Here we find ourselves once more…
As October settles in, the AFC East paints a familiar picture: the New England Patriots leading the charge, the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets grappling with uncertainty at quarterback, and the Miami Dolphins, a team of undeniable talent, riding a roller-coaster of unpredictability.
Indeed, there’s a more profound story behind how these organizations arrived at this juncture. But, alas, here we stand.
A prevailing theme looms large:
In the AFC East, a reliable, consistently productive running game is the linchpin to altering one’s fate.
Without it, aspirations of victory for the Bills, Dolphins, or Jets in this division are akin to a dream of becoming an astronaut with scant regard for mathematics and science. It’s a futile endeavor.
And for the Patriots, should they maintain their steadfast commitment to the running game, the rest of the division might as well wave the white flag…
Buffalo Bills vs. the New England Patriots
In recent weeks, New England spectators have had cause to criticize the subpar performance of their offensive line.
However, as the Bills prepare for Sunday’s crucial matchup against the Patriots, they, too, face issues with their offensive line operating below par.
Most of their struggles can be attributed to the interior linemen’s inability to provide adequate openings for CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson to kickstart their runs.
Spiller is a versatile back, displaying the ability to navigate various routes on the field.
He excels at executing bounce-outs and cutbacks, initiating runs toward the line only to swiftly redirect toward the outside, utilizing his speed and agility to threaten the edge.
Defenses have found success against him by negating his lateral movement, applying pressure on the edge, blocking, and disrupting the interior, thus thwarting potential cutback opportunities.
When Spiller is contained, the Bills’ offensive explosiveness is notably diminished.
Nobody is changing their fortunes in the AFC East without a consistently productive running game. Nobody.
Fred Jackson may be delivering his usual level of productivity, but the statistics can be misleading.
The Bills’ offense has encountered difficulties generating forward momentum in standard 2-back backfield formations, leading them to adopt a more shotgun-oriented running approach late.
Unfortunately, Jackson has often gained 6, 7, or 8 yards on third and long, only to precede punts.
When they manage to secure those 6, 7, and 8-yard gains on first and second downs for Jackson, the offense starts to flourish.
However, when he’s relegated to being the sole option for getting the offense back on track, it limits opportunities for other weapons like Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, and the oft-overlooked Scott Chandler.
The Bills’ defining victory this season came in their hard-fought triumph against Detroit last week.
Yet, it was more a testament to their disruptive defense and a struggling Lions offense that couldn’t convert field goals (except for the Bills’ kicker, Dan Carpenter’s impressive 58-yarder) rather than a display of offensive prowess.
Today’s showdown against the Patriots will be narrated by the performance of the Bills’ offensive line.
If their struggles persist, Buffalo’s chances in this game diminish significantly—any prior discussions about the Patriots’ offensive line will feel like ancient history.
Should Kyle Orton be forced to emulate the EJ Manuel offense from the shotgun due to their inability to gain yards from under center, the entire momentum of this game will heavily favor the Patriots.
New York Jets against the visiting Denver Broncos
Due to the Jets’ recent staggering defeat against the San Diego Chargers, a game that saw them thoroughly dominated, I view them as particularly formidable opponents for the Broncos today.
This season has witnessed several teams being initially brushed aside, only to reemerge a week later, playing like an entirely different squad.
The Buccaneers, Patriots, Packers, Giants, and Vikings have all exhibited this Jekyll and Hyde transformation.
What’s the key for the Jets? It boils down to one thing: the run game. The run game. The run game.
While it’s commonplace to criticize the Jets for their quarterback struggles, there comes a point where you have to take the onus off the QB and return to your team’s strengths.
The Jets can establish a formidable running attack and solidify their defense.
Chris Ivory embodies this with his powerful running style, and Chris Johnson remains a potent home run threat.
Though the Jets have invested in their tight end position, re-signing Jeff Cumberland and drafting Jace Amaro in the second round, neither excels at creating significant separation on their own, which is crucial when accurate quarterbacks are in short supply.
For the Jets’ skill players to shine, they need a solid running game production foundation, enabling them to make complementary plays.
Simply hoping for a miraculous fix at the quarterback position, even if Michael Vick has a stellar week of practice, is wishful thinking.
Every incomplete pass you witness from the Jets on Sunday that doesn’t originate from a well-executed play action is a missed opportunity.
Should the Jets fully commit to their established formula of running the ball, Denver might be the latest victim of an unexpected NFL upset.
Miami Dolphins against the visiting Green Bay Packers
The Dolphins resemble the epitome of an arms-length relationship.
They display potential, but placing complete trust in them can be a risky endeavor.
As for the Packers, their defensive strategy has clicked into place by having Julius Peppers operate alongside Clay Matthews rather than in the area of him.
Miami has been granted an ideal situation for a team in search of both health and an offensive identity: a matchup against the Raiders preceding a bye week.
The anticipated return of Knowshon Moreno from his elbow injury means that the potentially formidable duo of Moreno and Lamar Miller will be back on the field at precisely the opportune moment.
Green Bay has emerged as one of the early-season leaders in takeaways.
Dom Capers must be hoping that Miami will attempt to transform Ryan Tannehill into an Aaron Rodgers-type figure rather than playing to his strengths in the mold of Alex Smith.
Every moment Tannehill spends in a five or 7-step dropback is a generous offering to the Packers.
To avoid subjecting Tannehill to a barrage of strip-sacks, Miami should consider adopting the Chiefs’ approach of utilizing multiple backs and employing play-action to set up opportunities for their wide receivers.
The Dolphins’ runs that initiate towards the play-side but then cut back as interior runs—without going to the outside players—present an ideal strategy against a Packers front that primarily applies pressure from the edges.
This was a tactic that the Dolphins executed masterfully earlier in the season against the Patriots.
The question is whether Miami can overcome its reluctance to embrace its identity as a run-oriented team that lays the foundation for the passing game rather than vice versa.
For Buffalo, New York, and Miami to alter the landscape of the AFC East, they must promptly adopt run-first offensive identities.
It’s the most viable route for any of them, and as evidenced by New England’s resurgence with their own running game last week, it’s the key to their return to the top.
This week’s matchups will provide a significant indication for AFC East followers: is this just another run-of-the-mill year, or could there be a transformative shift on the horizon?