Thursday, November 13, 2008

Thursday night a preview of exciting AFC East race

Tonight’s Patriots-Jets game will have plenty to say about who eventually wins the AFC East, the NFL’s most competitive division this season. The winner had an undisputed claim on first place and the inside track on the playoff berth that comes with it.

Don’t be too quick to crown anyone, though.

There still are six weeks left in the season. All four teams in the division still have a record above .500. And unlike the past several seasons in which the AFC East winner has had things all but wrapped up by the first week or two of December, the division has a chance to come right down to the wire this time around.

It hasn’t been since 2002, in fact, that the division champion was in doubt entering Week 17. That season, both New England and New York finished 9-7 – and in Week 17, the Patriots beat the Dolphins but missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker after the Jets beat, coincidentally, Brett Favre and the Packers.

This season, though, it might happen again – and, as an added bonus, it might get decided on the field. The Jets and Dolphins will meet at Giants Stadium while the Patriots and Bills tangle at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Either or both of those games could determine the division champ. The winner of tonight’s game will have an inside track at a division title, but the resurgent Dolphins have a weak second-half slate and the Bills certainly aren’t far enough back to be counted out.

For contrast, here’s a look at the last five AFC East races and the games that proved most decisive:

2007, Week 1: Patriots 38, Jets 14. This one really didn’t come down to the wire. Ellis Hobbs returned the opening kickoff of the second half for 108 yards and a touchdown, and talk quickly turned more to the Patriots’ chances of going undefeated than any team’s chances of catching them.

2006, Week 14: Bills 31, Jets 13. The Jets earned a split of their season series with New England in Week 10; Jerricho Cotchery caught a 22-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to provide the game’s decisive points. But to capitalize on that win, the Jets still had to finish out their season. The Patriots stumbled in Week 14 as Dolphins running back Sammy Morris rushed for 123 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown. That opened the door. Instead of capitalizing, though, the Jets let the Bills run all over them – Chad Pennington threw two interceptions and was sacked five times in the game that all but clinched the AFC East for the Patriots.

2005, Week 10: Patriots 23, Dolphins 16. No one really challenged the Patriots for first place – Miami won its last six games in a row, but losses in seven of its first 10 games made that winning streak moot. The Dolphins fell to 3-6 after Tom Brady threw a 17-yard pass to Ben Watson in the fourth quarter of a nip-and-tuck game at Dolphins Stadium, and with the Jets at 4-5 and en route to 5-11, the division race was already over.

2004, Week 16: Patriots 23, Jets 7. Things already needed to break the Jets’ way entering this game – the Patriots held a two-game lead with two games to play and held an advantage by virtue of their Week 7 win over the Jets. But the Patriots intercepted two passes and forced a fumble and held the Jets scoreless until the fourth quarter en route to the win that wrapped things up in the AFC East.

2003, Week 7, Patriots 19, Dolphins 13. The Patriots lost twice in their first four games but wouldn’t lose again. The best chance the second-place Dolphins had to gain an edge came with both teams sitting on two losses early in the season – and they nearly pulled it off. But Tom Brady threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to David Givens to tie the game in the third quarter and an 82-yard pass to Troy Brown in overtime to win it.

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