You really have to marvel at how the Patriots continue to defy the NFL. In a league that is set up for parity, a 40% per year turnover in play-off teams and a regression to a .500 mean for all in a large enough sample size, the Patriots just keep rolling. Since 2001, there have been two seasons in which the team has NOT made the playoffs. Unless something drastic happens over the Patriots over the next 7 games, 2014 will not be a 3rd year.
The Patriots formula is familiar; great offense that is composed of Tom Brady, a solid offensive line unit, a handful of interchangeable (and for the most part un-regarded) skill position players, plus just enough defense to win 10-12 games and the AFC East. So it has been for 15 years and counting. At 7-2, the Patriots live such a charmed life that in their bye week, they gained ground on the division title with both Buffalo and Miami losing.
It looked different at the end of September, with the Patriots getting blown out at Foxboro by a decent (but not great) Chiefs team to go 2-2. Since then, Brady’s bunch has reeled off 5 straight W’s, with the last two being blowouts over the Bears and the Broncos. By conquering October, the Patriots have opened the door for another division title. Ho-hum.
What to Watch For
Perhaps something drastic happening. New England closes out its season with 6 of its last 7 games against teams with winning records. Two of those games are against division leaders (the next two against the Colts and Lions). The games after that are against the Packers and Chargers, both on the road. The last three games of the season are all in the division; they get the Dolphins at home, the Jets in New York and close out the season hosting Buffalo. The one team with a losing record in that schedule is the Jets, who lost in Foxboro on October 16 TNF by two points. Yes, there is a road to a division title there, but it is the toughest road for perhaps any current divisional leader.
Tom Brady was paid $13.8 Million by the Patriots last year and his estimated endorsement income kicked in another $10 Million. Even with earning nearly $25 Million in 2013, he is not the primary breadwinner in the Brady home. Giselle Bundschen made $42 Million last year.
Well, that did not last long… "That", of course, being the glorious EJ Manuel era of picking-up the Kemp, Chandler, and Kelly mantle of QB greatness in northwest New York. After going 2-2, Manuel was benched in favor of Kyle Orton, who arrived in Buffalo just before the final round of cuts. Rumors had been starting before the first game of the season that Manuel did not have the confidence of wither the coaches or his teammates on the offense. Observers pointed to the team not voting him one of the team captains as evidence of that lack of confidence.
The 5-4 Bills have 2nd place in this division based upon their win over the 5-4 Dolphins. This team has one of the better defenses in the league, was rolling with the 1-2 rushing punch of Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller (Spiller will miss significant time this season), and has a legitimate deep threat and playmaker in Sammy Watkins. Somebody really needs to test Fred Jackson – RB’s in the NFL simply do not have their best years after the age of 28 – Jackson is 33 and still putting together a 4.3 YPC average.
What to Watch For
Rising above. The Bills last winning season was in 2004, when they went 9-7 and failed to make the playoffs. The last time this franchise got into the playoffs was in 1999 under Wade Phillips with Doug Flutie as the QB. While Coach Marrone and GM Doug Whaley have put together an interesting team with some good talent, winning another 4 games to get a winning record or more to get a wild card, is going to be difficult. Their last 7 games includes roadies at Miami (this Thursday), in Denver and in New England. They also have to play the Browns and Packers at home. It is certainly possible that with games at home against the Jets and then a game in Oakland in late December, another 7 win season is possible, but 2 more to get over .500 may not be.
Kyle Orton retired from the Dallas Cowboys right after the start of training camp after not reporting for more than 7 days. By retiring, he left $3 Million unclaimed. He told the Cowboys through his agent that he just did not like being a professional football player anymore. 3 weeks after Dallas tore up his contract, Orton applied for reinstatement with the NFL and signed with the Bills. It later came out that he did not want "to deal with the atmosphere and drama around Dallas for another year". I am trying to figure out what sort of drama would be severe enough for me to pass on $3 Million.
The story from Miami this season is the growth of Ryan Tannehill as a QB. This has been accompanied with the emergence of Lamar Miller as a quality RB, rookie Jarvis Landry’s supplanting Brian Hartline as the team’s #2 receiver, and Mike Wallace getting used properly. The defense, manned by Cameron Wake and other mostly unknown players has also emerged as one of the top units in the league this year. It took the ‘phins a few weeks to figure out, as they started the season 2-3. The team then put 3 impressive victories together before stumbling in Detroit.
The 5-4 Dolphins have no time to curse the Lions for their desperate comeback last Sunday. A win on Thursday Night puts them in 2nd place behind the Patriots. While they do not have an easy schedule, theirs is the most favorable out of the three teams on top of the AFC East. It is conceivable that the Pats and Bills stumble. If Miami can keep playing at a high level, they have a really good chance to do something they have not done since 2008; win the AFC East. They have never won the division when Tom Brady has played a full season.
What to Watch For
December 14, 2014. That is the final game of a 5 game run that contains Buffalo, at Denver, at NY Jets, home against the Ravens, and the capper – the 2nd game against New England; that one is in Foxboro. If they can keep winning and the Pats falter a bit, the biggest game of the season for the ‘phins will be on December 14. If they can win that game, they finish at home against the Vikings and Jets, while Brady’s bunch goes to New York and finishes at home against the Bills. The next 5 games will need this team playing their best football of the season.
The Miami Dolphins lived an NFL "Circle of Life" moment earlier this season. Up 24-20 late in the game over Green Bay, the Packers got a reception at the 3 yard line with just seconds on the clock. As Rogers was running up to the line, he started screaming "Clock it! Clock it!" The "it" was a word to actually run a play. The play worked for a TD and Green Bay won 27-24 with .02 left on the clock. 20 years earlier, in 1994, Miami QB Dan Marino did the same thing, using a spiking motion to alert his teammates that he was going to run a play.
The Jets win against Pittsburgh has to be one of if not the largest shock of the 2014 season. After all, the Steelers were hot and the Jets had dropped 8 in a row. In the 8 losses, the team allowed at least 24 points (to a Megatron-less Lions team and in KC) and frequently more. With the lack of offensive difference makers (or simply guys that can make ANY offense), particularly from the QB position, the Jets defense was going to have to carry the load (again) this season. With several injuries and some drama to boot in the secondary, the Jets defense has become ordinary, while the offense is one of the worst in the league.
While the Manuel era may be over in Buffalo, it is a little less clear if the Geno Smith era in New York is over, too. Replaced by the aging Michael Vick, Smith looked worse this season than he did in 2013 and that was bad enough for the Jets to hedge their bets with an over-the-hill mobile QB that the front office apparently thought could mentor Smith (insert pet care joke here). Which direction the Jets choose to go with the QB situation after the season plays out and who will be around to make those decisions , are anyone’s guess at this point.
What to Watch For
The end game. I suppose that in the infinite number of alternative universes postulated by some physicists, there is ONE of those infinite numbers of universes that has Rex Ryan returning as head coach of the Jets in 2015. The Jets remaining games are the 2 against Miami, one each against the Pats and Bills, plus games against the Titans and Vikings. 5 wins seems to be the ceiling for this team and it will probably be lower than that. The worse season Ryan had was the 6-10 effort in 2012. With a clear change in direction needed, Ryan can be returned to the Defensive Coordinator Ranks, which has some interesting promise for certain fan bases…
Since returning to NFL in 2009 out of federal prison which resulted in him losing the 2007 and 2008 seasons, Michael Vick has a 21-21 record as a starter. His record in Philly was 20-20 and the two games he has started for New York this year has seen him put up a 1-1 record.