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AFC East Burning Questions and Prediction (AOL Sports)


SoFlaJets

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It's July, the slowest month of the year for the NFL, and it's driving you nuts. You need a fix. A hit. Anything NFL to pull you through the dog days. FanHouse is here to help with an in-depth look at each division that should have you plenty prepared for training camp. We're calling it the Summer Scramble, and today we examine some of the AFC East's burning questions -- and make a ridiculously early prediction of how the division will finish.

Is the Patriots' running game good enough to keep the pressure off Tom Brady and his knee? And does it matter?

If Brady comes back fully healthy -- we're talking like-nothing-ever-happened healthy -- then no, it's not likely to matter. If Brady feels no ill effects whatsoever from the knee injury that cost him the 2008-09 season, then you're probably going to see him flinging the ball all over the field to Randy Moss, Wes Welker and anybody else with two decent hands the way he did en route to that near-perfect 2007-08 season. And the trade that sent Matt Cassel to Kansas City sure made it look as if the Pats are confident that Brady is totally fine.

But being realistic, there's a chance he's not. There exists the chance that something (the knee, fatherhood, bad luck, the law of averages) will crop up to prevent Brady from being exactly as brilliant as he was in 2007. Which makes the question of the running game relevant. Fred Taylor is the most accomplished back in camp, but he's 33 years old. Sammy Morris is 32. Laurence Maroney has younger legs, but he's coming back from a major shoulder injury. The only seemingly sure thing at the position is versatile long-timer Kevin Faulk, who's made his mark in New England as a blocker and a pass catcher.

The Patriots have plenty of options for Brady to hand the ball to if that's what he wants to do. The question is whether those options are good enough if that's what he needs to do.

Can the Jets make the playoffs without throwing the ball?

The biggest question marks in New York are at the offensive skill positions. The Jets will spend training camp figuring out who their quarterback is and whether there are enough capable receivers and tight ends on the roster to give him enough targets. But when you talk to Jets people, they'd have you believe those are ancillary issues.

The Jets love their defense, which will be overseen by new head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and led by vociferous former Baltimore linebacker Bart Scott. They love the depth they have in the running game with Thomas Jones, Leon Washington, rookie Shonn Greene and veteran fullback Tony Richardson. And everybody in the organization speaks glowingly about an offensive line that features four former first-round picks and a wealth of experience. The point? Whether the quarterback is Mark Sanchez, Kellen Clemens, Joe Namath, Ken O'Brien or Ray Lucas, he's going to have enough quality people around him to keep him from falling on his face. And they think they can win with defense and the running game.

Will the Dolphins shore up their special teams?

The 2008 Dolphins finished 29th in the league in punt return coverage and 25th against kick returns. On the other side, their own kick-return average ranked 30th and their net punt average 31st. Those are incredible stats for a team overseen by notorious special teams stickler Bill Parcells, and it's no coincidence that the otherwise unspectactular-but-airtight (+17 turnover margin) Dolphins have identified special teams as an area to improve in 2009. Players like Eric Walden, Jason Allen and Charlie Anderson all figure to be part of the solution, as does receiver Brian Hartline, the team's fourth-round pick out of Ohio State. Davone Bess has likely supplanted Ted Ginn Jr. on punt returns, but Ginn needs to get better returning kickoffs, or he could lose that job too.

Can Dick Jauron keep it together in Buffalo?

Well, the calm, soothing presence of Terrell Owens should help, no? Ah, we kid because we love...

In all seriousness, the addition of Owens gives the Bills the best receiving corps in the AFC East. (That's right, New England -- I'm talking to you.) Josh Reed, Lee Evans, James Hardy, Roscoe Parrish...this is a fun, diverse group with which to surround Owens, and quarterback Trent Edwards should have plenty of targets to which to throw the ball...if he can stay on his feet. That's a big "if," given the loss of left tackle Jason Peters and the likelihood that the Bills start two rookies (Eric Wood and Andy Levitre) at the guard spots. Edwards is entering his third year in the league, and that means he's still developing as a leader and on-field decision-maker. He and the offense were turnover-prone in 2008, and if the Bills get off to a sloppy start, it's going to cost them in the standings. And that's when things could fracture around Edwards and Jauron in a hurry.

RIDICULOUSLY EARLY PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. Patriots (11-5). Even with age and injury questions all over the field, there's simply too much talent here.

2. Jets (9-7). Rex Ryan gets the last laugh on the Dolphins' Channing Crowder, as New York edges out Miami for a wild-card spot.

3. Dolphins (9-7). Still solid along the O-line and on defense, but they're not sneaking up on anybody this year. A quick look at the schedule makes you think they could be 0-3 out of the gate.

4. Bills (7-9). The talent of T.O. can't offset the questions on the O-line and the leadership issues at the coach and QB spots

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Can't argue that.

I think there is a bigger 'burning' question on the defensive side as who is going to replace Vrabel.

The O will be ok. Whether it is Taylor/Maroney running or them hitting Welker and/or Baker for 3-6 yard gains to make up for the lack of a running game, the O will get it's yards.

It is whether the D will be able to be better then meh. The CBs should be better with Bodden and Springs. Whether Woods/TBC/Redd is able to replace Vrabel is the question.

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