The AFC East may boast the No. 2 seed in the league in the Patriots, but the rest of the division remains well behind New England, as evidenced in Week 17. The Patriots pounded the Dolphins, while the Bills beat the Jets in a battle of two teams set to face plenty of changes this offseason.
What we learned: As expected, the Bills put forth an impressive effort in the season finale, with the players showing well for Chan Gailey in what could be his final game as Buffalo’s head coach. The Bills avenged an ugly Week One loss, which was the initial sign that this season might not reach the high expectations, beating the Jets 28-9. Buffalo forced two turnovers, with LB Bryan Scott returning a pick for a touchdown, and the corners were credited with a few big passes defended. On offense, there were no complaints about C.J. Spiller’s touches — he had 24 carries and two catches (on seven targets). WR Stevie Johnson made a few highlight-reel catches and finished with 111 receiving yards, notching his third consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season. Johnson had a very underrated year, putting up solid numbers in a struggling Bills passing game without reliable targets opposite him. Ryan Fitzpatrick completed only 12 passes, but that has been the team’s recipe for success at times this year — and most importantly, he didn’t turn it over.
What’s in store next: Rumors are swirling that Gailey’s time in Buffalo is done after three losing seasons, but it could be a few days before owner Ralph Wilson makes a decision. Fitzpatrick’s future is also up in the air with Buddy Nix making it very clear the team will do what it takes to draft a quarterback. In terms of free agency, FS Jairus Byrd and OLG Andy Levitre are key cogs the Bills will want to re-sign.
What the heck? Spiller did have a phenomenal 66-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown, but his overall numbers were paltry considering all his opportunities. Spiller had only 59 yards on 24 carries — his 2.5-yard rushing average was almost four yards fewer than his season average and his lowest of 2012. The Jets did a good job containing him from bouncing outside. Spiller also lost his third fumble of the season.
What we learned: The Dolphins fell flat twice this year, and once came in the season-finale loss to the Patriots. Miami got shut out for the first time since 2010, falling 28-0, their second-worst loss of the season (they lost to the Titans 37-3 on Nov. 11). The players spoke all week about playing for that 8-8 record and the importance of getting to .500. On the other side, the Patriots needed a win for a bye, but the Dolphins got down early and turnovers and gaffes cost them. Ryan Tannehill had a rookie-like game, making a poor decision to throw into double coverage on a third-down play in the first quarter, which led to a Patriots TD. The O-line had one of its worst games, allowing seven sacks, struggling with the Patriots’ mixing things up at the line. Reggie Bush in his pursuit for 1,000 yards fell short, rushing for only 26 yards, and 18 of those came on the last play of the game. A fumbled exchange between Tannehill and Bush at the goal line kept Miami from scoring in the third quarter. The defense couldn’t defend the middle of the field and hit Tom Brady only two times. Miami gave up 167 rushing yards, the second-highest total they allowed all year.
What’s in store next: Despite a tough way to end the season, 2012 had some bright spots for a team many predicted to finish dead last in the division, if not the league. 2013 will be extremely crucial for this organization. Jeff Ireland has to decide what to do with several big-name free agents and how to spend a fair amount of money the Dolphins have under the cap. Tannehill will be expected to take a Year Two jump to prove he really is the franchise QB of the future. This roster could get overhauled, even if there is finally some stability in the front office.
What the heck? High on the Dolphins’ wish list has to be a wide receiver, in addition to re-signing Brian Hartline, who had a career year with 1,083 receiving yards. The No. 3 receiver spot was an absolute revolving door. In the preseason, Roberto Wallace and Chad Ochocinco appeared to be options, but both were cut. Jabar Gaffney couldn’t stay healthy and Legedu Naanee didn’t match his spring hype. In the end, it was Marlon Moore, Rishard Matthews and Armon Binns playing the role of third receiver, with no real answer. Matthews’ 11 catches were third-most on the team by a wideout.
What we learned: Knowing a win would give them a bye, the Patriots took care of business against a team that had given them trouble in the previous two meetings, shutting out the Dolphins 28-0. The first two drives may have come up empty handed, but Tom Brady still moved the ball with ease. Steve Gregory’s interception set up the first score, and it was smooth sailing from there. Brady reconnected with TE Rob Gronkowski for a score in Gronk’s first game back from a forearm injury and utilized Danny Woodhead often, giving him eight touches. Stevan Ridley rushed for two scores while the Patriots rumbled for 167 yards on the ground, giving them a 12-0 record when hitting the century mark this season in rushing. The O-line held the Dolphins to just one sack, a big improvement over the last several weeks. The defense had a stellar day putting pressure on Ryan Tannehill. Rookie Justin Francis had three of the team’s seven sacks and eight QB hits, and most of that damage got done with edge rusher Rob Ninkovich on the bench with a hip injury. The front seven disguised looks and applied pressure often to rattle Tannehill. Seldom-used CB Derrick Martin had a sack and blitzed a few times to mix things up.
What’s in store next: With a bye, the Patriots can get CBs Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and Aqib Talib (hip) and Ninkovich at 100 percent. Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez can continue working their way back to full health as well to put the Pats in the best position to win. They will host a divisional round game against the Texans, Ravens or Colts, three teams they have already faced this season. New England routed Houston and Indy, but lost to Baltimore.
What the heck? For a team with a pass-happy offense like the Patriots', it’s odd to see how thin they are at wide receiver. Wes Welker had eight catches, with Deion Branch and Brandon Lloyd each having only one reception. The only other wideout who dressed was Matthew Slater, a special-teams contributor. Kamar Aiken was inactive, but this team feels comfortable going into the playoffs with only three reliable receivers, especially if Gronkowski’s presence can allow Hernandez to move to the slot more often. It shouldn’t be a problem, unless an opponent can shut down the middle of the field, forcing Lloyd or Branch to step up on the outside.
What we learned: Gang Green found a fitting way to end a miserable season, with special-teams miscues, Mark Sanchez turnovers and an inefficient offense. Sanchez returned to the starting role because of Greg McElroy’s concussion and lost a fumble and threw a pick-six in the loss. Sanchez, who had his best game of the season against the Bills in Week One, completed only 17-of-35 passes in what could be his final start for the Jets with so much up in the air. The run game looked as strong as it has in the second half of the season, led by Shonn Greene — who also could have been playing his final game as a Jet — and Bilal Powell. Braylon Edwards led the pass catchers with eight targets — who would have predicted that earlier this season? The Jets were 0-for-3 converting red-zone trips into touchdowns. On defense, the defensive front held C.J. Spiller in check running the ball, but his 66-yard touchdown catch-and-run was bad. The Jets also didn't put much pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick, failing to sack him. Nick Folk had a field goal blocked, rounding out a tough year for the special-teams unit in Mike Westhoff’s final season.
What’s in store next: Changes are certainly coming, but it appears that Rex Ryan is safe in his post. Offensive coordinator Tony Sparano is likely to be gone, and GM Mike Tannenbaum could also see the door, or at least a change in his role if the team brings in someone else to make personnel moves. Who the Jets’ starting quarterback in 2013 will be a big question worth watching, and key offensive players Dustin Keller and Shonn Greene are set to be free agents.
What the heck? Well, we might as well finish the season by honoring Tim Tebow, king of “What the heck?” He entered the game on offense once — and he handed off to Joe McKnight on a first-and-goal. Then, Sanchez returned, and the Jets settled for a field goal. The sequence was a perfect illustration of the Jets’ inability to find a way to use Tebow efficiently. Adding insult to injury, the Jets watched their former “Wildcat” specialist, Brad Smith, run it in for a touchdown for the Bills.