AFC East Preview

AFC East Preview

AFC East Preview
By Joe Nelson
VegasInsider.com

The NFL draft gets all the attention in the spring, but the recent release of the 2014 schedule can be a more telling factor in how a team will fare next season. Take a look at the four teams in the AFC East in this schedule preview. This certainly looks like New England’s division to lose with the East title in 10 of the last 11 seasons for the Patriots, but this could be a competitive division from top-to-bottom with another year under the belt for three young starting quarterbacks for the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets.

Buffalo Bills: The Bills have not won a division title since 1995 and the odds will be steep on Buffalo ending the streak this season. Buffalo has not had a winning season since 2004 and the Bills have not made the playoffs since 1999. In a transition season with first year head coach Doug Marrone last season, Buffalo wound up 6-10 but there were some impressive performances with the Bills scoring 20 or more points in the first seven games of last season including getting wins over Carolina and Baltimore. Buffalo won three division games last season and E.J. Manuel did enough to lead to some optimism for the future, especially with the draft pick of Sammy Watkins coming in this season to boost the offense. Buffalo will play a reasonable schedule in 2014 with only two road games against 2013 playoff teams and only one trip to the West coast. Buffalo has a central Week 9 bye week and they don’t have to give up a home game to play in Toronto for a change this season.

Buffalo will draw winnable home games outside of the division with Minnesota and Cleveland visiting and they will catch teams in coaching transitions early in the season facing the Texans, Lions, and Vikings in the first half of the season. The Bills do have a daunting December schedule with road games in three of the final four weeks, including trips to Denver and New England with the home game coming against Green Bay. That means the start of the season will be even more critical for Buffalo. Making the playoffs seems like a reach with the Bills and the rest of the AFC East facing an AFC West division that produced three 2013 playoff teams, but the NFC North was a weak division last season and that is the inter-conference draw for this division. Finishing in fourth place last season allows the Bills to play the Browns, but drawing Houston might not feel like a fourth-place game if the Texans bounce back after a bizarre 2013 season.

Buffalo Bills 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .500 (14/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 6 (four home, two away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 8,822
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 1 (one Thursday)

Miami Dolphins: Despite great distractions last season, Miami wound up 8-8 and by virtue of losing the tiebreaker with the Jets, the Dolphins will score a third-place schedule this season. Miami had a negative point differential despite the even record, but the Dolphins should have stability as Joe Philbin remains at head coach through the Richie Incognito scandal and Ryan Tannehill will lead the Dolphins for a third straight season, a rarity in recent years for this franchise. The Dolphins were a worse team statistically than the record indicated and 2013 was a year of streaks for the team, starting 3-0 before losing four straight games and also winning four of five late in the season. Miami was 8-6 heading into division games in the final two weeks of the season against the Bills and the Jets before getting outscored 39-7 in the two final games to blow a chance at the playoffs. Five of the eight wins came by four or fewer points last season, so this is a team that could head backwards without some of the same fortune but the Dolphins also four games by four or fewer points in 2013.

Miami opens the season with the Patriots and Chiefs in the first two home games of the season and the Dolphins will only play seven true road games as they take on the Raiders in London. That trip comes early in the season in Week 4 as the Dolphins have an early Week 5 bye. November may be the key month for Miami with games at home against San Diego and Buffalo and road games against Detroit, Denver, and the Jets. To have a shot at the playoffs, Miami likely needs to be able to come through that stretch at .500 heading into the final four weeks where they host three of the final four games. The Dolphins have four of six games against 2013 playoff teams at home and because they play in London, the Dolphins do not travel further west than Denver this season as five road games come in the Eastern time zone.

Miami Dolphins 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .508 (12/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 6 (four home, two away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 13,835 (includes London)
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 5 (one Thursday, three Sunday night, one Monday)

New England Patriots: The Patriots have won the AFC East 10 of the last 11 years, only falling short in an 11-5 campaign in the season that Tom Brady was injured. This has been one of the most consistently successful franchises in professional sports for the last decade and there is little reason to expect much of a decline in 2014, coming off a 12-4 season where New England eventually lost in the AFC Championship. New England will open the season with three of the first four games of the season on the road for a challenging start to the season, but it is not a daunting stretch of games with only two of the first eight games of the season coming against teams that had a winning record last season. New England does have four road games against 2014 playoff teams and they have some challenging back-to-back sets ahead, playing Kansas City and Cincinnati, Chicago and Denver, and Green Bay and San Diego in back-to-back weeks throughout the season.

New England will play five primetime games, including three Sunday night games if the schedule holds, so there will be some late night travel and taxing scheduling ahead for the Patriots. The first-place schedule brings the Colts and Bengals on the schedule and New England was only 4-2 in division games last season with several of those wins coming in very tight games despite this being a relatively weak division last season. The Patriots had shaky defensive statistics last season despite a strong scoring margin and New England was just 4-4 in road games last season, as this team has over-performed its talent in recent years. The track record for New England on personnel decisions and in coaching is impressive and with three young quarterbacks and three coaches with questionable track records in the division, it seems likely that a sixth consecutive division title is very possible even with a fairly difficult 2014 slate.

New England Patriots 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .516 (10/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 6 (two home, four away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 10,181
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 5 (one Thursday, three Sunday night, one Monday)

New York Jets: The Jets were expected to be at the bottom of the league last season after a summer full of problems. New York surprised many with an 8-8 season, though the Jets were -97 in point differential. New York has made a lot of moves to upgrade the offense, but improving on the mistakes that Geno Smith made last season will be of critical importance for the Jets to stay competitive. New York had wins over both New England and New Orleans last season and at times the defense was very impressive, but the Jets also allowed 30 or more points four times last season. The 2014 schedule features a second-place slate, but that may not be such a bad thing as Pittsburgh and Tennessee are the two teams drawn, hardly overly threatening second-place teams. The Jets do have four road games against 2013 playoff teams and the early season schedule is challenging with three consecutive games against the NFC facing the Packers, Bears, and Lions in consecutive weeks before a tough October lines up with games against the Chargers, Broncos, and Patriots in succession. That start could lead to disaster and major personnel moves unless the Jets pick up an upset or two.

The tough first half schedule should make the opener against Oakland of paramount importance. If New York can survive without digging too big of a hole in the first half, the second half schedule is favorable. The final four road games are not overly daunting playing at Buffalo, at Minnesota, and at Tennessee before the season finale at Miami. The Jets do face a Thursday game and two Monday night games so there will be some short week games ahead which can take a toll. The Jets have a late Week 11 bye week and overall fairly reasonable travel outside of the cross country trek to San Diego in Week 5.

New York Jets 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2012: .520 (9/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 6 (two home, four away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 9,043
Back-to-Back road game sets: 1
Primetime Games: 3 (one Thursday, two Monday)

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