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September 1, 2014

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Are you ready for some NFL football? Here's the first of a six part NFL preview

By Jake Dowling, Icon intern
This is a six-part series preview of the upcoming 2012 NFL season. Each part will be broken down by division for each conference, followed by a two-part series on playoff predictions.
Each team is broken down one-by-one under three categories: A team's coach and his staff, a team's quarterback and the weapons around him, and a team's defense. These are the three main ingredients to determining a team's success in the season.
Training camps throughout the NFL start next week, followed by the Hall of Fame Game featuring the Arizona Cardinals and the New Orleans Saints on Aug. 5 in Canton, Ohio.
Are you ready for some football?
Part I of NFL Preview: Breaking down the NFC and AFC East Divisions.
AFC North
New England Patriots 13-3 in 2011 Lost in Super Bowl
The Coach - Entering his 12th year as head coach for the Patriots, Bill Belichick and his staff remain one of the best in the NFL. This year however, Belichick and his staff will have to try to fix a defense that ranked 31st in yards given up per game and 15th in points given up. The offense is still lethal with quarterback Tom Brady still in charge.
The Quarterback- Tom Brady, who is also entering his 12th season as the Patriots quarterback still has to be looked upon as an MVP favorite for this upcoming season.
His two biggest weapons, tight ends Aaron Hernandez from Florida and Bruce Gronkowski from Arizona are both primed for another major season. Gronkowski, by far one of the greatest players at his position in the NFL is looking to improve on his breakout season from a year ago when he scored an NFL record for touchdowns for a TE.
A big question for Brady is the running game. Even though the Patriots are typically not a running team, losing Benjarvis Green-Ellis in the off-season may hurt. Green-Ellis accounted for most of the Patriots running game throughout the season with 667 yards. Newly required Joseph Addai from the Colts is looking for a gig after the last few years in Indy have been a challenge for the LSU grad.
Though the Patriots typically do not have big name wide receivers, the team still has Wes Welker, who could be seeing his last year in New England since his agent and the team were not able to come to an agreement on a long-term deal on Monday. However, with a number of bodies and playmakers at the wide receivers and tight end positions,
New England offense should be a top five offense once again, but the offensive line must hold up for Brady with a possible suspect running game. England ranked 10th in sacks given up last year so another good year from the offensive line will help.
The Defense - By far the biggest weakness from this team last year, New England ranked 31st in yards given up last year, and it all starts up front. The team needs to create pressure and get to the quarterback.
They ranked 24th in sacks and in this day and age in the NFL, it is all about getting to the quarterback. Though a few bright spots for New England's defense is the act that they do not give up a lot of points, ranking 15th in the league, and they force turnovers, they ranked third in that category.
Draft picks will be the main factor. New England traded up twice in the first round this year to address their defensive needs by getting Linebacker Dont'a Hightower from Alabama and Defensive End Chandler Jones from Syracuse should help with the pass rush. The team drafted six defensive players out of the seven they selected so Belichick definitely wanted to address the defense.
With second round pick Ras-I Dowling back from injuries last season along with Safety Patrick Chung, the team's best player in the secondary, New England's defense should be better than last year in the yards department and should be a contender yet again this year for the Lombardi Trophy.

New York Jets 8-8 2nd in division, missed playoffs
The Coach - By now many know the style Rex Ryan has in his coaching, and that will not change anytime soon. However, could Ryan be under some kind of pressure this year? Could this be a make or break season for the 4th year coach? After back to back seasons in the AFC Title Game, the Jets found themselves dismantled and out of the playoffs not including the controversy the continues to surround this team.
The Quarterback -The problems start here for the Jets. Mark Sanchez, who the New York traded up to get fifth overall in the 2009 draft, has been very inconsistent to say the least. Now with the acquisition of QB Tim Tebow from Denver this would create even more drama for a team that thrives on it.
If Sanchez continues to struggle, which is almost a given, do not be surprised to see Tebow starting or at least seeing more playing time. Sanchez had an NFL high 26 turnovers last year and is by far the weakest link for a team hungry for a title. As long as Sanchez remains at the helm for New York, do not except them to win a Super Bowl anytime soon.
The rest of the offense is as good as can be. Sanchez has two offensive weapons in WR Santonio Holmes and TE Dustin Keller. They added WR Stephen Hill from Georgia Tech in the draft and they have Shonn Greene is the team's best running back now that LaDamainian Tomlinson is retired. Their running game was a strength but can Greene take on the load of being the single back? Most importantly, who will quarterback this team half way through the season?
The Defense - One thing is for sure about this team, they will continue to have a great defense, and with the additions of Quinton Coples in the 1st round of the draft and free agent pick-ups safeties LeRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell will only make this defense better. They still have one of the best defensive backs in the NFL in Darrelle Revis, even though he could be a training camp holdout because he wants a new contract, he has three years remaining on his current deal.
The defense, like in the past, will guide this team during the season, but it will not help them get a title. They need consistent play from their quarterback and even if the Jets make it to the playoffs, will Sanchez play consistent enough to get New York there, history has said otherwise. As long as injuries do not derail the defense, they have to be considered as a playoff contender, but not a Super Bowl contender.
Buffalo Bills 6-10 fourth in division, missed playoffs
The Coach - Head coach Chan Gailey has his hands full yet again with dealing with the New England Patriots and New York Jets. The big question is, can this team get over the hump in this division and unseat either one of those teams? Chances are not good. One change to the staff is at defensive coordinator, where former NFL head coach and former University of Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt replaces George Edwards who is now that linebackers coach
Wannstedt may not be on the same level for a defensive coach like Rex Ryan and Bill Belchick, but he should be able to upgrade a defense that ranked 28th against the run and 27th in total sacks.
The Quarterback - Is Ryan Fitzpatrick the right QB for the Bills? After signing a seven-year, $62 million extension, Fitzpatrick's season went down the drain. Through Week 8 of last season, the Bills played like one of the top offenses in the league. Behind 30-year-old Fred Jackson, who played like a man five years younger, and with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick surprisingly effective in his second year as full-time starter, Buffalo started the year 5-2, including wins against the Patriots and the Eagles. Soon after, Jackson was lost for the season with a fractured fibula, and the Bills lost eight of their final nine games of the year.
Though Fitzpatrick is not a sexy pick for an elite QB, the Bills will have firepower on offense. The Bills reserved receiver Steve Johnson for the next five years at a cost of $36.25 million, and though he is coming off groin surgery, he is put up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
After Johnson's team-leading 76 catches last season, two tight ends, David Nelson and Scott Chandler and two running backs Jackson and C.J. Spiller caught more passes than the second-best receiver -- that would be Donald Jones with 23, who caught the same number of passes as Wildcat quarterback Brad Smith. That said, the running backs can make receiving yards, and Nelson had a breakout season. More good news for Fitzpatrick: the interior lineman, center Eric Wood and guards Kraig Urbik and Andy Levitre are more than solid for this squad.
The Defense - The team made a huge splash when it secured defensive end Mario Williams for $100 million and made him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. In addition, with him on the line of scrimmage, the Bills can boast perhaps the top defensive line in the league. With 2011 No. 1 pick Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams clogging the middle, with Mario Williams and Mark Anderson rushing the passer from the edge, the Bills almost certainly will improve on last year's No. 27 NFL ranking in sacks and No. 28 ranking in rushing defense.
The Bills also will return to the 4-3 defensive scheme under new coordinator Dave Wannstedt after Coach Chan Gailey fired former coordinator George Edwards at the end of last season. The team allowed a club record 5,938 yards last year, and the season before, the Bills ranked 32nd in run defense. In both of those seasons, Edwards ran a 3-4.
This year, the Bills will scrap that philosophy. Buffalo should be OK at linebacker, but the team will be expecting a big improvement in the secondary with No. 10 pick Stephon Gilmore likely taking a starting cornerback job (and if 2011 second-round pick Aaron Williams can win the other spot). With standout Jairus Byrd and the solid George Wilson taking up the two safety spots, there should a big-time improvement from Buffalo's defense.
Miami Dolphins 6-10, third in division, missed playoffs
The Coach - The Dolphins fired coach Tony Sparano, and hired former Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to be its new head coach. Philbin had a successful career as offensive coordinator for the Packers tutoring MVP Aaron Rodgers and having an offense finish in the top 10 every year in yards and points respectfully. Nevertheless, can he turn it around in Miami?
The Quarterback - To many, the Dolphins reached on a pick when they selected Ryan Tannehill from Texas A&M with the number eight overall pick. The Dolphins likely will not contend for a division crown in 2012, especially with other QBs David Garrard and Matt Moore battling for the starting quarterback spot. That is not to say that Garrard and Moore are not solid, but neither of those guys will lead the team to a 12-4 or 11-5 mark. Instead, it will be Tannehill's chance to learn the NFL behind some decent veterans.
If the quarterback position was not murky enough, look at the rest of the team's offense. After letting go of Brandon Marshall, the Dolphins do not necessarily have a No. 1WR to take the place of Marshall, who was traded to the Bears. Tannehill, or whoever wins the quarterback battle, will have to rely on the running game. During their 11-5 season in 2008, Miami leaned on backs Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown; both players are no longer there. The offense though could find success with a strong trio of backs in Reggie Bush, Daniel Thomas and Steve Slaton.
The Defense - For the most part, last year's Dolphins squad was mostly mediocre on defense. Although the team was 15th in the league in yards allowed, the Dolphins only surrendered 19.6 points per game, the sixth-best defensive total in the NFL. After seven losses to open the season the defense partially saved Miami's season, allowing three points to the Chiefs, nine points to the Redskins and six points to the Bills in the next three contests to start a winning streak. Miami went 13 straight quarters without allowing a touchdown, and to some degree, that showed the team's potential.
Fast forward to this year, and new defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle is installing a 4-3 defense. Aside from re-signing defensive end Cameron Wake and defensive tackle Paul Soliai, the Dolphins did not do much on defense during free agency or during the draft.
However, with 2010 first round pick Jared Odrick and 2012 third round pick Vernon Olivier shoring up the defensive line, Miami certainly could equal a rushing defense that ranked third in the league in 2011. The secondary struggled last year, but Coyle is the longtime Bengals secondary coach and his first order of business is to improve the pass defense. Signing free agent Richard Marshall should help.

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