The AFC East will be one of the weakest divisions in 2012, with only the New England Patriots posing any kind of threat to go deep in the playoffs.
However, even the Patriots will not be as dominant as they have been in years past due to a below average offensive line, a concept that was previously foreign to Tom Brady.
Over the last decade, the formula for having success against New England has been surprisingly simple: Get pressure on Brady and you have a decent chance.
The problem with this strategy is that it usually fails, as the two-time MVP has had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL since he became the starter in 2001. This year looks to be different, though, as the Patriots are going to struggle with their pass protection due to changes up front.
In 2011, three of the five New England starters along the offensive line were perennial Pro Bowlers, and their center, Dan Koppen (who was recently cut), was named to the squad in 2007. It makes sense why Kurt Warner recently said, "I've always been envious when I watch him play because he stands back there for five and six seconds.
Kurt, you are not alone, just ask the other 31 quarterbacks across the league.
At the end of the 2011 season, after the Patriots were defeated by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, one of the unsung heroes from the Patriots' championship teams of 2001, 2003, and 2004, decided to call it a day after 10 impressive years in the NFL. Matt light, the recently retired four-time Pro Bowl left tackle, had the most important job on the offensive line with the responsibility of protecting Brady's blind side.
For the upcoming season, that assignment will be shifted over to Nate Solder, a former first round pick in the 2011 draft. Solder got his feet wet last year at right tackle due to regular starter Sebastian Vollmer's injury, but right tackle is a significantly easier position to play than left tackle (when your quarterback is right handed).
This is because most defensive coordinators will put their best pass rusher on the opposing quarterback's blind side in order to create more sacks and turnovers. In other words, not only is it the left tackle's job to keep their quarterback safe, but they have to do so while facing the NFL's elite quarterback killers.
So far, nothing on tape has showed that Solder is up to the challenge. In the preseason alone, Brady was sacked three times, an unacceptable number for playing limited snaps. And even if the sacks are cut down, getting any kind of pressure on the Patriots' quarterback is a recipe for success. He isn't exactly known for being the most mobile, and his accuracy suffers outside of the pocket.
Another recent key loss to the Patriots offensive line is Brian Waters, the six-time Pro Bowl right guard who also retired this offseason. Since 2004, when Waters was invited to play in Hawaii for the first time, only one other offensive lineman has made more Pro Bowl appearances; Alan Fanneca has seven.
Brady will miss him greatly, but not just for the pass protection. Waters was excellent at run blocking as well, which is a quarterback's best friend. When the run game suffers, play-action pass is not nearly as effective, and the defense starts creating more interceptions (just ask Drew Brees about 2010).
The good news for the Patriots is that they caught another break when the NFL schedule was released (last year they reached the Super Bowl despite only beating one team, including the playoffs, with an above .500 average)— they arguably have the easiest schedule in the league. The other good news is that the rest of their division is unstable; the Jets and Bills could surprise us.
On the other hand, the bad news, or offensive line, is going to hurt this team in the long run. Even if New England is able to grab the No. 1 or No. 2 seed and snag a bye in the wildcard round, their lackluster offensive line is going to be the Achilles' heel when they face the other AFC powerhouses.