2013 AFC East: Will and Won’t

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Photo Credit: MiamiDolphins.com

Training camps are getting closer to opening. The NFL preseason is about 30 days away.

You can smell the National Football League’s 94th season in the air. So take a deep breath.

Everyone knows what to expect when it comes to the NFL…the unexpected.

But last season, it was almost business as usual for the league as six of the teams that captured division titles in 2011 repeated in 2012.

Will that be the case once again?

Obviously, we won’t know for some time. For now, here’s a look at why each team in the AFC East (in order of finish from last season) will and won’t win a division title in 2013.

New England Patriots

Dating back to 2001, a year prior to realignment, the Patriots have won the AFC East four straight seasons and 10 times in 12 years. What’s interesting that the two years that they didn’t win it they failed to even make the playoffs despite finishing 9-7 in 2002 and 11-5 in 2008.

Will: This could be the best Patriots’ defensive unit in quite some time. The development of second-year players such as defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is crucial. And the additions of veterans like defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and strong safety Adrian Wilson are pluses. Even if the New England offense isn’t its usual explosive self, this side of the ball could be what carries Bill Belichick’s team this season.

Won’t: Could too many changes on the offensive side of the ball wind up costing the team? Quarterback Tom Brady is one of the best to ever play the position but there have been wholesale changes to his pass-catching corps. The Patriots wound up seventh in the league in rushing yards last season but was that a product of the team’s potent passing attack? Belichick’s team could spend the first half of the year trying to find itself on offense and a few stumbles here and there could prove very costly.

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Miami Dolphins

After making five straight postseason appearances from 1997-01, the Dolphins have been in the playoffs just twice since 2002. The team last won the AFC East in 2008, which also marks the last time the club enjoyed a winning season.

Will: After a tough 1-3 start last season under first-time head coach Joe Philbin and rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Miami split its final 12 games. And while the year ended with a 28-0 loss to the Patriots, this team displayed an air of confidence. Those positives should carry over into 2013. Combine that with the free agent additions of wide receiver Mike Wallace and tight end Dustin Keller and a rising defensive unit and all the components for a division title appear to be in place.

Won’t: If Miami’s defensive unit doesn’t start coming up with more big plays, it may turn into a very frustrating year for the club. Takeaways have been an issue for this team in recent seasons as the ‘Phins have forced only 75 turnovers in their last 64 games dating back to 2009. And Tannehill could suffer through a sophomore slump if Miami’s running game fails to keep defenses honest.  And if this team can’t find a way to beat the Pats at least once next season, winning the East will be tough indeed.

New York Jets

Despite a pair of AFC Championship Game appearances in 2009 and 2010, the Jets have not won the AFC East since 2002, the first year of the league’s current realignment.

Will: If the Jets’ young talent on defense puts it all together and comes up with one of those magical years in terms of takeaways and returning them for touchdowns.  Since 2010, the team has drafted five players in the first round and all on the defensive side of the ball, the latest being cornerback Dee Milliner and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in April. Coach Rex Ryan and new coordinator Dennis Thurman hope to make this a feared unit once again.

Won’t: The Jets tied for the league lead with 37 turnovers last season, 26 of those via quarterback Mark Sanchez. The fifth-year pro is in a battle for his job with rookie Geno Smith. But regardless of who’s pulling the trigger if the offense can’t do its share the team’s defensive unit will bear the brunt. Hence the mention of a much-needed big year in terms of opportunistic football. And the team’s recent failure to compete with the Patriots (four straight losses since the playoff win in 2012) is a big obstacle as well.

[RELATED: Jets Want Mark Sanchez To Win Starting Job]

Buffalo Bills

The Bills own the league’s current longest playoff drought, their last postseason appearance a loss to the Tennessee Titans in the fabled “Music City Miracle” Wild Card Game in 1999. Buffalo also hasn’t captured a division title since 1995.

Will: It would be quite a turnaround for a team that has finished dead last in the AFC East each of the last five seasons. But who predicted the Washington Redskins to win the NFC East in 2012. If first-round pick E.J. Manuel wins the starting quarterback job, the comparisons to the fortunes of Robert Griffin III last season will begin. More realistically, if running back C.J. Spiller continues to improve, new head coach Doug Marrone and company may parlay a huge year by the Pro Bowl runner into a division title.

Won’t: Until they learn to be competitive with the teams in their own division, much less the rest of the league, things aren’t bound to change for the Bills. Dating back to ’02, only the Detroit Lions (14-52) and Cleveland Browns (16-50) have a worst record within their division than Buffalo (22-44). And how’s this for perspective? Last season, New England was a perfect 6-0 vs. their AFC East brethren. Over the past five seasons, the Bills are a combined 6-24 vs. Patriots, Dolphins and Jets.

[RELATED: E.J. Manuel Provides Bright Future For Buffalo Bills ]

So who do you think will emerge as AFC East champions in 2013? Can the Patriots make it five straight division titles? Or are the perennial contenders primed to be toppled?  You decide.

Russell Baxter is an NFL analyst at @GridironGrit. Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru!

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