2014 AFC East Preview: Can Anyone Beat New England?

It's no surprise that the Patriots rank as the best team in the AFC East, but can another team challenge them?

While non-Patriot teams in the AFC East may spark arguments amongst sectors of fanatics, it’ll be tough to find a person bold enough to argue with the number one spot in the division this season. While the division is widely regarded as one of the weakest, that doesn’t mean it can't be competitive. Each member of the AFC East has made the moves they feel can spark a coup within the division, or at worst, run at a wild card spot.

Here's a preview of the AFC East in reverse order based on our advanced-metric team rankings. To read more about our nERD rankings, click here.

4. New York Jets

nERD: -2.43
Chance of Winning Division: 11.0%
Offensive Rank: 26th
Defensive Rank: 14th

After finishing the 2013 season 8-8, the Jets tied the Miami Dolphins for the second best record in the AFC East. With rookie quarterback Geno Smith leading the charge, our numbers say they overachieved.

Smith finished dead last in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) among eligible quarterbacks (minimum 225 passes) last year. While the Jets did sign Eric Decker, Chris Johnson and Michael Vick in the offseason, it'll still be up to Smith to capitalize on the newfound talent. Decker finally gives Smith a viable receiving threat, something that should make Geno’s life a tad easier. Chris Johnson, while well past his prime, can become a good complement to Chris Ivory.

It’s a rare year when a Rex Ryan defense isn’t carrying the team, and that was no different last year. The Jets’ defense ranked 16th in Adjusted Defensive NEP, right on the line of average. It was their rushing defense, however, that was well above the norm, as the Jets had the fifth-best defense against the run according to our metrics. They have their defensive line to thank for that, all of whom are returning for the 2014 season. Anchored by Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, two of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL, the Jets will look to continue their success against the run, forcing teams to become one-dimensional.

This puts the onus on the Jets’ secondary. Dee Milliner will be entering his second year in the NFL, and it will be up to him to anchor the back-end of the defense. After a shaky beginning to his rookie season, Milliner seemed to find his stride, recording 28 tackles, 13 passes defended and 3 interceptions in his final five games. Keep in mind that he may not be able to play to start the season though due to an ankle injury.

With a revamped offense (excluding the putrid line), and a more experienced quarterback, secondary and already dominant defensive line, the Jets can definitely be in contention for a wild card spot late into the season. That is, of course, if everything goes as they hoped and planned, which, let’s be honest, rarely ever does.

3. Buffalo Bills

nERD: -2.31
Chance of Winning Division: 11.6%
Offensive Rank: 28th
Defensive Rank: 11nd

It seems like every time the Bills start to get things moving in the right direction, they get back-handed by the football gods, forcing them to scramble and pick up the pieces. After a 2013 season that had the Bills ranked eighth in Adjusted Defensive NEP and fifth in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP, they were dealt yet another 7-2, off-suit hand. Jairus Byrd, one of their best players, flapped his top-three-safety wings all the way to New Orleans to join the Saints. To add injury to insult, their breakout Rookie-of-the-Year linebacker, Kiko Alonso, tore his ACL early in the off-season and will miss all of 2014.

While these body blows are tough and the Bills seem to be stuck in 6-10 limbo, there are some bright spots for this young and talented team. For one, their defensive line, consisting of three Pro Bowlers, has stayed intact. Although, after playing in mostly 3-4 sets the past few years, it's to be seen how well Mario Williams, Kyle Willaims and Marcell Dareus adjust to new defensive coordinator Jim Swartz’s 4-3 scheme.

The Bills can also be excited for their super young, yet super explosive wide receiver corps, led by 2014 fourth overall pick, Sammy Watkins. Watkins joins Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, who will all see significantly more playing time with the departure of Stevie Johnson. Not to mention the Bills still have playmakers in the backfield with C.J. Spiller, newly added Bryce Brown and one of the best geriatric running backs, in Fred Jackson.

So what’s the problem? Oh yeah, that guy by the name of E.J. Manuel. Manuel, who finished only above fellow AFC East quarterback Geno Smith in Passing NEP last season, will have to turn things around if the Bills want any inkling of success. The potential is there, and now there's no excuse to not get the ball rolling with all the weapons he has. Because of the injuries and departures in the offseason, the Bills will ride or die on the arm of E.J. Manuel.

2. Miami Dolphins

nERD: -1.15
Chance of Winning Division: 14.0%
Offensive Rank: 19th
Defensive Rank: 19nd

The Dolphins were in prime position to make the playoffs last year. They controlled their own destiny in the final weeks of the season, something every team would die for. All they had to do was beat the Bills in Week 16 or the Jets in Week 17. Simple enough, right? Apparently not, as they squandered the opportunity away, losing both game and catapulting the Chargers into the final wild card spot. That’s ok though - there’s always next season, right?

The Dolphins were active this offseason, starting with their atrocious offensive line, which gave up a league-leading 58 sacks last year. They signed free agent tackle Branden Albert. The Dolphins also spent two of their first three picks in the 2014 NFL Draft on offensive linemen. They nabbed tackle Ja’Wuan James and guard Billy Turner, who could both be opening day starters.

The Dolphins were also active on the defensive side of the ball as well. They re-signed Brent Grimes, who along with Louis Delmas and Reshad Jones helped this defense crack the top 10 in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP. The Dolphins also added free agent Cortland Finnegan, a player who should push for the second corner spot in a battle with Jamar Taylor.

Miami’s defense looks to be solid. Not great, but solid. They return Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon to anchor the defensive line. Second-year man out of Oregon, Dion Jordan, will be serving a four-game suspension to start the season, and when he returns, the Dolphins need him to step it up after a lackluster rookie campaign.

The good news is the Dolphins have a pretty solid group of wide receivers consisting of Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson and rookie Jarvis Landry, who could very well steal the second receiver spot this preseason. This bodes well for third-year quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, who has shown flashes of potential. If he can harness that skill more consistently this year, the Dolphins could be in the same position they were a year ago, but hopefully, for their sake, with a different outcome.

1. New England Patriots

nERD: 6.78
Chance of Winning Division: 63.0%
Offensive Rank: 5th
Defensive Rank: 8th

Surprise, surprise, look who’s at the top of the AFC East once again. Since 2001, the Patriots have won the division 11 out of 13 years, and I expect nothing different this season. As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are the head coach and quarterback, the Pats will always be the favorite to win the division.

The Patriots added Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis over the offseason. Revis, who is unanimously considered to be in that top-tier of cornerbacks, should be the perfect complement to the promising safety, Devin McCourty. They're going to be the staples in a passing defense that already ranked in the top ten by our numbers.

The issue for the Patriots, defensively, was stopping the run last season, ranking 28th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP. Although, you could certainly argue that had a lot to do with Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly both missing significant time due to injury. Dont’a Hightower should presumably help this, as the young linebacker is more suited to stop the run. He has said recently he sees himself more suited in a run support role, and wants the Patriots coaching staff to use him as such.

In any case, players need to step up. Outside linebacker Jamie Collins and defensive end Chandler Jones both took steps in the right direction last year. Collins came on rather late in the season, and had a breakout game in the playoff win against the Indianapolis Colts. Jones, on the other hand, built on his 2012 rookie season by sacking the quarterback 11.5 times last year.

The Patriots offensive weapons are still a mixed bag of goodies. Rob Gronkowski is back healthy, as are Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen. For the Patriots this year, it’s all about staying healthy, as many of their key players went down with injuries last season. If they can stay healthy, the Patriots are once again AFC East favorites, as well as Super Bowl favorites.