NFL 2014 preview: Patriots remain top team in AFC East

Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are poised to finish first in the AFC East again

The Patriots once again will be the beast in the AFC East as long as their dynamic duo of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski stays healthy and productive. The Dolphins are looking good for second place in the division unless Rex Ryan and the Jets can overcome their issues on defense.

The predicted order of finish:

2013 | 12-4, 1st in East
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: Tight end Rob Gronkowski is (almost) back; he’s still favoring his recovering right knee and is said to be 50/50 for the season opener against Miami. Regardless, Tom Brady finds a way to win. The Patriots addressed their defensive shortcomings with some impressive additions, among them cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Even with the 26th-ranked defense last season, New England won 12 games.

They’re doomed: New England has an aging defensive front, notably with Vince Wilfork coming off surgery for a torn Achilles’ tendon. The Patriots’ first-round pick, defensive tackle Dominique Easley, suffered ACL tears to both knees during a three-season span at Florida.

Now hear this: “Nah, I ain’t changing that one bit. I’m going to go full speed when I’m out there and I’m going to keep smashing and dashing in everything I do.” — Gronkowski, on whether he’ll change his style after a slew of injuries and surgeries.

2013 | 8-8, 3rd in East
Last year in playoffs | 2008

Going all the way: Even though the Dolphins are a so-so 15-17 with quarterback Ryan Tannehill at the helm, he has shown flickers of promise — and that’s playing behind a terrible line and without a big, go-to receiver who can help bail him out of trouble. Maybe Knowshon Moreno will be the player he was in Denver last season and resuscitate Miami’s running game.

They’re doomed: With Mike Pouncey still recovering from hip surgery, the Dolphins will open with five new offensive linemen. While that’s a necessity for a team that gave up 58 sacks last season, it’s tough to see that group meshing right away. Miami’s on its fourth offensive coordinator in five years, and head Coach Joe Philbin has yet to prove he has a winning system.

Now hear this: “I heard a rumor that some people have reported we’ve made it hard for him on the field. That’s on purpose. That’s how you build a quarterback. He’s coming.” — Bill Lazor, offensive coordinator, on Tannehill.

3. N.Y. JETS
2013 |8-8, 2nd in East
Last year in playoffs | 2010

Going all the way: The strength of these Jets is a young, athletic defensive line, and front seven — led by Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison — that will smother the run and generate a solid pass rush. Quarterback Geno Smith appears to be a better decision maker than last season (hard to imagine him being worse) and now has the pressure of Michael Vick waiting in the wings.

They’re doomed: As good as the defense is up front, it is lousy on the back end. Several injuries hit the secondary, but this unit is suspect even when healthy. The Jets are scrambling for answers in the secondary, with No. 1 corner Dee Milliner injured and rookie Dex McDougle now out for the season (ACL).

Now hear this: “I never said I had to have the best corner in football. That’s not it. My defenses work, period. I don’t care what it is. We take what we have, and then we work around it.” — Rex Ryan, coach

2013 | 6-10, 4th in East
Last year in playoffs | 1999

Going all the way: Buffalo’s defensive line will give opponents problems. The front four features three players who made the Pro Bowl last season — Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus — and the one who didn’t, Jerry Hughes, had 10 sacks. The Bills also might have the deepest cast of running backs: C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown.

They’re doomed: It has been a steady stream of bad news this off-season. From the death of owner Ralph Wilson, to the cancer battle of Jim Kelly, to the issues that could directly affect the 2014 team — among them the separate arrests of Dareus for illegal car racing and drug possession, and a season-ending ACL injury to second-year defensive star Kiko Alonso.

Now hear this: “We’ve got a lot to prove.… We haven’t been in the playoffs in a long time. We owe it to the fans, our late Hall of Fame owner and everybody in this business.” — Doug Whaley, general manager.

Times staff writer Austin Knoblauch contributed to this post.

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