By Marc Lawrence of Playbook.com
The East is the NFL Beast when it comes to conference championship game appearances this new millennium.
With NFL ‘East’ division teams leading the charge with a combined total of 16 games played in conference title tilts since 2000, including a league high six championship game appearances games by squads located in the AFC East, it speaks to the strength of this group.
Like turn signals on an automobile, coaches and ownership are major indicators when determining which direction teams in this division are often headed.
Leading the charge is Mr. Personality himself, Bill Belichick and his New England Patriots. While his persona is creepy, his manhandling of AFC East division foes that are off back-to-back losses is downright sinister, going 22-3 SU and 21-4 ATS in his NFL career in these affairs.
The Jets managed to win 24 games in Rex Ryan’s first two years at the helm. That total was severed to 8 last season as they spent the holidays at home for the first time in Ryan’s tenure. They will need to sweeten a sour 1-7 SU and ATS mark in games off a double-digit loss under Ryan should they look to gain their winning ways.
Meanwhile, Miami’s continue under owner Stephen Ross as the Dolphins are a dismal 9-15 SU and ATS in games at Sun Life Stadium since Ross became majority owner of the squad in 2009. As a result Tony Sparano was dispatched in favor of Joe Philbin as Miami’s new head coach.
And then there’s Buffalo, a team that has enjoyed only one winning season since 1999. Chan Gailey’s 10-22 straight up win-loss record with the Bills put him on the hot seat in 2012.
When it comes to deciding which road to travel with this division, it would serve you well to remember this powerful stat from our database: Since 2000, the AFC EAST division’s 159-107-5 ATS mark away from home in games versus sub .667 opposition, including a sterling 18-5 ATS record in this role when taking eight or more points.
Note: Team writeups by this author were excerpted from the 2012 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
Team Theme: WANNA TASTE
A defense that has declined each of the last three years – and allowed a league-high 5,938 yards last season – got the message and took major steps to rectify the situation this offseason. New defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt was brought in to orchestrate a makeover. It started with the signing of pass rushers Mario Williams (Texans) and Mark Anderson (Patriots) and continued with four defensive player selections in the first five rounds of this year’s draft. Additionally, continued improvement from DL Marcell Dareus, the No. 3 overall pick in last year’s draft, is also being anticipated. With the offense making huge strides in yards gained and points scored under head coach Chan Gailey, retaining WR Stevie Johnson was critical to its success. None of it works, however, unless the offense finds a way to better protect Ryan Fitzpatrick, the human piñata playing quarterback. It’s been 12 years since the Bills last had a taste of playoff water, the longest dry spell in the NFL. With the positive offseason moves, fans are drinking the Kool-Aid in Buffalo this year.
PLAY ON: at NY Jets (9/9)
Stat You Will Like: The Bills own four divisional wins the last four seasons.
IN THE STATS: The Bills allowed more than 400 yards in half their games last season.
Team Theme: SHUFFLE THE DECK AND DEAL
To understand the importance Don Shula and Dan Marino had on this franchise, mull this over: since Shula retired in 1995 and Marino in 1999, the Dolphins have had eight head coaches and 16 different starting quarterbacks, while going 1-3 SU and ATS in four playoff games. Talk about a once proud program badly in need of stability. The latest coach is Joe Philbin, most recently OC with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The newest quarterback is (take your choice) David Garrard, Matt Moore and/or Ryan Tannehill. Philbin’s new offensive coordinator is Mike Sherman, former head coach with the Packers from 2000-05, and most recently Texas A&M where he worked with Tanneyhill. The backfield features Reggie Bush, Daniel Thomas and rookie speedster Lamar Miller from Miami Florida. On the defensive front, former coordinator Mike Nolan headed off to Atlanta, with Kevin Coyle replacing Nolan’s 3-4 defense with a 4-3. While it’s doubtful Philbin and Tannehill will ever be mentioned in the same breath with Shula and Marino, those are the cards this team has been dealt. Go Fish.
PLAY ON: at Cincinnati (10/7)
Stat You Will Like: The Dolphins host only one team this year that made the playoffs last season.
IN THE STATS: The Dolphins are 11-7 ‘ITS’ in their last 18 road games.
Team Theme: EASY DOES IT
Last year the Patriots advanced to their 5th Super Bowl in 12 seasons under Bill Belichick (thanks to QB Tom Brady’s 5,235 passing yards) and they came within a whisker of hoisting the trophy despite a defense that was as bad as the offense was good. Through it all, the Pats were rewarded with the softest schedule of all teams this season with 2012’s foes going 116-140 (.452) overall last season. Better news is the return of OC Josh McDaniels, who will be reunited once again with Brady where together they were last seen constructing an NFL record 18-win season in 2007. He’ll work with Pro Bowl WR Wes Welker, record-setting TE Rob Gronkowski and fellow TE Aaron Hernandez. Add newly acquired free agent WR’s Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney, and the Pats own as lethal a passing attack as the league will allow. With McDaniels on hand, look for Belichick to take a more hands-on approach with the defense. With only one road game against a playoff team this season, the Pats are looking to take an easy road back to the playoffs.
PLAY ON: at Miami (12/2)
Stat You Will Like: Tom Brady is 11-1 SU and ATS as a dog off a loss in his NFL career.
IN THE STATS: The Pats allowed season-high, or 2nd-high, yards to six opponents last season.
Team Theme: NO HARD KNOCKS
After reaching the AFC title game each of the previous two seasons, the Jets were home for the holidays last year. That’s not to say they weren’t in position to attempt the hat-trick as they were the wild-card leader with three weeks remaining in the season before a 0-3 collapse sealed their fate. A big part of the cave-in was a sharp decline in the passing game (QB Mark Sanchez, in particular). Further complicating matters was the decline (38 YPG) of the ground game as opponents generated more rushing attempts than the Jets last year. FYI: Rex Ryan’s teams had 189 and 126 more rushing attempts than the opponent in his first two years with the team. Rex recognized the deficiencies and immediately acquired the services of backup Broncos QB Tim Tebow the day after Peyton Manning tied the knot with Denver. It wasn’t a knock on Sanchez, winked Ryan. Instead, it was the opportunity to address glaring weaknesses and iron out dissension among the ranks. It remains to be seen whether Sanchez or Tebow becomes the big apple, but much like when Adam took the first bite, nothing was the much the same thereafter.
PLAY ON: at Miami (9/23)
Stat You Will Like: The Jets allowed 127 more points last season than they did in Ryan’s first year with the team.
IN THE STATS: The Jets held five foes to season-low, or 2nd-low, yards last season.