Patriots Will Be Kings of AFC Again
Just when it looked like Bill Belichik and Tom Brady’s stranglehold on the AFC could be nearing its end, the New England Patriots improved on both sides of the ball and are primed for another Super Bowl run. The reality is that Brady and Belichik might be celebrating their fourth world championship in early February. That's not just a fantasy for Patriots fans; the stars and playmakers reside in New England.
The story lines and list of challengers to the Patriots is bountiful in the wide open AFC. We will examine each division along with key players for each team’s success.
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New England Patriots
Tom Brady is money in the bank every year; the guy wins NFL games and fantasy titles at a blistering pace. ‘Mr. Bundchen’ puts up outstanding numbers and should be a consensus first round pick in every fantasy draft. The Patriots enter the 2012 season with a chip on their shoulders following another Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. Rob Gronkowski has recovered from ankle surgery and the record-setting TE will once again dominate in the red zone. Gronk’s partner in duel tight end sets, Aaron Hernandez will be a regular contributor and creates major mismatches for opposing defenses. New England also acquired Brandon Lloyd during the off-season, reuniting him with former head coach and current offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
The Patriots will once again rely on the passing game while mixing in occasional running plays. The departure of BenJarvus Green Ellis will not be felt as any and all combinations of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vreen, Danny Woodhead, and Joseph Addai will provide New England with enough snaps to keep defenses honest. The Patriots won’t have to improve a defense that ranked 31st in 2011 too much to be considered the favorites in the AFC. New England will be an offensive force once again, and we haven’t even discussed PPR monster Wes Welker yet.
FanRag Prediction: 13-3 will guarantee home field advantage throughout the playoffs and the good folks in Foxborough will celebrate another trip to the Super Bowl.
FanRag Bold Fantasy Predictions: Brandon Lloyd will outperform Wes Welker in 2012. Welker will not be franchised in 2013 but will re-sign with New England following a third Super Bowl loss.
New York Jets
All of the attention in New York’s back pages is focused on the role Tim Tebow will play in the offense in 2012 and whether or not Mark Sanchez can withstand the mounting pressure. None of that will matter and success will elude Rex Ryan’s crew if the Jets don’t get back to playing their brand of football--Ground and Pound. The Jets aren’t loaded with tons of fantasy upside, instead theirs is a team game built on time of possession and pressuring the quarterback, neither of which they did well last season. Shonn Greene has to become the dominant back that he showed glimpses of during New York’s playoff runs resulting in consecutive AFC title games in 2009-2010 or this will be his final season in the Big Apple. Santonio Holmes proved to be more of a detriment last season than a leader; he is neither physical or fast enough to be a true #1 in today’s game. Dustin Keller offers some value at tight end, specifically in the red zone and in ‘check-downs’.
The Jets won’t dazzle you with multiple sets and high scoring affairs. What they will do is play a rugged,physical style and grind out wins late. Anything less than a playoff appearance may mean that Rex Ryan’s tenure as head coach could be in jeopardy. This is a team that features above average offensive and defensive line play but is severely limited in keeping up with the rest of the AFC’s elite offenses--unless Tebow Mania Part II ensues.
FanRag Prediction: New York gains momentum after beating a 10-0 Patriots team on Thanksgiving, and squeaks into the playoffs with a record of 10-6 as a wild card due in large part to a weak schedule (the AFC East faces the AFC South and NFC West in 2012). The Jets won’t be able to muster enough offense against a division winner in the first round and management blows up the team, save for Rex Ryan who keeps his job.
FanRag Bold Fantasy Predictions: Shonn Greene emerges as a top 20 running back and finishes with double digit touchdowns and over 1100 yards. Tebow will only replace Sanchez due to injury but will be ineffective and subsequently benched.
The Bills have a knack for starting the season quickly only to fade by the time November rolls along. This year will be quite the opposite as I expect the Bills to get hot at season’s end and make a serious playoff push. Buffalo is a team on the verge of being a factor in the AFC but many pieces have to fall into place. Ryan Fitzpatrick is not a strong-armed QB and that hinders his effectiveness once the temperature drops (and the winds pick up) on Lake Erie. Stevie Johnson is a quality receiver but his frequent mental lapses cost his team possessions and wins. CJ Spiller did an admirable job filling in for the injured Fred Jackson (who was having a career year) in the second half of 2011. Both backs will see plenty of action this year and provide value especially in PPR leagues. The Bills will struggle to find complementary receivers to Johnson as Donald Jones and David Nelson are merely average players. Tight end Scott Chandler is a solid red zone threat but remains limited in the overall passing game.
Head coach Chan Gailey is changing the culture in Buffalo, but this is a team that seems to be a year or two away from contention. With the addition of former first overall pick Mario Williams, the Bills defense will pressure opposing QBs and get off the field with more regularity. The Bills will surprise many people this season and with a little luck, maybe even be playing meaningful games late in the year.
FanRag Prediction: The Bills finish strong but it’s too little, too late as a 9-7 record keeps them from advancing to the postseason.
FanRag Bold Fantasy Prediction: Fred Jackson regains his form while both he and CJ Spiller finish the season as top 20 running backs. Stevie Johnson repays Buffalo’s faith and contract extension in him by putting up top 15 wide receiver numbers.
Joe Philbin is going to make the Dolphins relevant again, just not overnight. Miami will make strides in 2012 and even show flashes as a potential playoff contender. Rookie first-round draft pick Ryan Tannehill has been named the Dolphins week 1 starter, he will receive plenty of love in South Beach but should only be drafted in the final rounds as a backup for fantasy owners or in franchise leagues. Tannehill will have his share of growing pains because the talent around him is not that great. Reggie Bush had a career year in 2012, his numbers will be very productive if he can stay healthy. With Reggie, that’s always a really big IF. Fellow running back Daniel Thomas was expected to step in as a rookie in 2011 to give the Dolphins a strong running game, but he struggled with injuries and the playbook for much of the season.
Miami’s receiving corps might be the weakest in the NFL, not something that a rookie QB and head coach will find very comforting. Devone Bess, Legedu Naanee, Marlon Moore and Jeff Fuller aren’t household names and won’t strike fear in opposing defensive coordinators, but those are the men most likely to be catching the lasers that Ryan Tannehill throws their way as the Dolphins adapt to Mike Sherman’s west coast offense. Tight end Anthony Fasano may lead the team in receptions in 2012. Look for the Dolphins to run the ball early and often as the season begins.
FanRag Prediction: On paper Miami is the worst team in this division, miles behind the New England Patriots. The Dolphins should be competitive with the Jets and Bills and Joe Philbin will prove capable as a head coach. Look for the Dolphins to be a sleeper team this time next season, this year a 5-11 finish sounds about right.
FanRag Bold Fantasy Prediction: Reggie Bush will not duplicate his 2011 numbers. In fact Daniel Thomas will outperform the former Heisman Trophy winner (and ‘returner’) for the season. Tannehill will throw for over 3000 yards but his touchdown to interception ratio will leave plenty to be desired.