1) What's the biggest challenge facing your team headed into the final game?
Tyler Dunne (BuffaloFootballReport.com): You'd think motivation. This is a team that eroded from division frontrunner to cellar dweller in a flash. With playoff hopes long gone and their head coach's future in question, mustering the motivation to play hard is probably Buffalo's biggest hurdle. Of course, they put forth a great effort in Denver Sunday when the Broncos had everything to play for. The Bills showed a ton of heart, buoyed by the return of Trent Edwards. New England is clearly much, much better than Buffalo, but if the Bills play with the same drive they did last weekend, the game could be closer than expected.
Alain Poupart (Dolphin Digest): This might sound trite, but the Dolphins need to continue doing what they've been doing and not get caught up in the magnitude of the game. They've done a good job in recent weeks of staying in the moment despite the carrot that waited at the end, but now that it's at hand, it would be easy for the Dolphins to get nervous when they suddenly realize they're a game away from going from 1-15 to division champs. In tangible terms, probably the biggest priority is making sure Leon Washington doesn't burn them on a long kick return.
Dan Leberfeld (Jets Confidential): To get back to playing the run defense they were over the first 3/4 of the season. The last two weeks Marshawn Lynch and Maurice Morris ran all over them, behind lines that that not two of the best in the NFL. Also, Brett Favre needs to revert back to the form he displayed prior to the one month slump he is currently in. While he's a riverboat gambler by nature, he needs to get rid of those occasional chuck-and-duck throws that often result in picks. He needs to go back to the game manager mode he was in during the team's 8-3 start.
Jon Scott (Patriots Insider): The biggest challenge is to avoid the letdown. The Patriots are rolling over opponents of a lesser stature fairly easily. They've scored 48, 24, 49 and 47 points in the last four wins and are averaging 26.5 points per game (3rd best overall). If they can keep up the offensive output, they should be safe on Sunday. The early forecast is temperatures in the 40s with precipitation and high winds. Those conditions wont' help the Patriots much with their spread offense, so getting the running game going will be the biggest factor in avoiding a letdown against a division rival.
2) What is the best storyline headed into this week's season finale for any of the AFC East teams?
TD: Home run here. It's Chad Pennington. He was the afterthought in the summer, remember? He was the weak-armed, dumpster pickup. The Jets shook up the division by trading for Brett Favre, dumping Pennington. Laveranues Coles threw a fit, and it was hard to really sympathize with the guy. You have No. 4 man! Well, now we see what Coles was getting at. Pennington has nickel-and-dimed defenses apart each week and somehow guided the 1-15 Dolphins to within one win of the division title. He ranks second in passer rating in the NFL, succeeding where no other quarterback has since Dan Marino retired. And now he has what every player thirsts for --- a shot at sweet redemption. Fate has paired the Dolphins with Favre's Jets in Sunday's do-or-die game. No question, it'll be a career-defining game for Pennington, who has posted a career-defining year when nobody expected it.
AP: That's not even close, it's Chad Pennington going back to The Meadowlands with the opportunity to win a division title against his former team. The only way this could be better is if New loses at Buffalo at 1 p.m., making the Jets-Dolphins game a winner-take-all battle.
DL: The best storyline is Buffalo's Jason Peters finishing up his Pro Bowl season. To have the season he had, and to make the Pro Bowl was an example of someone overcoming great obstacles. And now he's going to throw this bogus Pro Bowl in the Bill's face during contract negotiations. Special story.
JS: Aside from the obvious marquee matchup between Chad Pennington returning to the Meadowlands to try to defeat his old team and take the formerly 1-15 Dolphins to the playoffs at New York's expense, I'd say it centers around the possible ending of one of the longest playoff appearance streaks in the NFL. New England has won the AFC East every year since 2002 and has a five season and counting consecutive playoff victory record going. One more and they tie the record-holder Dallas Cowboys, but they need to get there first.
3) Did you expect the AFC East race to be this close in the final week?
TD: Not at all. Before the season, New England was the obvious odds-on favorite. And then when the Jets sat at 8-3, I figured they'd just run away with it. Instead, New York has been losing to cupcakes, Miami has won eight of nine and the Patriots have kept pace. Even considering Tom Brady's injury, I never thought the AFC East would evolve into such a three-team horse race. It's great for the league that two teams that were a combined 5-27 last season have a chance to win the division this season.
AP: From the start of the season, no; from the halfway point, absolutely. At the halfway point, I actually could have believed it would be a four-way battle. Once Tom Brady went down, everything changed in this division and the door became wide open. Matt Cassel has had Brady-like moments, but he's also had some bad games, something that Brady just didn't have in 2007.
DL: Once the Jets cut Pennington and he signed with Miami, I felt it would be a four team race. Without Pennington, the Dolphins are probably sitting at around 4-11 right now. So yes, I felt you could throw a blanket over this division in September, and any team could win it.
JS: My initial prediction was for Buffalo to contend with the Tom Brady led Patriots. After the first game, I thought it would be New York with Buffalo. The surprising part is I didn't expect Miami to be this good, or for the Bills to fall off. Yet the AFC East is arguably one of the toughest divisions in football… still. Three teams in it in the final week, and had Buffalo not had that mini landslide, all four teams would have been in contention. I never expected it to come down to the least game early on, but as the season progressed you just had the feeling it would all come down to the final week. This is by far the best set of storylines in the NFL.
4) Which AFC East team(s) will make the playoffs?
TD: The Dolphins and Jets are shooting in opposite directions. Miami has played this well all decade. The Jets just lost to a team quarterbacked by Seneca Wallace. The choice is obvious, right? I don't think so. Something tells me Brett Favre finds a way to win this finale. He's been playing terrible lately, but Favre thrives off of adversity. Always has. You can bet he's been hearing the naysayers the past few weeks. At home, against a subpar secondary, Favre will rediscover his Midas touch and have a field day…which would complicate everything. If Baltimore beats Jacksonville as expected, then only one playoff spot is up for grabs in the AFC East. And my prediction is that the division's rep will be New England. The Patriots shouldn't have too much trouble against Buffalo. Matt Cassel's been a machine lately, pumping out 96 points in the last two games.
AP: Let's start with the idea that it only will be one team because it's impossible to envision Baltimore losing to Jacksonville, which therefore would give the Ravens the second wild-card spot after the Colts. That means you're now looking at Dolphins, Pats or Jets. The way the Pats have played well offensively the last two weeks, it's hard to see the Bills beating them, but Buffalo just is a different team with Trent Edwards at quarterback, and somehow I get the feeling the Bills pull off the upset here (maybe it's just wishful thinking because I just don't want to see New England in the playoffs or even having a chance come the 4:15 games). As far as Jets-Dolphins, watching this Dolphins team week in and week out has taught me that it just shouldn't underestimated. Besides, the Jets have been awful in recent weeks. I don't want to sound like a homer, but I'm a believer. Dolphins in the playoffs.
DL: I think the Jets will make the playoffs. As you all know, I'm not a fan. This is a viewpoint based on analysis. I think the Jets will beat Miami fairly easily and Buffalo, playing for a coach they want to save, will beat New England at home. So the Jets will be the only team to make the playoffs from the division
JS: I thought Baltimore would lose to Dallas, but that didn't happen. I also thought Jacksonville had Indianapolis number, but the Jaguars let them off the hook. After those games happened, I realized there would only be one AFC East team in the playoffs as Baltimore and Indy would snag the wildcards. The Patriots will fall victim to their own early season misfortune, as tiebreakers rule them out. I just don't see the Dolphins blowing it at the Meadowlands this weekend against the Jets. Baltimore will demolish Jack Del Rio's sinking ship in Jacksonville, wiping out the Patriots for the wildcard.
5) Do you expect any big changes in the offseason?
TD: Probably so in Buffalo. Dick Jauron's future remains murky even considering the contract extension he signed. The Bills' collapse will not go unnoticed even if they somehow upset the Patriots and finish 8-8. Buffalo needs to throw some dough at offensive weapons. Trent Edwards has next-to-nothing to work with at wide receiver. T.J. Houshmandzadeh will be at the top of every team's wish list --- especially since there aren't many other great free agent options at wide receiver. With money to spend, Buffalo may make a pitch for the Cincinnati receiver. Outside of Western New York, there will be some major stories to track. Tom Brady's return. Brett Favre's annual will-he-or-won't-he-retire drama. Miami keeping its core together. The AFC East sure is shaping into one of the most interesting divisions in the NFL.
AP: Certainly not in Miami and New England, although the Matt Cassel situation will bear watching. If the Jets lose to the Dolphins, there should be hell to pay for the Favre move (oh, never mind, he made the Pro Bowl). Seriously, can you imagine the heat in Jets country if the Jets get knocked out of the playoffs by Chad Pennington. In Buffalo, a 7-9 finish after a 5-1 start should NOT get Dick Jauron an extension. Again, if the Bills beat New England to finish 8-8, I figure he'll get another shot.
DL: I don't expect big changes with the Jets because they don't have the cap space after their spending spree last off-season. I expect big changes in Buffalo. They need to get a dynamic pass rusher, big-play tight end, another receiver, a center, to name a few things. New England has a lot of work to do also. They need a great edge pass rusher and another top shelf corner. They can't run the defense their running and get so few sacks from the OLB's. I don't see big changes in Miami, just the continued approach they are taking in building a winner on the waiver wire, draft and with moderately priced free agents.
JS: I expected the Patriots to get into rebuilding mode on defense in 2009. They will have Tom Brady back, but Matt Cassel is headed out of town. They'll sort out the running back position as well and possibly add another lineman. On defense, the linebacker unit will look totally different with three of their current starters -- Rosevelt Colvin, Junior Seau and possibly Tedy Bruschi -- retiring. The team will add another defensive back and probably a safety. As for the other teams in the division, I expect we'll see the continued rise of the Dolphins in year two of the Tuna project, and the possible decline of the Jets. Buffalo is still in a state of flux, but there is some talent, they should be competitive again.