The story this offseason was that the tides had changed in the AFC East, that the Bills, not the Jets, would be the top challenger to the Patriots. But in Week One, the pecking order in the AFC East looked the same as it has the past two seasons, with the Pats dominating, the Jets routing the Bills and the Dolphins getting a pounding from the Texans.
What we learned: All those worries about QB Ryan Fitzpatrick? They remain. The Bills put an emphasis on upgrading the backup QB situation this offseason, and that’s not to say that Fitzpatrick is in danger of losing his job, but we saw the struggles that contributed to the team’s downfall in the second half last season. Fitzpatrick looked uncomfortable most of the game against the Jets, throwing three bad interceptions, which helped put the Bills in a huge hole. On defense, the D-line did not come close to matching the hype it had garnered, and the decision to go young at cornerback seemed to backfire, as first-round rookie Stephon Gilmore was picked on repeatedly. Positives? The play of WR Donald Jones, TE Scott Chandler and RB C.J. Spiller.
What’s in store next: It’s too early for Bills fans to panic, but a loss next week to the Chiefs might be reason to start sounding sirens. The Chiefs did not look good in their opener (though they were without OLB Tamba Hali and CB Brandon Flowers), and Buffalo pounded K.C. last season. The Bills will be without WR David Nelson for the rest of the season, and likely RB Fred Jackson for a few weeks, so expect to see a lot of Spiller in this one and going forward.
What the heck? So much for that defensive line. Heralded free-agent signee Mario Williams had one tackle, and the starting unit combined for five tackles, zero for loss, zero sacks and zero QB hits. DE Mark Anderson didn't even make the stat sheet. Granted, they went against a solid Jets O-line that had help from tight ends in protection, but early returns on the new, supposedly vaunted unit are not good. On offense, where was Brad Smith? Granted, he was limited during the week in practice with a groin injury, but Smith had 77 receiving yards in his one game against the Jets last season and he did not play on Sunday.
What we learned: QB Ryan Tannehill will go through his growing pains. He threw interceptions on three consecutive possessions in the second quarter, allowing the Texans to blow open a tight game. The West Coast offense is predicated on quick-hitting throws, but D-linemen around the league will see what J.J. Watt did to Tannehill and do the same. The first-round rookie will need to adjust his throws and maybe move the pocket a little more to avoid batted passes. A pair of positives for Miami? RB Marcus Thigpen’s punt-return touchdown showed why he made the final roster and DT Randy Starks picked up where he left off after a solid 2011 season with two sacks.
What’s in store next: Two of the more impressive performances from the Dolphins in the past two seasons came in wins over the Raiders. They will need to shut down the run like they did in those two meetings, but Carson Palmer will test the Dolphins' secondary. Check the status of RB Daniel Thomas, who had a nice catch and run before getting knocked out of the game with a head injury. The Dolphins’ passing game might want to get TEs Charles Clay and Anthony Fasano more involved.
What the heck? WR Legedu Naanee impressed throughout minicamp and training camp, but with Brian Hartline back and healthy, Naanee played in only 27 offensive snaps and received two targets and zero catches. What’s more strange is that waiver pickup Anthony Armstrong was on the field for eight more offensive snaps than Naanee.
What we learned: It’s not just Tom Brady and the passing game that teams need to figure out how to defend, it’s a revamped rushing attack led by Stevan Ridley, who looked very good in the open field making cuts and scampering for 125 yards. Ridley accounted for six of the Patriots’ 10 longest plays. We also saw a run defense that looked very stout, holding the Titans to 20 yards rushing and only four yards (on 11 carries) to Chris Johnson. Rookies Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower looked as good as advertised in the front seven.
What’s in store next: The Pats host the Cardinals in Foxborough, where New England has been so good over the last decade. Kevin Kolb is expected to start for Arizona, and the Cardinals could not run the ball against Seattle. The Patriots’ secondary, mainly CB Devin McCourty, will be tested by WR Larry Fitzgerald and that’s a matchup to watch. The O-line will need to perform well again, as the Cardinals’ front was aggressive getting after Seahawks QB Russell Wilson.
What the heck? An interesting story line to watch: Wes Welker got 42 snaps, or 63 percent of the offensive snaps. Julian Edelman received 23 snaps. Welker let a pass hit him in the helmet, and finished with three catches for 14 yards on five targets. We’ll see if that becomes a trend. On the other side of the playtime percentages, Chandler Jones was on the field for 89 percent of plays, showing how ready he is for the NFL.
What we learned: Hey, that Sanchez guy isn’t so bad. No player was happier to play a regular-season game than Mark Sanchez, who had to spend the past five months talking about his backup. He looked poised in completing 19-of-27 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns, making up for a bad interception early in the game. And that backup: Tim Tebow played offense for 10 snaps. He had five carries for 11 yards. Rookie WR Stephen Hill also looked the part with five catches for 89 yards and two scores.
What’s in store next: We’ll know a lot more about this Jets offense next week against the Steelers, who will provide a stiffer challenge for Sanchez and isn’t the type of unit that will allow 48 points. Tony Sparano’s “ground and pound” offense faces an unfavorable matchup against Pittsburgh’s front, which will put pressure on Sanchez to repeat his Week One performance.
What the heck? A pretty nice Sunday for WR Jeremy Kerley, whose training camp got off to a slow start. Kerley was on the field for only 22 offensive snaps, but he made the most of them, catching all four passes thrown his way, including a touchdown. On special teams, Kerley returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown. Dustin Keller was on the field for 43 percent of snaps and had only one catch. He was limited in practice during the week, though, but it opened the door for TE Jeff Cumberland, who had three catches for 33 yards. His 2011 season was cut short because of an Achilles injury, but the Jets have wanted to get Cumberland more involved on offense.