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AFC East Spin cycle: Patriots again reign supreme

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Recent posts by Kevin Fishbain

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Posted Dec. 03, 2012 @ 1:58 p.m. ET
By Kevin Fishbain

It's a familiar sight — the Patriots donning celebratory AFC East champion gear. New England won its fourth consecutive division title, and ninth in the past 10 seasons, after beating the Dolphins. Meanwhile, the rest of the division is tied at 5-7, a whopping four games behind the Pats, after wins by the Bills and Jets.

BILLS

What we learned: The defense continues to make strides and the offense knows full well its blueprint for success — run the football. The Bills gained 232 rushing yards on 46 carries, with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson combining for 186 yards on the ground. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw the ball only 17 times, but led five consecutive scoring drives, the first of which started in the second quarter, that helped blow the game open after halftime. The run defense held the Jaguars to 50 yards rushing — although it was a Jaguars rushing attack led by special-teamer Montell Owens after Rashad Jennings left the game. Chad Henne completed only 18-of-41 passes, and Mario Williams made another big play, with a strip-sack and recovery. Reports came out over the weekend that the Bills and FS Jairus Byrd have talked about a contract extension, and another interception by one of the league’s best ballhawks should only accelerate those conversations.

What’s in store next: The Bills host the Rams in Week 14, with St. Louis coming off an overtime upset win over the 49ers. The Rams’ run defense played well against Frank Gore, and has a good pass rush led by DE Chris Long. The Bills’ defense doesn’t have to worry about a high-octane offense, but it will have to stop RBs Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson.

What the heck? When Fitzpatrick has thrown for fewer than 200 yards this season, the Bills are 4-3, which isn’t a surprise — teams run the ball more with the lead, but Fitzpatrick had quite the statistical game on Sunday, completing only nine passes, but accounting for three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing). And the Bills finally — finally — connected with WR T.J. Graham for a big gain, with Fitzpatrick hitting the rookie for a 51-yard completion in the first quarter. Of course, Graham’s next catch was more of the norm, going for three yards.

DOLPHINS

What we learned: Miami might look back at this game as another “what could have been” from this season. Ryan Tannehill overthrew an open Brian Hartline in the endzone in the first quarter, and underthrew him on a potential big play in the fourth quarter in the Dolphins’ 23-16 loss to the Patriots. Miami fell to 5-7, and needs a miracle at this point, with a tough schedule ahead, to stay in the wild-card competition. Tannehill completed only 13-of-29 passes — including only one pass to WR Davone Bess — against one of the league’s softest pass defenses. The Dolphins’ defense harassed Tom Brady and threw the Patriots’ passing game out of whack, which was key, but they couldn’t stop Wes Welker in the first half, allowing New England to build a 17-3 lead. Welker, a former Dolphin, dominated Miami last season, and the Dolphins had no answer on Sunday. The run defense played well most of the game, but couldn’t corral Stevan Ridley when it mattered most on the Patriots’ final drive. One positive continues to be the play of FS Reshad Jones, who had a great interception as well as a tackle for loss.

What’s in store next: The Dolphins travel across the country for their toughest game of the season, facing the 49ers in San Francisco. This is not a favorable matchup for Miami, as the Niners are coming off a tough loss to the Rams and have one of the league’s best defenses, which should give Tannehill and company plenty of problems. The matchup to watch in this one will be Frank Gore and the Niners’ run game vs. the Dolphins’ run defense, which has not been as good as it was to start the season.

What the heck? The Dolphins didn’t have DEs Jared Odrick and Cameron Wake on the field during the start of New England’s final drive, which chewed up more than seven minutes of clock. Wake had two QB hits in the game, and granted, isn’t known as being strong vs. the run, but Odrick should have been on the field. In fact, Odrick was on the field for only 53 percent of the Dolphins’ defensive snaps. For two of the Dolphins’ best players up front to not be on the field on a crucial drive is head-scratching.

PATRIOTS

What we learned: In a far-from-pretty display, a banged-up Patriots team won its fourth consecutive AFC East title, capped off by an efficient, clock-draining drive to seal the win. The offensive line has been very good this season, despite playing different starters, but the injuries caught up to New England on Sunday, as the unit allowed four sacks and seven QB hits. Dan Connolly left the game, and ORT Sebastian Vollmer, who was not 100 percent, struggled with Dolphins DE Cameron Wake. The Dolphins’ pressure helped induce Tom Brady’s worst passer rating of the season (74.8). Brady did attack the middle of Miami’s defense, hitting Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez often, but couldn’t get Brandon Lloyd involved (one catch on one target). The team's final drive — a 16-play, 77-yard march that took 7:18 off the clock late in the fourth quarter — showed how good the Patriots can be running the ball with a lead. On defense, the Patriots’ secondary can thank rookie Ryan Tannehill, who missed on two deep passes to Brian Hartline, both of which would have been huge gains, maybe touchdowns. New England took the ball away, again, on a strip-sack by Trevor Scott, recovered by DT Vince Wilfork. The run defense kept Reggie Bush relatively contained.

What’s in store next: The Patriots’ biggest game of the season is next Monday night against the AFC’s top team, the Texans. Houston’s defensive front will come after Brady, especially after watching what Miami accomplished, and the Pats’ O-line needs to keep DE J.J. Watt back and his hands down. A positive for the Patriots should be seeing what the Packers’ attack did to Houston earlier in the season. On the other side of the ball, if the Patriots’ run defense can stop Arian Foster and put the game on Matt Schaub, it’ll give New England a big advantage.

What the heck? S Patrick Chung, who at times in the past two seasons was the Patriots’ best safety, played only eight defensive snaps. It’s clear that Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory form the new Patriots’ duo on the back end, and Chung, who has battled injuries this season, has been relegated to the No. 3 safety spot. It’s an odd sight, considering Chung has shown playmaking ability, but the Pats’ defense has moved on, and it raises more questions regarding Chung’s future in New England.

JETS

What we learned: Even with Tim Tebow inactive, the Jets’ quarterback situation was still the talk of the town in a weird, ugly 7-6 win that raised questions about Mark Sanchez’s future. Midway through the third quarter, after Sanchez completed 10-of-21 passes for 97 yards and three interceptions, Rex Ryan finally benched the much-maligned signalcaller, but not for Tebow, for Greg McElroy, who had never played in an NFL regular-season game. Bilal Powell’s big runs helped set up the McElroy touchdown pass, as easy a pass as one could make, finding TE Jeff Cumberland wide open in the endzone. As bad as Sanchez was, the Jets’ defense made Cardinals QB Ryan Lindley look worse — if that’s possible. Lindley completed 10-of-31 passes for 72 yards, and the Cards had only five first downs and were 0-for-15 on third down, an area in which the Jets’ defense had previously struggled. Beanie Wells managed only 22 rushing yards on 15 carries. The Jets got to 5-7 thanks to running the ball well and playing great defense, the ideal formula for Gang Green. Bad news for the offense: TE Dustin Keller reportedly suffered a high ankle sprain, which likely would end his season, and maybe his career with the Jets, as Keller’s contract is up.

What’s in store next: The Jets travel to Jacksonville to face the Jaguars, a team always rumored to be the one to take a chance at Tebow at some point. All week, the talk will center around who is the Jets’ starting quarterback, and if Tebow is healthy, would he start over McElroy? Should Ryan keep Sanchez on the bench? The Jets’ defense should have a big advantage over Jacksonville’s offense, and could be in line for another win.

What the heck? This game set offenses back. Aside from a fake punt that resulted in a 40-yard run for the Cardinals, Arizona had only two plays (both passes) that were longer than nine yards. The Jets can’t be too proud of their effort, either, as Gang Green had only one play go for longer than 20 yards. The game against the Jaguars next weekend shouldn’t provide many more fireworks. 

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