(With the NFL regular season set to kick off on Thursday, Sept. 4, NFL.com has put together an eight-part series previewing each team division by division. First up is the AFC East.)
A year ago, the AFC East was the tightest division in the NFL; its four teams separated by only one game. That sort of crowding is best described by coaching icon Bill Parcells.
"They're stacked up like club sandwiches," the current Dallas Cowboys coach is fond of saying.
The New York Jets, who began the season at 1-4, rallied to capture the division crown on the final Sunday of the regular season. They needed a lot of luck to win the second AFC East title in team history, but they deserved it after playing superbly over the final six weeks of the season.
The New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins also finished 9-7, but failed to make the playoffs after losing out in complicated tiebreaking formulas. The Buffalo Bills never were a serious late-season threat, but set the stage for 2003 with an encouraging 8-8 finish.
Movers and shakers
Interestingly, the three runners-up decided the best way to improve in 2003 was to upgrade the defense. Coincidentally, all three teams imported veteran linebackers.
The Dolphins traded for future Hall of Famer Junior Seau, who is nearing the end of his brilliant career.
The Dolphins added veteran LB Junior Seau to their defense.
The Patriots, one full season removed from their Super Bowl championship, signed free-agent plum Rosevelt Colvin, an infusion of new blood on an aging defense.
The Bills swiped free agent Takeo Spikes from the Bengals. The Bills added several other key players on defense in an effort to achieve balance on a team that was too reliant on its passing attack.
The Jets? They also made a significant defensive acquisition, trading up to draft tackle Dewayne Robertson with the fourth overall choice, but they appear to have lost ground in the talent race.
They suffered major offseason defections, namely wide receiver Laveranues Coles to the Redskins, but they have a coach (Herman Edwards) who knows how to get his team into the playoffs and a young quarterback (Chad Pennington) who proved he's capable of putting up scary numbers.
Prepare for another season of club sandwiches.
The Dolphins, Patriots and Bills should be improved after bolstering their defenses. The Dolphins also will be stronger at quarterback, signing former Broncos starter Brian Griese. He will be Jay Fiedler's backup.
It's going to be another 17-week struggle in the AFC East, so don't be surprised if a 9-7 record is good enough to take the crown. Again.
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