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Commentary: Pats are still the beasts of the East

With the 2006 season fast approaching, some people think the Patriots reign of terror in the AFC East is coming to an end but the Dolphins, Jets and Bills shouldn't get out their shovels to bury the champs quite yet.

If you listen to some in the media, there are rumblings the Patriots stranglehold on the AFC East may come to an end this season. Some have even suggested that the Miami Dolphins are the team to beat in the division. While there's no doubt the Dolphins are headed in the right direction underNick Saban, I'm going to steal a phrase from ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso and say, "Not so fast my friend."

When breaking down the AFC East it's best to start at the bottom, so let's head to Buffalo. Shortly after Bills owner Ralph Wilson admitted publicly that he voted against the current CBA because he didn't understand it, the team showed they know even less about the free agency process by paying way too much money for receiver Peerless Price. The Bills apparently couldn't let a receiver who caught six passes last year go to the one other team that was interested in him, so they decided to vastly overpay him.

The Bills should be better on defense this year with the return of Takeo Spikes but with an abysmal offensive line and the trio of Kelly Holcomb, J.P. Losman and Craig Nall battling to be the team's starting quarterback, it's not a surprise no one knows where Willis McGahee is these days. Buffalo has a better chance of challenging the Frankfurt Galaxy than they do the Patriots this year.

Next we check in on old friend Eric Mangini with the Jets. I really like what the former Patriots defensive coordinator has done since arriving in New York. Mangini has installed something the Jets desperately needed: a long-term plan. He's frustrating the heck out of the New York media by putting a muzzle on his players and Mangini let everyone in the Big Apple know from the start who is in charge.

The problem for Mangini is he inherited a mess in New York that's going to take some time to clean up. I like what the Jets did in the draft by bringing in D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold to address their dreadful offensive line. The Jets have a good enough defense to keep them in a lot of games and they should be a much tougher football team than they were last year. However, with a change in philosophy and major question marks at the quarterback position, it's going to take Mangini more than one offseason to right the ship. At least for his first year, the young coach is playing with the house's money.

Now we get to the team most people think will challenge the Patriots for AFC East supremacy: the Miami Dolphins. First let me say that I think Saban is an excellent coach. He took over the wasteland left by Dave Wannstedt and won nine games during his first season after beginning the year 3-7. A lot of New England fans like to point to the Dolphins weak schedule late in the year but the same thing can be said about the Patriots. The bottom line is the Dolphins were a much-improved team as the season went on last year and Saban deserves a lot of credit for the effort Miami showed on the field every week.

Having said that, I still think the Dolphins are a year away from really pushing the Patriots in the AFC East. Sure, they went out and signedDaunte Culpepper and while that looks good on paper, I see two major problems with the signing.

First – and I don't care what anyone says – Culpepper isn't going to play during the first month of the season. That means the Dolphins will have to face their difficult early season schedule with Joey Harrington behind center. Have fun with that.

The other thing that bothers me about the Culpepper signing is I believe the team really wanted Drew Brees instead and ended up settling for Culpepper. There's no question the former Vikings quarterback is talented but it's hard to just discard his less than impressive career numbers when he's not playing with Randy Moss. Culpepper is a definite upgrade over Gus Frerotte and he makes the Dolphins offense more dangerous but unfortunately for Miami fans, I don't think they'll get to see the full extent of his impact until 2007.

Saban is doing a good job of rebuilding the Dolphins but much like Bill Parcells in Dallas, I think his first season was a bit of a fluke just because he was able to outcoach some people. Look for Miami to possibly take a step back this year before they really challenge New England next season. Make no mistake about it, the Dolphins are going to be a thorn in the Patriots side, it just won't be this year.

That leaves only one team left and that's the Patriots. Like every other team in the NFL at this time of year, New England has a lot of questions surrounding them. Will the receiving corps step up? How much does Corey Dillon have left in the tank? When will Rodney Harrison be ready to play? Who is going to replace Adam Vinatieri? Is the secondary good enough to hold up against some of the NFL's better offenses? Who is going to be the backup quarterback? Are Matt Light and Dan Koppen fully recovered from their injuries? What happens if, God forbid, Tedy Bruschi, Rosevelt Colvin or Mike Vrabel gets injured?

While the Patriots have a lot of questions to answer heading into the 2006 season, it's the two questions people don't have to ask that still makes them the class of the AFC East: How good is their head coach and who is their quarterback?

I hate to sound like a homer but any team that has Bill Belichick and Tom Brady running the show is going to be tough to beat. I point to last year where I think both of them had the best seasons of their career. Wait, how could that be? The Patriots didn't win the Super Bowl, right? Let me explain.

Everyone knows Belichick is a great coach. You won't get much debate from anyone on that subject but I think last year was his best coaching job to date. He took a team ravaged by injuries that couldn't run the football or stop anyone on defense and had them playing their best football at the end of the season. If it weren't for a couple of botched plays by the Patriots (and the officials) in Denver, New England would have hosted the AFC Championship Game after all their early struggles. That's amazing to me considering I saw the Colts roll over the Pats on their own field just a couple of months earlier.

The credit for the Patriots turnaround last year has to go primarily to Belichick. Despite losing two great coordinators in Charlie Weis andRomeo Crennel, he was able to make adjustments in the Patriots style of play and lineup changes during the middle of the season that made the team better. With everything that happened to the Patriots last year – beginning with Bruschi's stroke in February – it's a credit to Belichick and his entire coaching staff that the team was in position to win another Super Bowl at season's end.

Remember what people used to say about Brady? He's just part of a system and he's not asked to win games, he's just asked not to lose them. Tom could never put up the kind of numbers that Peyton Manning does. He's just a very good quarterback on a great team with a successful system. Remember those comments? Well, Brady destroyed any notion that he was a product of some kind of system last year when he put the team on his back and led the NFL with 4,110 passing yards, to go along with 26 touchdowns and a 63 percent completion rate. Not bad for a system quarterback.

When you break down the AFC East, one thing that stands out over all else is the Patriots have Brady at quarterback while the other teams have…well, you get the point.

Even though the Patriots have questions that need to be answered, Belichick and Brady remain the one constant. Very rarely in the history of the NFL has a team been fortunate enough to have the league's best coach and quarterback together at the same time. In recent history, the only other time I can remember that being the case is when Bill Walsh and Joe Montana were both in San Francisco. It just doesn't happen very often. Fortunately for the Patriots, they have the best mind in the NFL drawing up schemes and the best arm in the NFL leading the team and executing the gameplan on the field to perfection. That's a tough combination to beat.

As we head into the 2006 season, it appears the Patriots are on their way to winning yet another division title. The Dolphins and Jets are heading in the right direction but both teams are still a year or two away from making the Patriots sweat. So there you have it Pats fans, go ahead and take the regular season off and I'll see you all in January. The only things left to be decided now is who their opponent will be, where the Patriots will be playing in the postseason and if the game will be on Saturday or Sunday.

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