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As I look at the AFC East race, as I evaluate the four teams, it is abundantly clear that this season represents an excellent opportunity for the Dolphins to challenge the Patriots. Couldn’t say that last season. Or the season before. Or for most of the past decade, for that matter.
But times are a changing in this division.
In New England, Tom Brady is 36 years old and his arsenal of big play alternatives has been vastly depleted. In New York, the Jets are trying to settle on a starting quarterback and now the natives are starting to wonder whether they have one in house. In Buffalo, there is a new head coach and so much is depending on a rookie quarterback who is still recovering from a knee injury. Enough uncertainty for you?
In other words, there is a crack in the door for the Dolphins. How large that crack becomes, and whether they ease through that space, depends on themselves far more than their opponents. But the crack is still there, punctuated by questions at the very top of the division with a New England offense that faces some serious challenges.
Yes, the Patriots are still the favorites and rightly so. I don’t care how old Brady is, he can still beat you with his mind as well as his arm. Nonetheless, it has been a while since the league-wide experts have given the Dolphins this much of a chance to make it interesting.
When the Dolphins won the AFC East in 2008, they really snuck up on the field. I mean, they were 1-15 the season before so nobody really saw it coming, nobody could envision Chad Pennington arriving on their doorstep. But four straight losing seasons have followed and the Dolphins, up until this past offseason, showed few signs of narrowing the gap. This offseason changed all of that. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that the Dolphins now have the best defense in the division and the best set of wide receivers. As for quarterbacks, how can you not put Ryan Tannehill second behind Brady in the division? I mean, the Bills are relying on rookie E.J. Manuel and the Jets aren’t sure who to rely on. See what I mean?
This offseason changed all of that. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that the Dolphins now have the best defense in the division and the best set of wide receivers. As for quarterbacks, how can you not put Ryan Tannehill second behind Brady in the division? I mean, the Bills are relying on rookie E.J. Manuel and the Jets aren’t sure who to rely on. See what I mean?
Questions. Every AFC East team has plenty of them. Here’s my top three for each team:
• Is Tannehill the answer? Four words that really sum up the plight of this franchise.
• Will the offensive line come together, specifically at left tackle with Jonathan Martin?
• Can the defense produce the takeaways that Joe Philbin has been stressing after such a dismal performance a season ago?
New England Patriots:
• With the departure of Wes Welker, will Brady have enough big play targets to produce the type of numbers he has put up in the past?
• What about tight end? With Rob Gronkowski still recovering from major surgery and with Aaron Hernandez now out of the picture, who will step up as the every down player Brady needs and covets?
• With the Pats secondary ranked 29th in the league last season, and only marginal upgrades in the offseason, could this be their most glaring weakness once again?
• Is there any reason to believe that quarterback E.J. Manuel, when he gets healthy again, can be a difference-maker in his first season and after a hot and cold career at Florida State?
• Can C.J. Spiller continue his rapid ascent and become one of the premier playmakers in the league? There is every reason to believe that Spiller is the real deal, but will he be asked to do too much to compensate for other shortcomings?
• Can the Bills stop the run? A year ago they were one of the worst rushing defenses in the league. They gave up almost 5 yards a carry. A repeat performance could be too much for this team to overcome.
New York Jets:
• Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith? Or does it really matter? Both struggled in the preseason and neither has justified confidence. Will the most important position on the team be a struggle all season long?
• Will there be any semblance of a rushing attack to take some of the heat off the quarterback? Chris Ivory appears to be the go-to back, but can he produce what the Jets need?
• Is the defense good enough to make up for the limitations on offense, especially with a pass rush that seems to lack difference-makers?
Indeed, in many ways this is a new look AFC East. The question that begs to be asked: Will there be a new look at the top?
Coming Wednesday morning: A.C. in the A.M. tackles questions from the fanss.
The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed by The Finsiders Blog represent those of individual writers, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions, policies or desires of the Miami Dolphins organization, front office, coaches and executives. Writers' views are formulated independently from any inside information and/or conversation with Dolphins officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.
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