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2013 AFC East preview: Chasing the Patriots

New England has won four straight division titles. Can the other three teams break the Patriots' grip on the AFC East?

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You have to go all the way back to 2008 for the last season that the New England Patriots did not win the AFC East. In fact, the Patriots have won all but two division titles since Tom Brady replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe in Week 2 of the 2001 season. Twelve straight seasons of nine or more wins, 10 division titles, five AFC championships and three Super Bowl wins. Few teams have dominated a division for so long the way Bill Belichick's Patriots have.

Eventually, the luster will start to fade. In a way, it already has.

Maybe you've been too wrapped up in twerking lessons to notice this summer's other big fad: offering hot takes on the downfall of the Patriots. Injuries, turnover and an ugly sideshow with Aaron Hernandez's murder charge have made Belichick's team look more vulnerable than it's ever been, even when Brady missed the 2008 season.

It's unlikely that another team supplants the Patriots atop the division standings, despite the turmoil and prognostications of the football pathologists. No other team in the AFC East is ready for such a lofty feat.

The Miami Dolphins are a trendy pick thanks to a massive offseason spending spree. Being a trendy pick usually means a team is a year away. In Buffalo, the Bills embarked on a positive rebuilding effort, but it's only year one of that effort. The New York Jets are continuing their implosion from last season.

No team stays on top forever. Watch the plates shift this year, the first signs of a changing landscape in a division long defined by a single, towering feature.

New England Patriots

Predictions are mostly based on precedent. Betting against a Patriots team that still features Tom Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick at head coach would be foolish. They may not be the best team in the AFC these days, but they still have this division on lock. And what about the turnover, you ask? Don't forget this is the same quarterback that led Reche Caldwell and a 35-year-old Troy Brown to the AFC Championship.

Besides, Rob Gronkowski is practicing again, and the team has a hydra of talented running backs. Stevan Ridley became only the fourth Patriots running back to top the 1,000-yard rushing mark since the 2001 season. He added 12 rushing touchdowns for good measure.

The Patriots also have a defense, which you might have forgotten about considering the offense generates as much attention as it does points. This strength of this year's Patriots defense is its front seven. Vince Wilfork is the most recognizable of the bunch, but a healthy Chandler Jones could change that in his second season. At linebacker, there's Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower. Together this group held opponents to just 3.6 yards on runs out of the pistol or shotgun, the best mark in the league according to Football Outsiders.

Miami Dolphins

Imagine going to the store the week before Thanksgiving, spending hundreds on dollars to get everything you could possibly imagine for a primo spread. Halfway through preparations that morning you realize you forgot butter. Now, you've got to make do with margarine because that's the only thing they had at the only store that was open that day.

Jeff Ireland's 2013 free agent feast included wide receivers, defensive backs, linebackers and linemen. But he forgot about a left tackle. Ryan Tannehill enters his second season with big expectations and a pile of margarine named Jonathan Martin protecting his flank.

Miami's real strength is its pass rush. Cameron Wake leads the league in combined sacks and quarterback hits over the last three seasons. Ireland drafted Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan with the third overall selection. Daniel Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler upgrade the linebacking unit.

Free agent addition Brent Grimes is a better fit for the Phins' zone system, but the 30-year-old has struggled to stay healthy recently. Opposing quarterbacks will try and feast on journeyman Dimitri Patterson starting opposite Grimes. It's clear defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle is holding to the theory that a strong pass rush can hide a weak secondary. He better hope that idea holds considering the schedule includes big games against the NFC South and the AFC North.

Buffalo Bills

It looked like the Bills were poised for a breakthrough last season. A free-agent spending spree netted Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, a pair of pass rushers that would finally allow the Bills to give Brady and the Patriots problems. Unfortunately, dropping cash on free agents is the last refuge of the damned in the NFL. The Bills replaced Chan Gailey with Syracuse's Doug Marrone, and Buddy Nix stepped aside for Doug Whaley.

The centerpiece of Buffalo's offseason was trading out of the eighth pick to surprise draft prognosticators by selecting Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel. He returned to practice over Labor Day weekend. Manuel's going to be the starter; it just may have to wait until Week 2.

It looks like Buffalo is going to go the smart route and ease Manuel into the role. Quick and easy throws will take advantage of a blazing group of skill players including Stevie Johnson and rookie's Robert Woods and track star Marquise Goodwin. The best news of all is that Marrone plans to feature C.J. Spiller, unlike his predecessor who had a knack for taking the ball out of his hands at exactly the wrong time.

The Bills didn't get much of anything out of their pass rushers last year, obviously. Anderson was released. Williams remains. Coordinator Mike Pettine, escaped from the Jets, brings a well-deserved reputation as one of the best defensive minds in the game. Buffalo should get some return on its investment in Williams this season.

New York Jets

If only we'd heard more about the Jets this last month. The circus isn't leaving town any time soon. At least the Jets managed to get the quarterback controversy out of the way after Mark Sanchez's shoulder injury cleared the way for Geno Smith. But this is the Jets, so don't get Smith's jersey number tattooed on your arm just yet.

Smith struggled through an up and down preseason. Compounding the problem is a woeful group of receivers. The best player from that group, Santonio Holmes, missed training camp and still isn't 100 percent. The offensive line, at least, happens to be pretty good at what it does. A healthy season from running back Chris Ivory, brought over from New Orleans, would help the offense.

Rex Ryan wasn't happy about losing Darrelle Revis. However, he still has a talented core of players on defense, including Antonio Cromartie, Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples. They should at least be able to rush opposing passers.

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