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Patriots know the blueprint
If you don't think anybody can win the AFC East, you missed last season, when the Patriots bounced from worst to first. This is the only division in which all four teams have made the playoffs at least once in the last three years.
The 3-13 Bills, the only member left out of last postseason, now have former Super Bowl quarterback Drew Bledsoe. The Jets and Dolphins wish they had him and the Patriots might wish they did, too, before this is over.
The Patriots return 20 starters from last year's Super Bowl surprise. They might be the only 20 people in America who believe they are capable of a repeat.
The only team to make the NFL playoffs the last five years, the Dolphins believe the addition of running back Ricky Williams finally will put them into a Super Bowl. Coach Dave Wannstedt believes in the play-calling and run-first philosophy of new coordinator Norv Turner. Together they plan to rekindle the glory days they last enjoyed under Jimmy Johnson in Dallas.
Good: Wannstedt hasn't had a reliable, consistent running game since he left Emmitt Smith in Dallas, so Williams excites him. Quarterback Jay Fiedler's popularity in Miami should increase with more handoffs. Chris Chambers looks like a big-time receiver and rookie tight end Randy McMichael has impressed. Pass rusher Jason Taylor, middle linebacker Zach Thomas and cornerbacks Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison are the defensive playmakers.
Bad: When Fiedler tries to do too much, interceptions get in the way, but he improved the second half of last season and earned a new contract. Some fans would like to see ex-Jet Ray Lucas. Due to injury and departures, both lines are somewhat shakyespecially on offense, where Wannstedt will expect buddy Tony Wise to perform another miracle. Wannstedt has yet to beat the Jets in four tries, extending the Dolphins' losing streak against the Jets to eight games.
If ever there was a coach of the year, Bill Belichick earned it last season. If ever there was a coach on the spot, it's Belichick this year. Since he won it all without so-called superstars Drew Bledsoe and Terry Glenn, he figures he can win it again. He'll try with the same cast of overachievers who stunned the league, plus a few more unheralded free agents determined to taste what a similar group discovered last year.
Good: Although Brady hardly lit up the scoreboard, especially in the playoffs, it's what he didn't do that impressed the Patriots. He didn't lose games or his composure before, during or after his MVP performance in the Super Bowl. Rookie receiver Deion Branch and tight end Daniel Graham give the offense more firepower.
There would be no Super Bowl rings without kicker Adam Vinatieri, and the team MVP is receiver-returner Troy Brown. The secondary is again top-notch and confident after beating up the Rams.
Bad: After a breakout season, running back Antowain Smith reported out of shape, causing the Patriots to flirt with ex-Atlanta back Jamal Anderson. The offensive line hasn't jelled due to injury. Despite the incentive to prove they were no fluke, the Patriots will discover how truly difficult it is to repeat.
Approaching 39, quarterback Vinny Testaverde looks sharp and ready for another playoff shot. Coach Herman Edwards has retooled the defense in his second season to fit his Tampa Bay style. If they can stop the run (28th), they have a chance. Running back Curtis Martin deserves it.
Good: The Jets keep saying second-year receiver Santana Moss is the answer. The question is whether he can stay healthy. Martin is back again, of course, ready for heavy lifting. He's going for an eighth straight 1,000-yard season. Speed rusher John Abraham is a defensive key. The offensive line allowed 19 sacks last year, second to the Bears' 17.
Bad: Buffalo pickup Sam Cowart joins linebackers Mo Lewis and Marvin Jones on a unit that could be formidable if healthy and not too old. Cowart's legs could be shot after two major injuries. The defense let safety Victor Green and tackle Rick Lyle go to New England. Does Belichick know something?
The battery of Bledsoe to Eric Moulds is intriguing provided the two get a chance to do their thing on a team that still has more holes than patches. Coach Gregg Williams arrived last year from Tennessee, where he was a successful defensive coordinator. He still doesn't have a lot to coordinate in Buffalo, and this is a whole division of defensive specialists as head coaches.
Good: Top draft picks Mike Williams at offensive tackle and Josh Reed at receiver are keepers. Cornerbacks Nate Clements and Antoine Winfield are ready for prime time. Middle linebacker London Fletcher feels more appreciated than he did in St. Louis. The offensive line is in flux but improved. Newcomer Trey Teague moved from left tackle to center.
Bad: The defensive line looks to be a year or so away, at least. The loss of Ted Washington to the Bears last year is as huge as he is. Running back Travis Henry is slowly coming off a rookie-year knee injury. New offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride seems to suit Bledsoe's down-the-field style, but Gilbride has struggled in his last two stops in Pittsburgh and San Diego.