AFC East Spin cycle: Patriots survive; Dolphins, Jets fall flat

Posted Nov. 12, 2012 @ 10:34 a.m.
Posted By Kevin Fishbain

While the Patriots escaped with a win to add cushion to their lead in the division, bad losses for the Jets and Dolphins made the picture beneath New England foggier. In fact, the Bills’ resilience in their loss made them look like the second-best team in a weak division on Sunday. 

BILLS

What we learned: The offense is still good enough to keep the Bills in games, but mistakes were the downfall on Sunday. Buffalo drew a ridiculous 14 flags for 148 penalty yards. A few of the calls were questionable, especially in the first half, aiding the Patriots on touchdown drives. Despite the penalties, the Bills still had a chance to win in Gillette Stadium for the first time. Instead, Fred Jackson’s goal-line fumble and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s interception in the endzone kept points off the board in the fourth quarter, and kept the Bills from pulling off a season-saving upset. Fitzpatrick’s fumble in the first quarter on a strip-sack led to a Patriots touchdown as well. The much-maligned signalcaller actually had a good game, but like in Buffalo’s loss to Tennessee, he will be remembered for his final throw, which was picked off by Devin McCourty, though rookie WR T.J. Graham took blame for running the wrong route. C.J. Spiller had another big game (131 total yards) on only 13 touches. Jackson played well, too, before his costly fumble. The defense improved against the run compared to the debacle vs. New England in Week Four, but the penalties were killers.

What’s in store next: Buffalo has a must-win game on Thursday night against the Dolphins at home. The Bills are in an unfamiliar spot in prime time and face a Dolphins team that has lost two in a row. Buffalo’s remaining schedule is pretty soft, and it’s certainly possible for Buffalo to make a run, especially with the way the Dolphins and Jets played on Sunday. Against Miami, Spiller will have to find holes against a generally stout run defense — though the Dolphins struggled vs. Chris Johnson. The key on offense will be protecting the football, and Miami’s poor offense should give the Bills’ defense a bit of a break.

What the heck? The red-zone problems are baffling for a team with a RB duo like Jackson and Spiller, and a solid pass-catching tight end in Scott Chandler. On Sunday, Buffalo converted only 4-of-7 red-zone trips into touchdowns. Spiller is averaging just shy of 13 touches per game, and he is certainly deserving of more, but it appears Chan Gailey can’t find the best way to keep Spiller and Jackson on the field together. Spiller should rarely be on the sideline when Buffalo has the ball.

DOLPHINS

What we learned: This team is young and can be prone to fall flat and not show up, which is exactly what happened on Sunday. For the first half of this season — and the second half of last year — the Dolphins always fought hard and made games close. But they had their worst performance of the season on Sunday, losing 37-3 to a Titans team that had one of the worst defenses in the league. Miami couldn’t stop the run, allowing 126 yards to Chris Johnson. The once-vaunted third-down defense struggled again. On offense, Ryan Tannehill looked like a rookie, throwing three interceptions, and Reggie Bush’s key fumble kept him out of most of the game thanks to a benching. Miami’s run game has been dormant since Week Three, and no pass catcher outside of Brian Hartline and Davone Bess has emerged. The performance was uncharacteristic of what we’ve seen from this team, but after a tough loss to Indy last week, the start of the season might have been fool’s gold.

What’s in store next: The Dolphins better show they have a short memory, as they have quick turnaround with a game on Thursday night in Buffalo. Miami is very much in the wild-card hunt, but the margin of error is extremely slim. The Bills lost on Sunday, but their offense could cause problems for a Dolphins defense that is on the downswing in the last couple weeks. With the Bills’ defensive struggles, this would be a nice opportunity for Tannehill and Bush to figure things out, but that’s what we thought about a matchup with the Titans, and that turned out miserably for Miami.

What the heck? Stopping Johnson was a problem in itself, but the Dolphins couldn’t even contain QB Jake Locker in his first game since Week Four. The second-year QB scrambled four times for 36 yards, and three of those runs went for first downs. The front seven is supposed to be Miami’s strength, but its failure to keep Locker in check extended drives for Tennessee and is yet another knock on Kevin Coyle’s defense, which was exposed for the second week in a row.

PATRIOTS

What we learned: This remains a tough team to figure out, as long as that defense is going to give up yards and points. New England held on to a 37-31 win over the Bills, avoiding a major upset coming off a bye. Buffalo gained 481 yards of offense and 35 first downs, converted 7-of-11 first downs and had multiple chances to knock the Patriots off their perch. Instead, Bill Belichick’s group made just enough plays to survive, something we’ve seen often from this team. The defense bent plenty, but created three crucial turnovers — a strip-sack that led to a touchdown, a forced fumble of Fred Jackson at the goal line and the game-clinching interception in the endzone. On offense, Stevan Ridley had a nice game, as did Tom Brady, but Wes Welker had a few crucial drops and Rob Gronkowski was targeted only four times (three catches and one touchdown). After scoring three touchdowns in their first four possessions, the Pats found the endzone only once after halftime, and could have put the game away a few times. Once again, the Patriots will have doubters, but all that matters to them is that they got a win.

What’s in store next: The Pats’ pass defense gets a huge test next week against Andrew Luck and a confident Colts team. The Patriots-Colts rivalry is different without Peyton Manning, but Luck should make it interesting. Indy’s defense also has stepped up of late, and the Patriots’ O-line will need a strong game against Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Tom Brady should be able to move the ball against a banged-up Colts secondary. This game was flexed into a late-afternoon slot and it will give the Patriots an opportunity to let the league know if they are the team that blew out the Rams in London, or the one that almost lost to the Bills.

What the heck? In the first half, penalty flags plagued the Bills, but late in the game, the yellow flags rained on a usually disciplined Patriots team. Brandon Spikes' roughing-the-passer penalty, Jerod Mayo's unnecessary-roughness infraction and a Rob Ninkovich encroachment gave Buffalo plenty of chances.

JETS

What we learned: The offense is still a disaster and Rex Ryan’s defense continues to struggle. In the Jets’ biggest game of the season, they got pummeled at the hands of Seattle, and it’s never a simple loss for the Jets. Muhammad Wilkerson’s touchdown on a fumble recovery tied the game at 7-7, and at the start of the second quarter, it appeared Gang Green could take the lead. But Mark Sanchez did what he’s done so many times in his NFL career, make a poor decision, throwing a pass late toward Dustin Keller at the pylon on 3rd-and-goal. CB Richard Sherman intercepted the pass, ending the drive. The Jets did not score any offensive points in the 28-7 loss. Seahawks WR Golden Tate threw more touchdowns than the Jets’ quarterbacks. Marshawn Lynch had a big day (27-124-1), and the Jets couldn’t create a turnover from rookie QB Russell Wilson. Seattle is not an easy place to win, but the Jets fell badly.

What’s in store next: The Jets travel to St. Louis to play a Rams team that put together a strong effort in playing the 49ers to a 24-24 tie at San Francisco. St. Louis’ defensive front, led by Chris Long and Robert Quinn, will look to make things difficult for Sanchez. The Jets’ run defense, which isn’t nearly as stout as it used to be, will have to put up with Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson. Gang Green is in must-win mode, but they will need the defense to keep scoring points, or at least creating short fields, going forward.

What the heck? Lost in the midst of another bad season for the Jets is the impressive play of WR Jeremy Kerley, who had five catches for 57 yards, but his muffed punt was yet another special-teams gaffe. The other pass catchers, however, aren’t doing Sanchez and the Jets any favors. Dustin Keller had a drop and two penalties. Rookie WR Stephen Hill had zero catches on two targets. As poor as the receivers are, maybe Antonio Cromartie deserves another chance on offense, or it’s time to just scrap the passing game and go with Tim Tebow … but, then again, the Jets aren’t moving the ball on the ground, either. 

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