The first of eight divisional looks ahead at the upcoming NFL season. -----BUFFALO BILLS (6-10, t-3rd in AFC East, in 2011)
The good: When you're as far from a hot free-agent destination as Buffalo, and you're coming off a season where you tied for the NFL's third-lowest sack total (29) and tied for the third-worst opponents' scoring average (27.1 points allowed per game), throwing $50 million in guaranteed money at Mario Williams makes plenty of sense. He's a significant upgrade. … Between the upgraded pass rush and the drafting of first-rounder CB Stephon Gilmore, this could go from a middling pass defense to a very good one. … Previously disappointing RB C.J. Spiller averaged over 5.8 yards per carry in the Bills' last five games in 2011. He and Fred Jackson could form an elite tandem in the backfield.
The bad:Rib injury or no rib injury, Ryan Fitzpatrick went from a first-half surprise to a second-half disaster last season, and he still hasn't shown he can throw a deep ball the way a starting NFL quarterback needs to throw it. … Fitzpatrick doesn't exactly have elite talent to target. Stevie Johnson isn't the most reliable No. 1 wideout on the planet, in a number of ways, and the talent level drops off quickly beyond him. … I like the front four and the secondary, but the linebackers (Kirk Morrison, Kelvin Sheppard and Nick Barnett) could limit the effectiveness of the defense.
The verdict: If I thought Fitzpatrick could come close to duplicating his first seven games from 2011 over the course of a 16-game season, I'd put the Bills in the playoffs without a moment's hesitation. I don't, so I won't. The finish: 8-8, 2nd in AFC East
MIAMI DOLPHINS (6-10, t-3rd in AFC East, in 2011)
The good: LT Jake Long is on the short list of guys most GMs would build their fantasy offensive line around. Between Long, C Mike Pouncey and G Richie Incognito, this could be among football's best lines. … We'll see what effect the switch to a 4-3 defense has on Cameron Wake, who will line up at end, but he and MLB Karlos Dansby give the Dolphins two elite talents in their front seven. … I never thought I'd say that a running game featuring Reggie Bush as its likely primary carrier could excel, but here we are. The Dolphins finished just outside the top 10 in rushing last season; I think they'll crack it, with ease, in 2012.
The bad: When an injury to QB David Garrard could derail your season, that season was derailed to begin with. Ryan Tannehill might be the eventual answer (I'm skeptical), but for now, the Garrard/Matt Moore/Tannehill platter figures to be among football's worst. … Remember last season's Monday Night Football opener, when Tom Brady threw for 517 yards on the Dolphins? Richard Marshall is the only likely-to-start addition to the Dolphins' secondary, and it lost probably its best safety (and best player), Yeremiah Bell. … Releasing Chad Johnson was a no-brainer, but it leaves Miami with Davone Bess, Legedu Naanee, Marlon Moore and Julius Pruitt at receiver. Yikes.
The verdict: Unless new coach Joe Philbin has some Tony-Sporano's-wildcat type of gimmicky solution to what's likely to be an anemic passing attack, I can't see the Dolphins scoring, or preventing scoring, enough to be competitive. The finish: 6-10, t-3rd in AFC East
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (13-3, 1st in AFC East, in 2011)
The good: There doesn't figure to be a better passing attack in the NFL. Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney are two more targets for QB Tom Brady, who retains TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and WRs Wes Welker and Deion Branch. … Matt Light's retirement is more a bump in the road than a derailment for an offensive line that retains Logan Mankins (who is coming back from an ACL tear), Sebastian Vollmer and Dan Koppen. … In Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and Patrick Chung, there are some nice pieces for Bill Belichick to build this defense back to an elite level.
The bad: Unless Ras-I Dowling gets on the field and excels, the secondary could again be the Patriots' undoing. There weren't any big-name additions to shore up a pass defense that ranked 31st in the league a year ago. … Who's going to help the secondary out by getting to the quarterback? Mark Anderson and Andre Carter tied for the team lead in sacks with 10 last season. Anderson is a Bill, Carter is unsigned and nobody else had more than 6.5. The Patriots have won, and scored at a frightening rate, with no-name running backs in the past. Still, Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead aren't going to scare people.
The verdict: This could easily be a mediocre-to-bad defense. Short of Brady getting hurt and Brian Hoyer just being awful, however, I can't envision this not being a great offense. The finish: 12-4, 1st in AFC East
NEW YORK JETS (8-8, 2nd in AFC East, in 2011)
The good: No matter what the Jets have, or how they align, in the front seven, it's tough to envision their defense struggling too badly with a secondary that features CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie and safeties Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry. … If the Jets go to a 4-3, it could help keep Bart Scott fresh and make the linebacking corps, which includes Bryan Thomas and Nick Harris, an even bigger strength. … In Nick Mangold, D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Brandon Moore, the Jets have the makings of a nice offensive line.
The bad: Mark Sanchez didn't exactly thrive before there was an endless stream of stories floating around about his backup. Now that the entire sporting world — well, one major family of networks, anyway — is breathlessly watching his and Tim Tebow's every move, the quarterback situation could get really ugly really fast. … Whoever is under center, the Jets haven't exactly given them elite talent to throw to. Dustin Keller's a nice TE, but at WR, they'll trot out the erratic, mercurial Santonio Holmes and a collection of unprovens. … This wasn't exactly an elite running game before LaDainian Tomlinson retired. Consider me extremely skeptical that Shonn Greene can carry the rushing load.
The verdict: This supposedly elite defense ranked 20th in the league in points allowed per game (22.7) last season. We saw with the 2011 Eagles that elite secondary talent doesn't necessarily mesh. I don't think this defense will be dominant enough to carry this offense anywhere. The finish: 6-10, t-3rd in AFC East