More than any other division, the AFC East mirrors a European Monarchy. You have a King (New England Patriots), a Duke (New York Jets), a Knight (Miami Dolphins) and a Jester (Buffalo Bills). Year after year, each team might try and usurp another team’s higher status but, by season’s end, the order of the hierarchy sorts itself out. Here’s your AFC East history lesson: The New England Patriots have won eight of the last nine division titles. Even crazier is that the one year the Patriots didn’t win the division – 2008 – New England’s 11-5 record still tied for the division lead. It didn’t make the playoffs, however, because of the tiebreaker. That essentially means the Patriots have been the undoubted Kings of the AFC East since 2003. Then you have the wannabe King – the New York Jets. Rex Ryan’s club hasn’t finished higher than second since winning the division with a 9-7 record in 2002. Like archaic Dukes, the Jets have been known to cause stirs by voicing their opinions and stirring the pot. Nevertheless, the Duke never usurps the King and the Jets have always played second fiddle to the Patriots.
The Miami Dolphins are the ever-perfect Knight; One year of glory (2008) where the Knight was praised for his wonderful work serves as an outlier to a career of brushing elbows with the peasants. Miami’s had its share of ups and downs but the Dolphins haven’t really beenrelevant since the early 2000s. The magical 11-5 season in 2008 came on the heels of putrid 1-15 campaign. Every once in a while the Dolphins are in the spotlight, but like the Knight, it spends most of its time working in the background. Lastly, you have the Buffalo Bills who would rather experience four straight years of Super Bowl heartbreak again than go through the recent trend of getting excited when the teams wins two games in a row. The Bills, like Jesters, are here to make the world laugh. It’s exactly what Buffalo’s done for years. Buffalo not only loses but it does so in comedic fashion (remember the Monday Night game against Dallas five years ago)? Ironically, that 2007 season was the last time Buffalo didn’t finish fourth or in a tie for third in the division. That is what Buffalo is to the AFC East and, to be honest, the entire NFL. Yes, there are worse teams, but no team tries so hard to become relevant year after year yet always embarrasses itself.
Looking at the over/under win totals for the AFC East for 2012 makes you realize just how ingrained the division’s chain of command has become:
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Since New England’s first Super Bowl title in 2001 here are the Patriots’ yearly win totals: 11, 9, 14, 14, 10, 12, 16, 11, 10, 14, 13. That should tell you one thing is pellucid: New England is a lock for 10 wins, schedule aside. The Patriots just win games. Yes, every once in a while the opposition pitches a near-perfect game plan which rattles Tom Brady and, in turn, turns the prolific offense into the New England Browns. Still, the conundrum of a question comes when trying to figure out if New England will win the AFC East with a solid-but-not-spectacular 11-5 record or a coast-to-the-finish-line 13-3 mark (or better).
As previously mentioned there are so many locks on this schedule that New England should already have the “x” by their name in the NFL standings as having already clinched a playoff spot. There are really only six games that could go either way: At Baltimore (Week 3), Denver (Week 5), at Seattle (Week 6), at NY Jets (Week 12), Houston (Week 14), and San Francisco (Week 15). There isn’t a single other contest on the schedule that I have to think twice about. Much of that belief comes from the ineptitude that is the rest of the division. Miami and Buffalo, as you’ll read about below, are cute teams that might put a slight scare into the Patriots; but let’s be honest: neither team has the coaching staff nor the talent to win the game regardless of location. While there are some big-time games on tap for Brady & Co. there are also some clunkers. Patriots-Cardinals? Snooze fest. Patriots-Colts? This isn’t 2008 and Peyton Manning is no longer in Indianapolis if you hadn’t heard. Patriots-Jaguars? The Jags cheerleaders don’t get enough TV time for this game to deserve your attention.
Why they’ll go over 12 wins (-115)
Because the Patriots usually do, right? That’s the biggest misconception about New England. While the Tom Brady era has brought five Super Bowl appearances and three titles, it doesn’t always come from 14-2 seasons. In fact, New England has only won more than 12 games five times in the past 11 years. It’s won 11 or fewer games five times and finished 12-4 once. That tells you we have a perfect over/under win total here. Nevertheless, 13 wins looks good for a few reasons: First, if you assume the Patriots win the 10 games not mentioned as “toss-ups” in the previous section, New England would only need to split the six-game stretch of Baltimore-Denver-Seattle-NY Jets-Houston-San Francisco. If New England holds serve at home you’ve got three wins. It should also be noted that Denver and Seattle aren’t exactly juggernauts. Denver’s Peyton Manning effect is the reason that game could be entertaining and, as has been proven true over the years, east coach teams playing in Seattle don’t tend to fly back home happy. Yet, if somehow New England won those games as it should, it would only need to win one of the four real tough games to hit 13 wins. That seems more than doable given the offense’s history and an extremely underrated 2012 draft. When you combined Brady’s presence with an ever-improving defense the Patriots will be in every game. Bill Belichick could line up in the backfield for this team and it would still be an offensive force because of the way Brady turns good-but-not-great wide receivers into Pro Bowlers. Wes Welker is a real solid wide receiver but if you put him on Detroit, for instance, he wouldn’t come close to 120 receptions in a season. This type of plug-a-new-guy-in-and-watch-him-excel system coupled with a few future Hall of Famers and the Patriots are perennial dozen-wins-a-year team. It should also be noted Candor Gaming has New England as one of two teams – Green bay being the other – that is favored in every game this season.
Why they’ll fall under 12 wins (-105)
One word: complacency. Usually the Patriots are fighting for something. Sometimes it’s the undefeated season; other times it’s the No. 1 seed in the AFC. If somehow New England staggers out of the gate and loses three of its first six games (assume it beats Tennessee, Arizona and Buffalo but loses its three “toughies” to Baltimore, Denver and Seattle), the 3-3 start might make the immediate goal just an AFC East title rather than clinching the top seed in the conference. With the expectations of the rest of its divisional counterparts being fairly low the Patriots could decide to get healthy for a playoff run while coasting to a 10-6 division championship as all other teams sit below .500. There’s also the injury factor. When Matt Cassel stepped in during the 2008 season he filled in well enough to guide the Pats to an 11-5 mark. If Brady gets hurt again, expect Brian Hoyer to lead a similar charge. Remember, however, 11-5 doesn’t get you the over despite being a really, really good year. Another thing to watch is how much opposing teams try and mirror the New York Giants’ game plan from the Super Bowl (or the regular season win in 2011 or the 2007 Super Bowl). In all cases, relentlessly pressuring Brady and moving him “off the spot” worked in two of the biggest games in New England history. If a team wants to steal a regular season win it might behoove it to copy that game plan.
Talent-wise, there is no way this team should finish worse than 12-4. With the logical thinking that New England’s floor is 12-4 it makes the over play a no-brainer. The schedule certainly helps, as does the watered-down AFC East. Now, I’ll say this for people who believe in the Jets and Bills: If you think both those teams will split with the Patriots – a fairly big gamble – then I’d slide you to the under as that thinking has 11-5 season written all over it. But, since I don’t believe that’ll happen (and I’d encourage you to think along the same lines) it’s more likely you’ll get your wager back at 12-4 or win a couple bags of chips when New England posts another ho-hum 13-3 campaign and home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
NEW YORK JETS
We’re just a year removed from the Jets reaching the AFC Championship Game for a second straight season. The surprising 2009 campaign, the first year under Rex Ryan’s reign, the Jets finished the regular season 9-7. After improving to 11-5 in 2010 his bravado message and ability to push the right buttons seemed to disappear during last year’s 8-8 finish. If there is one thing about Ryan’s Jets it is that winning the headline battle is seemingly just as important as winning games on the field. Obviously, no one in the Jets organization would actually say that, but you have to give props to a team that finished .500 last season, saw its state rival win the Super Bowl, yet still dominated offseason news. Adding Tim Tebow as a backup quarterback and also divulging that he’ll play a role on special teams soaked up two weeks worth of headlines and buzz. When mini camp opens it’ll feel like HBO’s Hard Knocks all over again.
Many have described the Jets’ 2012 schedule as brutal, but I don’t think it’s the case. It’s slightly harder than the average and maybe the marquee games are tougher than most, but there are still plenty of “easy” games on the slate. Four of the first six are at home, although two of those have the 49ers and Texans coming to town. After opening with the Bills the Jets travel to Pittsburgh (Week 2). After three straight home games ends with a should-be route of the lowly Colts in Week 6, Rex’s boys visit Foxborough. After the Week 9 bye, the only games that seem difficult would be at Seattle (Week 10), vs. New England on Thanksgiving (Week 12) and vs. San Diego (Week 16). Traveling to Jacksonville after hosting Arizona shouldn’t worry a team with serious playoff aspirations such as New York. If Vegas is right, the Jets will be sitting at 8-7 with the regular season finale at Buffalo to be played. The expected-to-surprise-again Bills aren’t expected to be a pushover (hah!) in 2012. (More on that later)
Why they’ll go over 8.5 wins (-140)
Put simply, as bad as the Jets have seemed in recent years they’ve still topped 8.5 wins twice. The schedule isn’t that difficult. If you assume worst-case scenario and chalk up two losses to New England, defeats at Pittsburgh, Houston, San Francisco, at Seattle, at Tennessee, vs. San Diego and at Buffalo you have an 7-9 team. It doesn’t seem plausible that the lowly Dolphins, Cardinals, Jaguars or Colts should give the Jets much of a game, so that’s five gimme wins right there. The key, as it always seems to be, is Mark Sanchez’ development. If the Jets have a more balanced running game – something Rex Ryan has stressed it’ll have in 2012 – the Jets’ ground-and-pound formula should allow Sanchez to thrive in the make-plays-when-needed role rather than asking him to be the savior. If our worst-case scenario comes true it would mean Rex Ryan’s club didn’t pull a single upset over the course of the season. That hasn’t happened in the past three years; the Jets always seem to steal a victory or two. (2011 – vs. Dallas and San Diego; 2010 – vs. New England, at Denver, at Pittsburgh; 2009 – at Houston, vs. New England, at Indianapolis). Needless to say it seems more likely than not that the Jets can scrape together nine victories.
Why they’ll fall under 8.5 wins (+120)
The J-E-T-S are like the annoying kid at school who talks the talk but never walks the walk. This team has more bark than the Jimmie Johnson Miami Hurricanes but only has a pair of flukeish AFC Championship Game trips to its credit. The psychologist in me says the Tim Tebow trade was more than just a publicity stunt; I believe the Jets, now more than ever, are not confident that Sanchez is the Sanchise. It doesn’t mean, however, that Jets brass thinks Tebow is the future, but it’s much more plausible to fans if the backup quarterback is a proven winner (regardless of how ugly it looks getting those Ws) compared to a middle-of-the-road backup such as Shaun Hill or Caleb Hanie. With so many question marks about the running game – something Rex wants to highlight – it’s difficult to imagine this team fighting for a playoff spot.
I’m not a Jets believer by any mean but I am a believer in the schedule. This sets up nicely for a 9-7 or 10-6 season because of some scheduling breaks. Talent-wise this roster is .500 at best but the bottom feeder Dolphins and Bills are handing the Jets 3-4 wins right from the start. The Week 17 game at Buffalo indeed might decide the over/under fate but you should be very confident in this team eking out nine victories in 2012. Vegas’ extra juice on the over tells you it believes Rex is good for another winning season.
These definitely aren’t Don Shula’s Dolphins. Heck, these aren’t even Ray Finkle’s Dolphins. There are questions at quarterback (Matt Moore vs. Ryan Tannehill) and while Reggie Bush’s presence in the backfield can make for explosive Sundays, he’s proven to be anything but an every-down back. Daniel Thomas and rookie Lamar Miller add hope but not certain answers. Finding a No. 1 wideout out of the Dolphins’ receiving corps is like trying to play Where’s Waldo at a Wisconsin Badgers football game. Seriously, who’s No. 1? Davone Bess? Brian Hartline? Roberto Wallace? Legedu Naanee? Clyde Gates? Julius Pruitt? Rookie B.J. Cunningham? While I love Cunningham from his days at Michigan State – he is now the school’s all-time receptions leader – he’s not a No. 1 NFL receiver. The same can be said for the rest of that group. All in all, there are a lot of questions about these Dolphins.
The headline for Miami’s NFL.com page reads, “Big Start Possible” as well as saying Miami could surprise the world with a 4-2 start heading into its Week 7 bye. Unless I forgot how to read a schedule I’m struggling to find four wins in the first six games. Miami starts at Houston, followed by home games against Oakland and the New York Jets. Two road games – at Arizona and at Cincinnati – follow before the Rams visit Sun Life Stadium. The only team Miami is definitely “better” than is St. Louis. There’s certainly a greater chance Miami starts 0-5 than it finds four wins before the bye. Five divisional games – including three on the road – come after the bye. The second half schedule also features a road game at San Francisco (Week 14).
Why they’ll go over 7.5 wins (+145)
In trying to answer this question a song keeps playing in my head: Vince McMahon’s “No Chance in Hell.” There are certain teams capable of pulling a .500 season out of nowhere, but this Miami team isn’t one of them. The Dolphins are probably the worst team in the division and, in playing the what-if game, should lose four games to the Patriots and Jets. Even the Bills could sweep Miami. Let’s give Miami a split with the Jets and Bills, equaling a 2-4 division record. The other winnable games: Oakland, at Arizona, St. Louis, at Indianapolis, Tennessee, Seattle, Jacksonville. If this scenario held the Dolphins would finish 9-7. I suppose that is possible but it’s also possible I’ll win next week’s Mega Millions.
Why they’ll fall under 7.5 wins (-165)
Where do I start? Rarely do teams with quarterback issues like the Dolphins finish .500 or better. A few recent examples are last year’s Redskins and Jaguars (both finished 5-11). Moore has proven to be a No. 2 QB at best while Tannehill undoubtedly is going to need time to prove he’s starter material in this league. As mentioned in the opening, this team is in a lot of trouble. If the Dolphins and Colts played 16 games against each other I’d be tempted to play Miami’s under 7.5 wins prop which should tell you all you need to know about the 2012 Dolphins. There are winnable games and Miami could stun an opponent or two, but I foresee a 1-5 start snowballing into a 4-12 or an at-best 5-11 finish. By putting the extra juice on taking the under Vegas all but agrees with my argument.
Without hesitation, take the under. Miami is the AFC East’s worst team and could theoretically go winless in division play. Games against the Texans, Bengals and 49ers (all on the road) and difficult home contests against Seattle and Oakland mean this could be a very long season for the Dolphins that ends with a Top 5 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. There’s no guarantee Miami picks in the Top 5, but I guarantee you can take the under to the bank. Book It!
Somewhere ESPN’s Chris Berman is still using his rah-rah “Circle the Wagons!” line. Buffalo just can’t figure it out. Some years the Bills have a formidable front seven on defense but the secondary is atrocious. When the running game is one of the best in the league the defense is porous. Could 2012 be the year everything comes together?
There’s a definite first half-second half difference in Buffalo’s schedule. Six of the Bills’ first nine games are on the road including two divisional games (Week 1 at NY Jets, Week 10 at New England) and trips to San Francisco (Week 5) and Houston (Week 9). The final seven weeks includes two games against the Dolphins, the lowly Jaguars, the lowlier Colts and the mediocre Rams. Throw in a home game against the Seahawks, who are a completely different team outside of Seattle, and the regular season finale against the Jekyll and Hyde Jets and it’s conceivable Buffalo could close with five or six wins. It’s also conceivable that games at Indianapolis and Miami as well as home games against St. Louis and Jacksonville bring Buffaloians to a stark reality: It’s just another year of disappointing Buffalo Bills football.
Why they’ll go over 7.5 wins (-210)
The last time Buffalo won eight or more games in a season was in 2004 with a 9-7 campaign in Mike Mularkey’s first of two years as head coach. Many forget those Bills started the year 0-4, eventually sitting at 3-6 before winning six of its final seven games (the only loss came in the season finale vs. Pittsburgh). That, my friends, is what’ll need to happen this season for Buffalo to cash in on the over. If we play out the best-case scenario and say Buffalo closes 6-1 in its last seven games that means Buffalo needs to find two wins in the following games: vs. Kansas City, at Cleveland, vs. New England, at Arizona, vs. Tennessee. Even giving this team six wins it’ll be gut-wrenching watching this team climb toward the .500 mark. Cleveland is expected, and rightfully so, to be one of the worst teams in the league, so playing Cleveland on the road shouldn’t make much of a difference. Ryan Fitzpatrick should be able to shred a defense like the Browns. If he can’t that’s an entirely different issue. The two-headed backfield of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller should have enough of a thunder-and-lightning feel to keep opposing defenses off balance. Throw in Stevie Johnson, the league’s most underrated and underappreciated wide receiver and the Bills should score points. Defensive addition Mario Williams will upgrade the defensive front four immensely. All this points to a team that, if it handles its business, should be playing .500 ball when the season ends.
Why they’ll fall under 7.5 wins (+170)
The easy answer: Because that’s what Buffalo does. Only three times in the past seven years has Buffalo won seven games. You have to go back to the Marv Levy and Wade Phillips era to find Buffalo teams that consistently were above .500. Heck, 1998-1999 was the last time Buffalo recorded back-to-back winning seasons. If Buffalo played in another division, 7.5 would be a nice number. But playing in the shadows of a juggernaut like the Patriots is like starting every season 0-2. While there are some nice pieces in place, there aren’t many “In Ryan Fitzpatrick We Trust” signs floating around Buffalo these days. The now big-money quarterback has flashes of being great, but then again so did Matt Cassel. Fred Jackson, as valuable as he’s been, is 31 and Spiller is more Reggie Bush “get me the ball in the open field” than he is an every-down, between-the-tackles back. The lack of a No. 2 WR threat means double teams on Johnson are no brainers for a defense and the Bills don’t have the weapons to counter it.
Until I’m proven otherwise, Buffalo is not a .500 ball club. This isn’t even a case of “every asshole can do it once” – a phrase my former high school baseball coach Dale Rumberger used to say – it’s the fact Buffalo hasn’t won eight games in eight years. When you take the historically high expectations and laughable disappointment and couple that with Vegas’ juice, it makes the under a wise play and smart investment. At -210 for going over 7.5 wins Vegas seemingly expect Buffalo to make a playoff push. I’ll happily take the +170 under knowing this team has the smell of a 6-10 or 7-9 squad. You should too. Book It!