beat New England besides us, and I think that would help,” he said. “Anybody out there that wants to sign up for it? Are you good enough as a team to beat the New England Patriots? Forget about us, are you good enough to go out and beat the New England Patriots? I’m challenging the league.”
The Bills proved good enough to beat the Patriots — at least on Sept. 25 in Orchard Park, N.Y. — as they came from behind for their heartstopping 34-31 win. Last Sunday was an odd day in the division as the Jets would go on to drop a 34-24 decision in Oakland, marking the first time both of the division’s top dogs have lost on the same weekend since Nov. 15, 2009.
While Buffalo’s 3-0 start has been most impressive, it is way too early to make this a three-horse race. Meanwhile, the Dolphins are stuck in last place at 0-3 and they’ve already given themselves little wiggle room if they want to be in contention come December.
Let’s take a spin around the division.
BUFFALO BILLS (3-0)
Offense: 3rd overall (4th rush, 11th pass)
Defense: 26th overall (24th rush, 24th pass)
Reasons for Hope: This offensive explosion has been extraordinary. The Bills are averaging 37.7 points, 431 yards and 155 rushing yards per contest, which ranks first, third and fourth, respectively, in the league. Ryan Fitzpatrick is completing 65 percent of his passes while Fred Jackson is averaging 101 yards per game and 6.4 yards a carry. They have repeatedly spread teams out, helping a line that entered the season a huge question mark, and let Fitzy survey the field, or pounded away with Jackson. Both Stevie Johnson and David Nelson have 20 catches and even Donald Jones is coming off a 100-yard receiving effort. Belief is a funny thing and the Bills just became the first team ever to come back from 18-points-plus deficits to win in consecutive weeks.
Reasons for Concern: The lights are still out for Shawne Merriman because the Bills rank dead last in sacks with two. The team is a plus-5 in the turnover department and the DBs made a quartet of interceptions against Tom Brady, but they are thin at CB as veteran Terrence McGee (hamstring) and rookie CB Aaron Williams (collarbone) are both out with injuries. Can this defense get better because there is probably no way the offense can stay this hot? But you should take the Bills seriously because the upcoming schedule appears manageable.
Next Four Foes: @ CIN, vs. PHI, @ NYG, Bye, vs. WAS (Toronto)
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (2-1)
Offense: 1st overall (13th rush, 1st pass)
Defense: 32nd overall (10th rush, 32nd pass)
Reasons for Hope: Losing early to a division rival, on the road, is commonplace for the Pats. Before they blew the 21-0 lead at Buffalo, the Pats lost in Week 2 to the Jets in both ’09 and ’10. Brady has been tremendous, completing 70 percent of his passes for 1,327 yards with 11 TDs and a 113.8 passer rating. Wes Welker not only has a ridiculous 31 receptions but he’s averaging 14.8 yards a catch and has scored four times. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has been phenomenal in his own right, averaging 16.5 yards a reception and scoring five times.
Reasons for Concern: Is it fair to criticize anything offensively? After all, when will Brady toss four interceptions in a game next? Don’t be fooled by the Pats’ solid rush ranking — they don’t scare you on the ground and the lack of balance could be a concern. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and former Jets back Danny Woodhead combined for just 37 yards on 15 carries in the loss to the Bills.
But the primary reason for concern obviously is the defense. Ranked dead last overall, the Pats don’t get consistent pressure and the secondary and linebackers have been torn up in coverage. Devin McCourty, the Rutgers product who had seven interceptions his rookie season, has really struggled. Sure, the Pats played without four defensive regulars — S Patrick Chung, rookie CB Ras-I Dowling and DTs Albert Haynesworth and Mike Wright — in western New York, but there are a ton of question marks. You would expect to see improvement on this side during the year, but have the Pats become the Indianapolis Colts? Fascinating couple of weeks ahead for the Men of Belichick starting on the coast in Oakland and then coming home for the showdown with the Jets.
Next Four Foes: @ OAK, vs. NYJ, vs. DAL, Bye, @ PIT
MIAMI DOLPHINS (0-3)
Offense: 12th overall (7th rush, t-14th pass)
Defense: 30th overall (16 rush, 30th pass)
Reasons for Hope: Rookie back Daniel Thomas, a Kansas State product, is making a strong case to be the Dolphins’ No. 1 running back as his 41 carries, 202 yards and 4.9 average far outpace Reggie Bush’s 27-69-2.6. The Dolphins are seventh in rushing, picking up 129.7 yards a game in their winless start. Wideout Brandon Marshall has been solid with 17 receptions and a 15.4-yard average.
Reasons for Concern: Chad Henne has been sacked 11 times and he’s completing just 56.5 percent of his passes. The offense has moved the ball but has struggled in the red zone and is averaging just 17.7 points per contest (27th in the NFL). Wasn’t this defense supposed to be better? A month ago, Vontae Davis said he and Sean Smith were the best corner tandem in the league, but teams aren’t having difficulty finding holes in the secondary. Many in the media have also questioned whether the Dolphins might make a coaching move and replace Tony Sparano if they lose this week at San Diego.
Next Four Foes: @ SD, Bye, @ NYJ, vs. DEN, @ NYG
Tags: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Reggie Bush, Rex Ryan, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Shawne Merriman, Tom Brady, Tony Sparano
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