Buffalo Bills

With the glum memories of a 3-13 2001 season, the Bills set out on the toughest path of any of the AFC East teams, a climb toward respectability.  The first step in the climb was the acquisition of fallen Patriot Drew Bledsoe, called on to replace the departed duo of Rob Johnson and Doug Flutie.  With their offense in the hands of a former Pro Bowler, the Bills used their 1st pick, 4th overall, and 2nd pick to grab mammoth offensive tackle Mike Williams and sure handed wideout Josh Reed.  With proven weapons in Eric Moulds and Peerless Price to bolster the division’s most explosive offense, the only question came down to who would carry the ball.  The answer turned out to be Travis Henry.

1st and Ten:  Bledsoe (4,359, 7.15, 24) re-established himself as a premier passer in Week 2 with 463 yards through the air, the first of two 400-yard and seven 300-yard efforts on the season, while Henry settled into the full-time halfback role.  With a monstrous effort in Week 1, Henry (1,438, 4.4, 13) was on his way to a bustout campaign in which he finished 5th in the NFL in rushing.  Perhaps no one was streakier than Henry, who topped the 120 mark 6 times while falling below 60 yards 6 times as well.  He also led all players with 11 fumbles, 8 of which he lost.  Nonetheless, the second-year back proved a major workhorse, accounting for all but 63 of the Bills’ 388 carries, 27 by Bledsoe.  With Bledsoe throwing most of the time early on, Moulds (100, 1,287, 10) put together his best season, snaring a whopping 41 passes the first five games while Price (94, 1,252, 9), a teammate of Henry’s in college, wasn’t far behind in any category.   Reed (37, 514, 2) was effective but largely in the shadows of the top two receivers.

4th and Long:  Though the offense could score on practically anyone, the defense was a whole different story.  Three times in the first four weeks the Bills found themselves in overtime despite scoring 120 points combined.  Overall, Buffalo gave up nearly 25 points a game, good for 27th in the NFL, and finished 29th against the run, barely ahead of New England.  With just 10 defensive interceptions, six by cornerback Nate Clements (64, 0.0, 6), they wound up 15th in the AFC with a -12 giveaway/takeaway.  Making matters worse, kicker Mike Hollis (25/33, 115) endured his second straight disappointing season, struggling from inside the 40 as well as out while knocking down just 75% of his field goals.

Final Score:  It’s difficult to assess the overall results of the Bills’ season.  While it can be said that they won 8 games despite one of the league’s worst defenses it can also be said that they lost 8 games in spite of one of the league’s best offenses.  Six and one half dozen the other.  Either way, in a season that remained stunningly even, Buffalo was never more than 2 games over .500 or 1 game under, they finished a disappointing .500.   Far better than their 3-13 record of a year earlier but far less than expected.

New England Patriots

Once the gun sounded capping the Patriots improbable rise to the top of the football world in Super Bowl XXXVI, they set their sites on the enviable task of becoming the 8th repeat Lombardi Trophy winner.  With the tools back in place including unsung leader Tom Brady armed with a new mega-deal, allowing former Pro Bowler Drew Bledsoe to flee for a starting job in Buffalo, a gritty talented offensive line led by center Damien Woody and a plethora of hands receivers including the addition of 2nd round playmaker Deion Branch.  With a top echelon defense led by Ty Law and Co. and the steady if unspectacular running of Antowain Smith, the Patriots entered the season as the favorite in the newly aligned AFC East.
1st and Ten:  The strength of the team was again its talented core of defensive backs led by Ty Law (77, 1.0, 4) and Lawyer Malloy (91, 0.0, 0).  Overall the Patriots finished 5th in the AFC in pass defense at 198.7 YPG.  The defensive line was anchored by Willie McGinest (63, 5.5, 1) and second year DT Richard Seymour (56, 5.5, 1) who stepped up in an expanded role.  Brady (3764, 6.26, 28) passed for nine touchdowns the first three weeks and also posted a 410-yard game to lead the Pats to a 3-0 record, leaving many to believe a repeat was not only realistic but likely.  Brady threw to a trio of weapons in David Patten (61, 824, 5), Troy Brown (97, 890, 3) and Branch (43, 489, 0), in one of the league’s shortest, yet highly effective, passing games, as evidenced by a team long 49 yard reception (Branch).

4th and Long:  The Patriot’s problems began with their linebacking corp of Ted Bruschi (65, 4.5, 2), Roman Phifer (109, 0.5, 0) and Ted Johnson (96, 1.5, 0), whose lack of presence in the box left New England second to last in the NFL against the run, a drop of 11 spots from a year earlier.  While opponents were running all over the Pats’ defense, their offensive line was having a similar problem, ranking 23rd in the NFL in sacks allowed.  Smith (982, 3.9, 6) was as steady as usual and held onto the ball but did little else as he topped the 80 mark just 3 times including once the last 8 games.  Overall the Patriots lopsided offense resulted in just 98.4 yards per game, ahead of only Houston in the AFC.

Final Score:  Following their 3 game win streak to open the season the Patriots fell back to earth, done in by a slew of interceptions by Brady, 7 over 3 games to set off what would end up as a four game slide, leaving New England a game under .500.  Though they would regroup to take five of their next 6, two late season losses to playoff contenders would close the door on any chance of a repeat.  In the end, the lack of a running game or effective rushing defense proved fatal for the defending champs.

Miami Dolphins

Armed with a frontline defense, the Dolphins gave up two first rounds draft picks to acquire the league’s premier rusher, Rickey Williams from the New Orleans Saints.  Playing behind an effective offensive line and with the steady Ivy Leaguer Jay Fiedler at the helm, the Dolphins figured they had the tools to capture not only the AFC East but make their first Super Bowl appearance since 1984, Dan Marino’s second year in the NFL .  The defense, an anonymous group of fierce hitters led by diminuitive middle linebacker Zach Thomas, coupled with Williams and Co, the Fish expected to win their games the old fashion way,  in the trenches.

1st and Ten:  Williams (1853, 4.8, 16) was everything Miami expected and then some, leading the NFL in rushing yards while topping the century mark 10 times including a couple of 200-yard affairs.  Rookie tight end Randy McMichael (39, 485, 4) was the top scorer through the air as second-year burner Chris Chambers (52, 734, 3) led the team in catches and receiving yards.  With Williams controlling the clock on one side of the ball, the Dolphin defenders did their best to win games, leading the AFC in overall defense and scoring.  Thomas led the NFL in tackles and end Jason Taylor paced the way with 18.5 sacks as Miami held the opponent to 20 or fewer points on 8 occasions.   Defensive backs Sam Madison (34, 0.0, 3)and Patrick Surtain (58, 1.5, 6) again formed a top tandem while free safety Brock Marion (93, 0, 5) was arguably the best in the business.

4th and Long:  Fiedler (2024, 6.93, 14) had the team on top of the AFC with a 5-1 mark before fracturing his thumb against Denver.  Sidelined until Week 13, his replacement, Ray Lucas (1045, 6.53, 4) produced just a 69.9 rating and more importantly, 2-4 record including a 3-game slide that essentially ruined the Dolphins playoff hopes.  Chambers proved largely inconsistent while the depth at the position was anemic with only one other wideout, James McKnight (29, 528, 2) reaching the 500-yard mark.  Kicker Olindo Mare (24/31, 114), who entered the season as one of the most accurate kickers in history, struggled to find his groove and finished with a career-low 77.4 field goal percentage.

Final Score:  Playing in the ultra-competitive AFC East, the injury to Fiedler and subsequent slide proved too difficult to overcome.  Despite the monstrous season by Williams and the AFC’s best defense, the Dolphins entered the season’s last week needing a win to make the playoffs.  Battling division rival and defending Super Bowl Champion New England, Miami fell 27-24 in overtime to miss the playoffs for the first time since ’97.

New York Jets

In becoming the first Jets coach to guide the team to the playoffs his season, Herman Edwards raised not only the hopes of his players but to the media world as well, catapulting New York to the top of the list of potential Cinderellas.  The story began normally with veteran slinger Vinny Testaverde back at the helm, while bushy topped understudy Chad Pennington waited in shadows.  Reliable workhorse Curtis Martin was again lined up behind Testaverde while up-and-coming speedster Laveraneous Coles gave the J-E-T-S a dangerous look on offense.  Backed by a potentially explosive offense, a shaky defense would be given little leaway from their shoddy rankings in 2001.  A return trip to the playoffs would no doubt take the top efforts of the whole roster.

1st and Ten:  Things didn’t go as planned early as Testaverde and Co failed to find any rythym, resulting in a 1-3 start including a 44-7 throttling at the hands of New England.  Following four incompletions and a sack in Week 4, the Testaverde Era was officially over, ushering in the Pennington Era in one swift move.  By the time that game ended the youngster had passed for 281 yards and although the 28-3 loss didn’t reflect the efforts of Pennington, the future of the Jets was in place.  With the poise of a seasoned veteran Pennington (3120, 7.82, 22) not only led the NFL in completion % but had the second lowest interception ratio (Brad Johnson) and second highest yards per attempt (Trent Green) as well.  Martin (1,094, 4.2, 7) was his old self, topping the 1,000 yard mark for the eighth straight year while enjoying his first fumbleless campaign.  Coles (89, 1264, 5) turned into the offensive threat he claimed to be while Chad Morton (1,509, 26.0, 2) established himself as the games’ most explosive kick returner.  Former first rounder John Abraham (61, 10.0, 0) became a force on the pass rush while cornerback Donnie Abraham (53, 0.0, 4) led the way in picks.

4th and Long:  As expected, the problems of the Jets began on defense where they stumbled to 24th overall, playing equally poorly against the run and pass.  Feared run-stopper Marvin Jones (109, 0.0, 1) was just as quick to disappear as he was to put up huge numbers and fellow linebacker Sam Cowart (127, 2.0, 0) eventually became the team’s leading tackler.  Testaverde wasn’t the only one to come up short on offense; wide receivers Santana Moss (30, 433, 4) and Wayne Chrebet (51, 691, 9) did too little too seldom to offer Coles any sustainable freedom although Chrebet made the most of the endzone.  While Martin was plugging away to his lowest totals as a pro, backup Lamont Jordan (316, 3.8, 3) couldn’t hang onto the ball, fumbling four times in 84 carries.  Kicker John Hall (24, 35, 107) was inconsistent all year, missing 2 FGs inside 40 yards and another 4 inside 50.

Final Score:  Standing at 1-4 going into their bye week, New York had two options- live or die.  Following Pennington’s lead, they chose live and reeled off wins in 5 of their next 6 to pull ahead of even.  Riding the fence, they pulled out an impressive win at Green Bay the final week to slide past the defending champions into the playoffs.  They carried a world of confidence into the wild card round and administered a severe punishment on the Colts, 41-0, fueling the media frenzy following around the Cinderella favorite.  It didn’t last long though as the eventual AFC Champion Raiders ousted the up-and-comers 30-10 in the divisional playoffs, leaving a somber mood but enormously bright future in their wake.

Fantasy Football Realm

There is a growing sentiment that parity in the NFL is becoming ever more apparent with each concluding season.  Aside from the fact that both Super Bowl teams from last season, Tampa Bay and Oakland, were largely invisible for most of the regular season and left uninvited to the post-season dance, several other teams and players enjoyed or abhorred their performances as well.  The parity does not only exist for the teams but also extends over to the fantasy leagues as well, as unknown players step up for huge seasons while other mainstays become standbys.  Rookie phenom wideout, Anquan Boldin, was not only a top rookie but a top wide receiver, making him a sudden commodity on the fantasy free agent wire and a jackpot for those fortunate (or wise enough) to land him.

The same could be said for running back, Dominick Davis, who also topped the 1,000 yard mark.  Jamal Lewis, while already having the reputation as a bulldog, broke 2,000 yards and nearly outdid Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 to become an elite fantasy back.  Priest Holmes showed he is healthy (for those that passed on him in their drafts) by scoring a record 27 touchdowns, while Ahman Green hit the 20 touchdown plateau as well.  Torry Holt had a bust-out year, Matt Hasselbeck has stepped up as a top quarterback while Brett Favre still plays every week.

On the flip side, most notable was the overvalued and outcast receiver Keyshawn Johnson.  Emmitt Smith’s presence was mostly in the Cards’ training room and Peerless Price missed Eric Moulds (and Michael Vick) more than anyone could have imagined.  Be looking for FFR’s projection analysis to be followed by team recaps.  Although it is only the playoffs, our staff is already hard at work figuring out how to help you achieve more fantasy success for 2004.  Bookmark this site to get a jump on the coming season.  It’s never too soon to take aim at your next Fantasy Championship!