COMMENTARY | For the first time in what seems like forever, the AFC East is wide open and does not look to have a dominant team. Gone are the years where the New England Patriots and New York Jets could be expected to run the division leaving the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins at the bottom. This season, every team except the Jets projects to be able to make a run at the playoffs, and all have enough questions to make it impossible to be 100% confident in picking a winner.
The excitement for the division starts in Week 1. There is one divisional matchup between the Bills and Patriots, and the Dolphins and Jets take on out-of-division foes. Here are predictions for how things will play out on Sunday.
Miami Dolphins at Cleveland Browns
After a few lean years in Miami, things finally appear to be looking up for the Dolphins. Coach Joe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill enter their second seasons with the team, and speedster Mike Wallace was added to give a pedestrian receiving corps a shot of adrenaline. That being said, the Dolphins lost Reggie Bush to free agency and are turning over the running back position to unproven Lamar Miller and mostly unimpressive Daniel Thomas. In addition, there are still questions about a defensive unit that gave up nearly 250 yards per game through the air in 2012. As a result, it is difficult to envision the Dolphins making a lasting push at a division title in the AFC East.
The Browns, on the other hand, seem ripe to make one of the biggest jumps in the NFL in 2013. New head coach Paul Chudzinski is known for an exciting offense, and the team has many high-potential pieces on that side of the ball. Expect second year quarterback Brandon Weeden to make big improvements in 2013, taking advantage of athletic marvels Trent Richardson and Jordan Cameron. Although number one wide receiver Josh Gordon will be suspended for the game, it remains difficult to envision the Dolphins shutting down Richardson and the up-and-coming passing attack over four quarters.
Prediction: The Browns take a lead and then their rushing offense becomes too much for the Dolphins to stop, while Wallace is contained by Joe Haden. Cleveland wins 27-17.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New York Jets
No team east of Oakland has had a more dysfunctional offseason than the New York Jets. Throughout the offseason, it was reported that the Jets were looking to get rid of quarterback Mark Sanchez. This intention was essentially confirmed by the Jets drafting Geno Smith. However, the ensuing quarterback competition was botched like only the Jets can, as Smith struggled mightily in the preseason and Sanchez got hurt playing on a field full of backups in the fourth quarter of a preseason game against the New York Giants.
Now, with Smith at the helm (due to Sanchez being hurt), the Jets open by welcoming Tampa Bay to East Rutherford. This is an important year in Tampa for quarterback Josh Freeman, who the Bucs hope will finally take the next step to fulfill his potential. Freeman certainly has the offensive weapons at his disposal to do so, with high-powered wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams and top-flight running back Doug Martin. This is to be contrasted, of course, with a Jets offense that arguably doesn't have a single player with the ability to strike fear in opposing defenses.
Prediction: The Jets keep it close with inspiration from opening the season at home, but the offense cannot keep up with Freeman and the Bucs. Tampa takes the game 27-13.
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills
The most intriguing AFC East game in Week 1 is also the only one that pits two division rivals against each other. The Patriots visit Orchard Park and look to continue their ownership of the Bills, as they enter having won 25 out of 27 in the series.
2013 has the makings of a turning point in the rivalry. Not only is Tom Brady another year older, but gone are his favorite receiving targets of years' past: Wes Welker is in Denver, Rob Gronkowski is injured, Brandon Lloyd remains a free agent and Aaron Hernandez is jailed. When coupled with the intense pressure the Buffalo defense will put on Brady under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's blitz-heavy system, it is easy to see the Patriots offense looking uncharacteristically slow.
On the other side of the ball, the Bills' offense should be anything but slow. With rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel running the new, quick-strike scheme, it will be difficult for the Patriots defense to have any success. Expect Manuel to get a boost playing in front of his new home crowd in his first NFL game and a big performance from C.J. Spiller, each of which should lead to an assault of touchdowns.
Prediction: Buffalo shocks the NFL world with the biggest upset of Week 1, taking the game 38-27.
There should be three exciting games on tap for the AFC East teams in Week 1. However, looking at the match-ups, things shape up well for the upstart Buffalo Bills to have an early one game lead in the standings over each of their three division rivals.
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Del Pearson is a lifelong Upstate New York resident and follower of the Buffalo Bills. He has been attending games since childhood and more recently writing about the team as a Yahoo Contributor. Follow him on Twitter @DelPearson44.
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