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Powerhouse Patriots should continue to contend in AFC

With a potential settlement to the NFL lockout looming, analyst Elliot Harrison takes a quick glance at where each division left off following last season. This is a look at the AFC East.


Buffalo Bills

Where the Bills left off: Buffalo was one hard-luck football team in 2010, tying the NFL record for most overtime losses in a season with three. Still, the Bills gave playoff teams, like the Steelers, Ravens and Chiefs all they could handle ... the latter two being on the road. This team continues to be plagued by an often-punchless offense that fails to produce enough big plays, while the run defense allowed a staggering 169.6 rush yards per game, dead last in the NFL (by far).

Areas of concern: That defense sure would improve if new linebackers coach Dave Wannstedt gets the most out of his 'backers (especially if Paul Posluszny departs), and the team gets anything out of 2009 first-round pick Aaron Maybin. Offensively, 2010 first-round pick C.J. Spiller needs to grasp the offense so that Chan Gailey can further utilize his open-field skills. Of course, for that to happen, the offensive line could use a shot in the arm, something the Bills didn't address until deep in April's draft.

Two things to hang your hat on, Bills fans:
1. For once, don't worry about quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick (23 touchdowns) played well behind that rickety offensive line, and is too sharp to totally regress.
2. Give Gailey a chance. He's a good coach who's made it clear this offseason it's time for some guys to produce ... like Maybin, and even Lee Evans.


Miami Dolphins

Where the Dolphins left off: We left off at 7-9 with this group, after a 7-9 finish in 2009. The Dolphins don't have the offensive firepower to compensate for a so-so defense. The Brandon Marshall acquisition worked out OK, as the eccentric receiver caught 86 balls, but only three of those went for touchdowns. And therein lies the story of the 2010 Dolphins: They were average at everything. They ranked 15th in red zone scoring, 16th in passing, 14th in points allowed, and so on. The club lost games it should've won versus the Jets, Steelers and Bills that derailed any playoff aspirations.

Areas of concern: Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback. Chad Pennington is gone. It's officially Chad Henne's spot now. The former Michigan standout completed only 18 passes of 25-plus yards, tied for 25th in the league. The offense as a whole has no home-run hitter. The running back situation is completely up in the air with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams potentially both gone. Defensively, the Dolphins just don't create enough turnovers. They'll be happy to get 2010 first-round pick Jared Odrick back, who wasn't able to produce due to injury.

Two things to hang your hat on, Dolphins fans:
1. The pass rush, thought to be a weakness heading into last season, showed signs of life with 39 sacks. Jared Odrick and Koa Misi have tremendous upside.
2. Offensively, Marshall, Jake Long and Davone Bess are great at what they do. Next to Jason Avant, the latter is the best third-down receiver in football.


New England Patriots

Where the Patriots left off: Everyone's choice as the best club in football somehow didn't win it all in 2010. The Patriots bludgeoned teams like the Bears, Lions and Dolphins, yet fell to a great gameplan the Jets hatched in the playoffs.

The Patriots got one of the best seasons ever from a quarterback in Tom Brady's 36-touchdown, four-interception campaign. His MVP award aside, the offense received a lift from a rejuvenated Deion Branch, healthy Wes Welker, and two good rookie tight ends in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. The pass defense struggled at times (30th overall), but much of that was due to teams trying to play catch up from being 20 points down.

Areas of concern: How well will the running-back-by-committee approach work in 2011? BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead were effective in 2010, but all the pressure cannot continue to fall on No. 12's shoulders. The offense misses Randy Moss' big-play capability, or at least the threat of it. Defensively, New England must get more out of its pass rush, which was on and off last season, and killed the team in the playoffs. Bill Belichick did nothing in the draft to address that need.

Two things to hang your hat on, Patriots fans:
1. There is no decline in Brady's game. He's smarter now than he was in 2005, but at 33, he's not too old to move around the pocket or make all the throws.
2. Belichick not only gets his guys to do their jobs, but the Patriots have coaches on the field in Brady, Welker and Jerod Mayo. This club isn't falling much.


New York Jets

Where the Jets left off: People can make fun of Rex Ryan all they want, but once again he had Gang Green one step away from a Super Bowl berth. While the Jets were up and down in the regular season, eeking out close calls versus the Lions, Browns and Texans, they looked great when it counted. Road wins in Indy and Foxborough in the playoffs were as good as it gets. At quarterback, Mark Sanchez continued to show flashes, but could not make the most out of a pretty talented receiving corps that included Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Dustin Keller.

Areas of concern: Holmes, Edwards and Mr. Everything, Brad Smith, are all free agents. That's an issue. On the other side of the line, there's no doubt that Ryan's defense is one of the best in the league, but it needs some youthful contributions on the front line. The club hopes to get that from first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson and third-round pick Kenrick Ellis. But, if Shaun Ellis isn't back, where does the pass rush come from?

Two things to hang your hat on, Jets fans:
1. That defense. Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's group finished first overall in 2009, and third overall in 2010.
2. Expect Shonn Greene to turn it on, and LaDainian Tomlinson to be a savvy, productive third-down back. Don't forget about Joe McKnight, either.

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