It’s a question that fans often ask at this time on the NFL calendar. Just how big a factor are division opponents in prioritizing offseason needs for one’s own team? In a division with one of the more successful regular season clubs over the past decade the answers may surprise you.
The Bills reside in the AFC East with the Dolphins, Jets and Patriots. New England has largely ruled the roost winning eight of the last nine division titles, losing out only in 2008 when Miami won the division crown via tiebreaker.
With such a dominant top dog in their division the Bills, Dolphins and Jets have all made a point to develop some kind of counter punch to what makes the Patriots so successful. At the same time they haven’t let it consume their plans on building their own franchise into a consistent winner.
“I think if you start basing your improvement on other people you get in trouble,” said Bills head coach Chan Gailey. “I think we’ve got to do what we think is best to get our team competitive and to a championship caliber. Does it play into it that we understand we’ve got to have a defensive back that can match up and play the run and pass with those tight ends at New England? Sure it does.”
“We always look at the moves of every team, especially New England,” said Jets head coach Rex Ryan. “This is a team we have to beat, clearly. The three years I have been here, they have won our division all three years. That’s something we want to do, so there is a chess match going on.”
Ryan wouldn’t admit that the Jets’ heavy investment in the cornerback position is partly due to having to play New England twice every year. Ryan’s defensive scheme needs very good man-cover corners to execute his exotic blitz schemes.
“We always look at what they are doing, but the main thing is building our team,” he said. “We have a vision for our team. We’ve got to stay the course. We’ve got to do what we do best, and I think that’s our main focus.”
Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland does acknowledge however, that beating your division opponents can be a higher priority when considering where to improve one’s own team than the rest of the teams in the league.
“I’m not worrying about what the other teams are doing,” said Ireland of the rest of the AFC and the NFC conference. “We have to stop our division. Our division has been offensive-minded for the most part. We’re trying to build a defense to stop the offenses in our division most of all.”
Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum took it a step further noting how their thought process evolves defensively based on the style of offense the Patriots and even the Bills play.
“We want to win the division and Coach Belichick and those guys, their record speaks for itself,” he said. “Chan Gailey has a very creative offense. When they go four wides, our fourth corner better be able to cover their fourth receiver, so without question you have to look at that.
“Look at Miami’s size up front on both sides of the ball. They just keep rolling bigger guys after bigger guys. So our offensive linemen, one of the critical factors is: can they block those guys? And then obviously defending Tom Brady and can Kyle Wilson cover Wes Welker? All those things are really important because you’re playing those teams two times a year.”
So while all of the AFC East clubs looking up at New England seem to apply some measure of priority on strengthening one’s own team to match the strengths of their division opponents, one AFC East club might make it a greater point of emphasis than another.
“Obviously our goal is to first of all win the AFC East and you look at who is sitting atop the East and you have to pay attention to that,” said Bills GM Buddy Nix. “But we wouldn’t draft to play against New England. We’ve got to beat Miami and we’ve got to beat the Jets and we’ve got to win enough games to get in the playoffs and get in the hunt. Even though it may be in the back of your mind, I don’t think it’s something that you dwell on and draft for.”